In the seventeenth century, it was still extremely common for women to die as a result of complications during childbirth. Medical knowledge and trained professionals were in short supply. Meanwhile, most women underwent several pregnancies in their lives because they lacked contraception, because they were under pressure to produce male heirs to inherit the property of their husbands, and because misogynist mores held that a woman’s primary role in society was procreation and childcare. Over the course of a lifetime, the average woman was equally as likely to die in childbirth as not to. Death in childbirth is a common fate even in pre-plague Eyam, as is evident from Anna’s stoic description of witnessing her mother’s gruesome death as a result of a primitive Caesarean section performed by an uneducated barber surgeon. In many ways, the dangerousness of childbirth epitomizes the harshness of life in Eyam and the omnipresence of death, but it also emphasizes the ways in which this harshness applies particularly to women, whom society forces to reproduce frequently even though it’s extremely dangerous for them. However, as Anna becomes an amateur nurse and midwife during the plague, she assists with many births and finds a sense of renewal in bringing new life into the world even in the midst of so much death. Childbirth is symbol of hope during a hopeless time, evidence that the community will persevere through the plague.
Childbirth is also an arena in which female characters assume a certain power and autonomy which their patriarchal society otherwise denies them. In stark contrast to the barber surgeon’s rough handling of her mother, Anna safely delivers a baby with no prior experience, using only her firsthand knowledge of “women’s bodies” and what Brooks describes as the innately female power of her “mother-hands.” Later, Anna delivers Anne Bradford’s illegitimate daughter and adopts her, preventing Anne’s enraged husband from having her killed. In both cases childbirth is difficult and dangerous, but mother and baby survive because they are attended by a sympathetic woman rather than an unskilled man. By the end of the novel, childbirth becomes an intimate transaction between women, a rare event that excludes male involvement. It is a demonstration of female power and resilience in the face of constant oppression, and is an symbol for female empowerment and agency rather than submission to male authority.
Childbirth Quotes in Year of Wonders
That man was a ship’s barber; he pulled teeth and amputated limbs. He knew nothing of women’s bodies. But you do know. You can do this, Anna. Use your mother-hands.
To me, she had become so many things. So many things a servant has no right or reason to imagine that the person they serve will be. Because of her, I had known the warmth of a motherly concern – the concern that my own mother had not lived to show me. Because of her, I had a teacher and was not ignorant and unlettered still.
Why, I wondered, had the surgeon abandoned this case as hopeless? Had he persevered here he could easily have done what I was about to attempt. It came to me then that he must have arrived under instruction to be negligent.
This little girl seemed to me, at that moment, answer enough to all my questions. To have saved this small, singular one – this alone seemed reason enough that I lived. I knew then that this was how I was meant to go on: away from death and toward life, from birth to birth, from seed to blossom, living my life amongst wonders.