Babes in Austenland

Babes in Austenland

On Monday, April 4, my 5th grandchild was born. I can’t help but reflect on the differences in how my grandchildren have been delivered compared to when mine were. All of my children were born in a hospital, delivered by a doctor. One was a C-section, the other two weren’t, but all involved a hospital stay. Comparatively, all of my grandchildren so far have been delivered by midwives. Only one was born in a hospital; the others were all born in deliciously comfortable birthing-centers. Two were even water-births.

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Baby Boy Oaks born April 4, 2016.

As different as my experience was from that of the next generation, it’s fascinating to explore what this event was like during Austen’s life, even though she never experienced these things personally. I hope that some of the information is of interest.

Upper-Class Childbirth, Delivery and Care during the Regency Era

London vs the Country: The most common attitude was that it was safer to deliver in London than in the country. There were more doctors, and they were presumed to be of a higher caliber when compared to who passed for medical persons in rural areas. This extra level of care was considered even more important if the child being born was potentially an heir. Once an heir was securely in place, the mother had greater latitude in deciding to deliver in the country if she wished. If the mother was living in a country house during the pregnancy, the move to the city was often made at the very last minute. If the family didn’t have a city house to open for the event, even securing a house was commonly done with little time to spare. This haste wasn’t universal, however – some families went so far as to redecorate a city house in preparation for the woman’s confinement.

Medical Staff: I had always imagined births during historical periods to be always attended by a local midwife with the potential addition of a doctor if there were complications, but while this was the norm, it was not necessarily the case. Female midwives had lost some of their shine amongst the aristocracy in the 1730s when male midwives known as accoucheurs came on the scene. These men had the advantage of being able to obtain education on anatomy, and they had access to such medical instruments as forceps, which female midwives could not acquire. Some of the accoucheurs involved themselves in prenatal care, dictating diet and other lifestyle adjustments in the weeks leading up to delivery. Accoucheurs, in general, were strong advocates of letting nature take its course and considered a long, drawn-out labor to be preferable to a quick one, believing that the recovery from a lengthy delivery was better.  After the delivery, a “monthly nurse” stepped in to care for the mother during the post-natal period of confinement.

Labor and Delivery: Much like today, women in the early stages of labor were encouraged to move around, and did not take to the bed until the labor had progressed enough to require it. Having watched many historical dramas where a baby was delivered in the same bed it was conceived in; I was surprised to learn that in upper class homes, a separate, portable bed was set up specifically for the birth, generally in a separate bedchamber. They took care to stay near the edge of the bed during the delivery, both for access of the midwife or accouter, and to keep the center of the bed dry for the woman to move over after the baby is born.

Sadly, the mortality rate for mothers and infants during this era was tragically high – the sources I found say it was around 20% for both the baby and the mother. Due to the danger, it was common for aristocratic women to update their wills prior to giving birth, and even to bid their husbands farewell just in case the worst happened.

Confinement or “Lying in”: The new mother was treated as nearly an invalid during the period known as “Confinement” after they gave birth. The term “lying in” was also used, but considered vulgar by the upper crust. The woman progressed during this time from staying in bed, to moving to the sofa, followed by little trips to the dressing room or other outer room. At this point, she may entertain guests. Around the third week she will be able to go downstairs to dine with the family before finally being able to leave the house. The belief at the time was that the woman must be protected from exposure to drafts, so the windows were covered with blankets and the fire was stoked. Imagine how that fire would just suck the oxygen out of a room where the ventilation was inadequate due to the windows being covered. Now factor in the reality that most women were at this stage, anemic. I can only imagine they felt weak and weary from lack of oxygen on top of all the other hazards to their health. The most dangerous threat was childbed fever, often due to bacteria introduced by the unclean hands of the midwife, accoucheur or doctor. This fever could appear after the mother had otherwise appeared to have recovered from the delivery. Other life-threatening medical issues included hemorrhage, blood clots and mastitis or milk fever.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, doctors didn’t understand anything of hormonal shifts back then, and so although they knew that some women seemed to suffer from extreme melancholy, little or nothing was done to address this, although in some cases opiates were prescribed, along with a “low diet” that was traditionally administered during confinement. The low diet consisted of gruel and tea along with a little wine. Of course, the doctors weren’t around to enforce this diet, so unless the woman’s family was insistent, many women ate as they pleased anyway.

