Giving Birth as a Social Event: Interview with Sarah Fox

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Sarah Fox has been part of the BECC community, as a postdoctoral research fellow on the Social Bodies project, since 2021. Her first book, Giving Birth in Eighteenth-Century England, came out this April with the University of London Press. We’ll be sharing a series of reviews over the rest of the week, to celebrate the publication. But to start us off, here is Sarah herself, in conversation with BECC chair, Tom Cutterham:

Forgive me, but—how was this book conceived?

The research that eventually led to this book started in 2009, as my MA dissertation. Despite starting my undergraduate degree determined to be a medieval historian, the lure of the eighteenth-century studies group at the University of Leeds was too strong. John Chartres’ walking tours of eighteenth-century Leeds, and Malcolm Chase’s vivid descriptions of life in the north convinced me that eighteenth-century history was not dull and industrious as I had thought, but was in fact full of sex, drugs (chocolate, coffee!), and rock and roll (or Mozart, at least).  As I shifted historical focus my interests in the lifecycle, in women’s histories, and in folklore and ritual led me to Adrian Wilson’s scholarship on man-midwifery and, what I suspect was a casual comment from him about finding hitherto unknown letter collections talking about birth set my mind racing. Far from discovering a magical cache of letters hidden in the archives, I began to search in well-known letter collections for accounts of birth and found them hiding in plain sight. These letters and life-writings formed the basis of my PhD thesis, and now the book.

What’s your favourite story told in this book? Did you come to feel strongly about any of the people in it?

There are lots of stories in the book that I love, but one of my favourites is about John Gibson and his rattling scissors (p.37). Gibson, a man-midwife practicing in the 1770s, recounts being hounded out of a birthing chamber and derided round town for the use of instruments (the forceps, or much-feared crochet) at a birth, despite having done nothing more sinister than rattle his scissors.  Gibson’s story, I think, encourages us to think about authority, and the changing nature of knowledge and power in this period.

You will probably be unsurprised to hear that I became deeply fond of the three women whose birthing experiences form the backbone of this book. Each was remarkable, and I really loved reading their letters and thinking about their experiences of birthing.  I was surprised, however, by the strength of my feelings for Edmund Harrold, Manchester wigmaker and bookseller, drinker, gambler, and diarist. I was seduced by Harrold’s guilty remorse following drinking binges, his notes of arguing with his wife, Sarah, and of making up afterwards, and his care and attention for her as she lay dying following the birth of their fourth daughter. His diary doesn’t just give a really vivid account of lower middling status life in the early decades of the eighteenth century, it also offers a window into their emotional and domestic lives that fascinated me.

Were there any aspects of giving birth in the eighteenth century that remain mysterious to you, even now?

The actual delivery of the infant and how that felt remains quite elusive, despite all my research.  In many ways, I’m not surprised by this, as women are still quite often reluctant to share their birth stories widely.  It remains a conversation reserved for others that have been through the same experience.  What did surprise me, though, was how unimportant descriptions of the delivery of the infant are to the accounts of birthing that appear throughout the book.  Delivery was a short point in the longer process of birthing, and descriptions of birth in this period focus far more on experiences of labouring, or of recovery and healing.  Modern birthing culture leads us to conflate delivery with ‘giving birth’, but in the eighteenth-century these two things were separate and discrete.  Interestingly, the question of ‘what does it feel like to give birth’ remains fairly controversial.  I once asked the question on Twitter and the variety of responses was incredible – it ranged from ‘uncomfortable’ to ‘being ripped in half.’

The sensory history of birthing has been really difficult to access.  I have done my best to discuss the materiality of the birthing chamber in chapter two, but the impact of that materiality on the sights, sounds and smells of birthing remain a work of imagination on my part.  This is partly due to the nature of the sources that I consulted.  As my book argues, the birthing chamber was a really familiar and important social space in eighteenth-century England. It therefore did not require description in the letters and diaries that form the basis of my research. Moreover, the sensory experience of birthing, for the prospective mother, for her family, and for the women that attended her was continually reshaped as season, region, wealth, memory and social context interacted to change the ‘feel’ of the birthing chamber.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book? How should we think differently now?

This is a great question! First, I’d like readers to think about birth as a social event, rather than a medical one. This is not a hugely original take-away, but I hope that this book has emphasised and fleshed-out the social nature of birth, adding to the many medical-focused accounts of birthing in this period.

Second, I hope that I have emphasised the importance of the birthing chamber in eighteenth-century England.  Despite being a familiar part of everyday life, the birthing chamber was also a pivotal space in which status, authority, knowledge, and community were negotiated and renegotiated.  It is therefore a really important historical prism through which to study society, culture, gender, and power.

And finally, I hope the book’s focus on women’s bodies, their agency during birthing, and their relationship with both medicalised and social structures of knowledge and power has implications on the way that readers understand and think about these issues in modern society.  The recent denial of community ritual during birthing imposed by the Covid pandemic has highlighted just how important and embedded the social and cultural contexts of birthing still are, not just to birthing women but also to their immediate and extended families, and the medics who care for them. The 2018 Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment, debates in the US Supreme Court over the decision in Roe vs Wade, and the recent legal changes in Oklahoma remind us of the extent to which women’s rights, responsibilities, and restrictions in relation to pregnancy, childbirth and their own bodies are constantly debated, challenged and subject to change, and have been for hundreds of years.

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