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The Wet Nurse By Marguerite Gérard (1761-1837) (public domain)

Feeding the Baby: Baby’s first meal was not typically (as one would expect) being put to the breast. As soon as the baby was born, it was forcibly fed a substance called pap, which was bread or flour that had been soaked in either water or milk. Sometimes a little sugar was added, and sometimes the midwife pre-chewed the pap before feeding it to the baby. Soon thereafter, it would be put to the breast, either of a wet-nurse or of the mother. Wet nurses were typically of the lower classes, and there was a controversy at the time as to whether the character of the wet-nurse was transferred to the infant through the milk. The fact that the child was heavily exposed to the lower class conversation and behavior of the wet-nurse seemed to bear this theory out. For this reason, wet-nurses with a patient and loving nature were sought after. It was not uncommon for a child to live at the home of the wet nurse until it was weaned.

Baptism and Churching: The Church of England recommended that an infant be baptized on the earliest possible Sunday after it was born. When this happened, the mother, still in her confinement, was not in attendance. Families would often contrive to delay the baptism until after the mother’s confinement had ended or until the child’s chosen godparents could be in attendance. The mother could not attend until she had been churched. Typically on the fortieth day after birth. The practice of churching a mother after childbirth dates back to biblical times and involves a ritual blessing of the mother.

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La Maternité (Motherhood) By Marguerite Gérard (1761-1837) (Public Domain)

Christening: While the churching of the mother was fairly low key, the Christening was anything but. It was done at the house or the church, and was often the mother’s first public appearance after the birth. She would be dressed in her finest apparel, and in aristocratic families, the festivities were generally a reflection of the status the child was born to. This was an occasion where birth order and gender did not necessarily affect the size of the feast presented. A fun piece of trivia is that the custom of saving the top tier of the wedding cake for the couple’s first anniversary originated with the idea that the saved portion of the cake would be used at the christening of their first child – hoped to be within the first year.

Was there anything here you found surprising or new? How would you compare these aspects to your experiences in modern society?

52 Responses to Babes in Austenland

  1. Congratulations! Such an intriguing post! The last thing I said before the incision with my scheduled c-section with my son was “This sure is different than the home water birth I wanted!”

    • That really did take you to the opposite end of the delivery spectrum, Rose! Wow. When I first heard about water births I thought it was crazy – it seemed like a good recipe for drowning a baby before it even took it’s first breath of air. Now that I’ve read up on it, I can see why it’s gaining traction as a trend. Less painful for the mother, and the reflex to breathe isn’t actually triggered until oxygen hits the fine little hairs in the nose, so the scenario I imagined was truly because I was uninformed. I know how I struggled with having to have a c-section instead of a “normal” hospital delivery. I have to say, though, that once you hold that beautiful little baby, all that matters really is that you both made it through safely. Thanks for commenting, Rose.

  2. Congratulations. “Grandchildren are so much fun I should have had them first.” But thank goodness for modern sciences and choices. I love reading about those historical periods but have no desire to visit them. Thanks for all the information.

    • Thank you, Sheila! And yes, the grandkids are tons of fun! They get more fun every year! I also love reading about those historical periods and even sometimes wish I could visit them, but then I think about the lack of hygiene, barbaric medical practices and such things as corsets and my enthusiasm for time travel wanes.

    • LOL – I had no idea that tradition went so far back before I read up on this topic! I think about the lengths we went to in trying to keep ours in a state that would be edible (put in a box that was liberally wrapped in plastic wrap and foil that was put in a tupperware container that was “burped” to create a vacuum and put in the coldest part of my mom’s deep freezer. It was still a bit dry and stale. Can you imagine what the saved cake would have been like back then? I wonder if our standards of what is fit for consumption are a little higher now than they were back then. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Diana, What a lovely post. Congratulations on your fifth grandchild! Thank you for this fascinating information.

  4. Congratulations on your new grandbaby, Diana! I am still waiting for my first, and not too patiently I admit. LOL!

    Excellent post. Medical history is a passion of mine, and as a 30 year veteran RN in the nursery and L&D, this particular topic is my absolute favorite. Thanks!

    • When my kids were old enough to start thinking about starting families, I had a license plate holder that said “Happiness is being a grandparent.” That piece of plastic grew brittle and fell off before any grandchildren made an appearance. My kids teased me about being impatient, but they are making up for it now. When it rains, it pours. Oh, and the little one has a name now. It took them over a week to decide, but today they decided to name him Daniel. I like it!
      Regarding this topic, I’m sure you know that I only touched the tip of the iceburg on this topic in the post. I read some stuff that was truly blood-curdling! I can only imagine what it would be like for a nurse of many years experience to research this topic. It’s a wonder anybody lived at all!

  5. This was fascinating stuff – thanks! I imagine our medical practices today (chemotherapy, for example) will seem unbelievably barbaric to people in the 22nd century. Enjoy that grandbaby!

    • Thanks for commenting, K! I agree with you that our modern practice of chemotherapy IS horrific, but it’s the best we’ve got, isn’t it? I have to wonder if there is some practitioner or researcher who is already on a path to the next generation of a more humane treatment, just as there were people back then who were claiming that poor sanitation was the problem. Believe it or not, they were laughed at and marginalized as wackos. It was many decades later before science caught up with procedure when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease.

      One interesting tidbit was that the women seen to by midwives got the fever less frequently than those attended by a physician. In hindsight they now know that the doctors were exposed to the bacteria-laden fluids and tissue of infected women by virtue of the fact that when she became ill, it was the purview of the doctor to continue to treat her. Many doctors even performed autopsies on the women who had died in hopes of discovering the cause. So the doctors were actively passing disease along, while the midwives were less likely to do so, not having the most virulent pathogens on their hands.

  6. Loved the post, Diana. And congratulations on your new grandchild. 🙂

    I just celebrated the birthday of my eldest child this past Sunday. I am always thankful that I had my children in this century and not in that one. I know I would not have survived the ordeal and quite possibly my child would not have either since after a long labour, an attempt at natural birth, and an attempt with forceps to assist, he was finally delivered by c-section. 🙂

    • It looks like we have a couple of things in common, Leenie. We celebrated the birth of my second oldest child on Sunday. He wasn’t thrilled to be turning 30. He is also the baby’s daddy, so they’ll share close birthdays. And I also went through a long labor with my oldest child only to have him delivered c-section in the end. I haven’t pondered much before on what that might have meant for me in past centuries, but I sure did think about that when I was researching for this post! Thanks for commenting!

  7. Congratulations on the birth of your precious grandchild and thank you for the informative information about the medical profession. I just found the entire article fascinating.

    • Thank you! I do feel extremely blessed! Doubly so, I suppose, because I realize that timing-wise, women from modern generations dodged an enormous bullet merely by the accident of when our own births occurred. I’m so grateful for advances that have made having a baby so much safer and comfortable. I remember watching old historical movies and when a mom was about to have a baby, they always boiled water. I had assumed in my childish innocence, that the importance of killing all the germs had been a practice for thousands of years. It was shocking to me as I read that when persons put forward the idea that it was lack of sanitation that was causing Puerperal Fever (or as it was commonly known, childbed fever.) Thanks for commenting!

  8. What a great post, Diana. I’ve often wondered about this, and, of course, I knew very little about the pap, the churching, the christening, the bad air theory, etc. Thanks for enlightening me. Maybe one day I may actually be able to write a Regency novel.

    • Thanks, Rebecca! In this topic it really was a different world back then.The scary thing about writing Regency novels is that there are so many people with incredible knowledge about the era who will call you out on anything they even perceive to be off. I spend a lot of time researching, and even with that I get stuff wrong. I love how much I learn though.

  9. The thing that surprised me was the force feeding of pap. Sounds totally gross, though I suppose a newborn wouldn’t care much about the taste.

    Unfortunately, God has not given me kiddos of my own, so I have no comparison. I have not given up hope yet, though, so maybe one day I will be able to compare and contrast them! 😀

    Thanks for the interesting post!!

    • Given what we know at this point about the immune boost from the colostrum the new mother produces before the milk comes in, it’s sad that so many infants were fed something that would be detrimental. I couldn’t find a reason for why they gave the pap, but I speculate that it would make the infant feel full so they wouldn’t fuss as much, but that’s just me taking a guess. Thanks for the comments!

  10. Ironicallly, I was just talking about childbirth pre-20th century in my AP Lit class today (we had read Donne’s Valediction and were commenting on the number of children as well as his wife’s dying in childbirth. Your description of the stoked fires and draped windows to prevent drafts as well as the unsanitary hands of the midwife, doctor, etc were all parts of our discussion, too.

    • The lengths they went to in order to prevent even the tiniest draft was crazy. Stuffing rags in the keyholes and underneath doors – anywhere air can move, they would block it. I get a little claustrophobic just thinking about how stifling and stagnant the air would be. I think it would tend to make a person depressed even if they weren’t necessarily prone to depression.

  11. Thank you for this wonderful post, Diana, and huge congrats on the new arrival, what a cuite!!!
    Your brilliant post makes me realise just how lucky we are. If there was such thing as a time machine, the only reason why I’d have the courage to get on it is that I’m no longer in my twenties 🙂
    It’s amazing how they managed to survive, with so little of the modern advances. The saddest story, to me, is the fate of poor princess Charlotte, George IV’s daughter who, for all her immense status, died in childbirth just when she found love, after a miserable childhood. I was in floods of tears like a mad thing at her monument in St George’s Chapel at Windsor castle.

  12. Thank you for the wonderful article. Also a big congratulations to you and your family on the new addition of another joy to your lives! Some of these facts did relate to me and my children ie, churching, etc as I am Carpatho Russian Orthodox. It is still done to this day and mothers aren’t supposed to leave the house til the child is baptized. Then the mother is churched on the 40th day. However, my children were baptized at three weeks and I was churched the same day.

    • How lovely that you’re familiar with this term! I had never even heard of it before I started learning about the Georgian and Regency time periods. I was startled to learn that it is an ongoing practice.
      As I read up on the “churching” aspect, I did have a sense that there’s currently a bit more leniency on the timing then there was back then. It was, to a degree, actually controversial in the Church of England amongst the clergy, being seen as a remnant of Jewish or Catholic beliefs. There was sufficient suspicion in the membership that the practice continued anyway, from the aristocracy (who sometimes churched at home rather than going to the drafty, cold church) on down to the local villager. Modern churches have also mostly backed away from referring to a new mother as being “impure” and requiring the cleansing ritual for that reason, which was the original doctrine behind the practice. It has evolved in most churches now to simply being a blessing on the mother and an act of thanksgiving for the birth. In some more orthodox faiths it remains a rite of purification.

  13. “These men had the advantage of being able to obtain education on anatomy, and they had access to such medical instruments as forceps, which female midwives could not acquire.” I can ~kinda~ understand midwives not being able to learn about anatomy, because of their supposed feeble minds. But what was wrong with them having access to forceps (or other ‘tools’)? How were midwives prevented from acquiring them?

    • I don’t know how female midwives were prevented from acquiring them, only that they didn’t have the same access as the male midwives, physicians and even apothecaries. They also didn’t have access to learn the latest medical procedures, so the women, having no opportunity to train, were not actually qualified to use the instruments. Another tool used in deliveries included the vectis which was described as being a single obstetric pincer – like an elongated shoehorn.
      The women of that era lived in fear of an obstructed labor, which female midwives were simply not equipped to manage. I won’t go into a lot of detail about what happened in those cases – it was gruesome. Many of these situations were actually an adult consequence of a childhood case of the rickets which had shrunk or distorted the woman’s pelvis, rendering her physically incapable of a normal delivery.

  14. So interesting! I always think we have it so much better today compared to my friends of the previous generation, and they had it so much better than their mothers. I wonder what my daughters will think when they give birth in the 2030s and 2040s???

    Thanks for the informative post! And I feel so sorry for those women! I think I would have been that difficult patient doing what I pleased and opening all the curtains. Were all the women well-behaved patients? I have to think at least some of them weren’t – just for my own sanity.

    • I agree – I think it’s gotten better and better, although the fact remains that that little person has to come out one way or another, so it would be one heck of a trick to make it a walk in the park. One of the things I’ve learned from my daughter and daughter-in-law (who are both very well read on the current natural approaches) is that fear of the pain slows down the progress of the labor. This is the way mother nature made it so that a mammal in the process of giving childbirth can relocate if a threat comes along. Fear slows it down to buy time. My DIL used self-hypnosis to help mitigate that fear with her second and now her third children and has had remarkable birth experiences. I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the way of the future!
      And I suspect that there were women where were bad patients. We know that many of them ignored the “low diet” prescription. One irony of note is that it was that the death of Princess Charlotte in childbirth in 1817 called many of the accoucheurs practices into question and marked the beginning of reforms in all three phases – pre-natal, labor/delivery and post-natal care.

  15. My goodness, thank heavens the practise of feeding babies pap died out as it sounds most unhygienic and dangerous. As did the whole process of childbirth. It’s a shame the accouchers couldn’t experience childbirth as they may have advised a little differently in that case. Thanks for such an interesting post Diana and congratulations on your beautiful grandson.

    • Pap does indeed seem like a barbaric first meal in light of the fact that the infant stomach doesn’t have the enzyme amylase needed to digest it. Although the idea of the midwife pre-chewing the pap is all sorts of repulsive to me, I will acknowledge that the little bit of amylase passed along in the saliva would at least help it not to damage the stomach lining of the baby. It’s funny that you would mention that the accouchers would have done better if they were to experience childbirth – I was thinking the exact same thing!
      And thank you. He is already growing in my heart – even though he doesn’t have a name yet.

  16. I’ve attended several baptisms in the Eastern Orthodox church and found that in more observant families the mother does not attend the baptism. I thought it odd, and nobody could explain it, but now I know why — so Many Thanks for the “churching” explanation, Diana. This is all fascinating information.

    And best wishes to you and your family on the birth of your grandson.

    • Thank you for the wishes. He’s a week old today and I got to gaze into his dark blue baby eyes last night for a while. It was lovely because the other times I’ve held him, he was very stubbornly sleeping. It’s still satisfying, but there’s something so wondrous about a baby looking at you. And yes, we pulled faces at each other. I couldn’t get him to say “Nana” yet, but I’m still quite certain he’s a prodigy of some sort.

  17. Mazel tov! Congratulations on the birth of your grandchild. And thanks for a wonderful idea that I must now promote on Facebook: A very special Christmas episode of Call the Midwife set during the Georgian era.

    • Thank you, Jennifer! I love Call the Midwife – and an episode set in the Georgian era would be special indeed! I wish that the existence of this Christmas episode was true.

  18. Great post Diana! When I was pregnant, I got a bit obsessive about this topic. It made me grateful for modern medicine and soothed a lot of fears.

    • I can imagine! I was blissfully ignorant about the history of childbirth beyond what my mother had told me. I had all three of my children in the 80’s, and I think that “modern medicine” was going a little overboard with medical intervention during that period. 1/3 of all deliveries in the US were done by C-section back then. I love that my daughter and daughter-in-law are having babies at a time when they can have their babies with medical options at the ready if they are needed, but they are able to work with nature as much as possible.

  19. First, let me congratulate you on the birth of your beautiful grandchild! He is precious. Thank you for the informative post, too, for I learned things I did not know. I had never heard of he male mid-wives at all and though I had read of the “pap” I had forgotten it. How horrible to think of the mid-wife chewing the pap before giving it to the baby. Ewww! No wonder so many infants died in the first year. It is tragic that childbirth was so dangerous to mother and child in that era. I admit that I gloss over that fact in my stories as I wish to read (and write) happier tales.

    • Thank you, Brenda. There was so much information on this topic that I had to pick and chose how deep to go. Those male-midwives, the accoucheurs were a piece of work. I didn’t go into their approach to prenatal care much, but it often consisted of bloodletting, restricting the diet and forcing the women to vomit in order to keep the size of the developing fetus small (for easier delivery) by means of starving the mother. I shudder to think of it. We know now that the body gives preference to the development of the fetus and will take what it needs from the mother’s bones and organs. Just think of how compromised the mother’s immune system would be by the time she delivered. I think those ladies who stayed in the country until the last minute (most of the accoucheurs were in the city) were probably better nourished than the ones who had been subjected to the dietary restrictions of those subjected to the accoucheurs “care”.

  20. Congratulations on your grandchild. What fun a new baby brings to the family. Christmas will have him bright-eyed and curious as to all that is going on. What a beautiful picture, oh by the way, my cousin has 12 grandchildren… they do tend to multiply. Hugs to the baby and kisses too, those you get right under the chin near the ear are the best. I wish to extend many blessings to you and yours.

  21. Congratulations on the birth of your new grandchild! I LOVE babies! Loved your article. In thinking about P&P and more than 10 years between Darcy and Georgiana, one could imagine that Lady Anne may have had several miscarriages or even a tragic birth. Then there is the thought that many children in those days didn’t live past the age of one. Thank goodness we live in the modern era. Jen Red

    • Thank you for the congratulations – I love babies too, and my cup runneth over with 5 beautiful grandchildren to love.And you’re right about the childhood mortality rate Jen. Much of the research I did said it wasn’t uncommon for children to be sent away from home and not even live with their nuclear family until it was more certain that they would live. Given what we know now about the importance of bonding for children to thrive, it’s especially tragic to think about. Even Jane Austen was sent to a relatives home to live when she was young, although most references to this that I read also said that her parents visited daily.

Your thoughts are precious!