It’s no secret that labor and childbirth were a perilous business for women in the 19th century. Accurate records of death during childbirth do not exist for this time period * but a common estimate is 20%. Think about that for a moment: if you were a healthy young woman in 1810 or so, you had a one in five chance of dying during or shortly after childbirth. It is no surprise that Jane Austen herself lost four sisters-in-law to childbirth, or that it may have made her reluctant to enter the marriage state for herself.
It is not always so obvious what, exactly, was the cause of death in these cases, but we do know the most common complications. Childbed fever was commonly cited as a reason for a woman’s death. It was a catch-all term that included any kind of infection that made it into the bloodstream. With antibiotics still unknown, a bacterial infection often proved fatal. Other causes of maternal death were hemorrhages (from placenta previa, placenta abrupta, etc) and from what we now know as pre-eclampsia. These complications and other life-threatening conditions knew no boundaries: poor women were just as likely to survive childbirth as wealthy women, and nobody was truly safe.
I did a lot of research on this topic because of the book I am now finishing up, titled An Unexpected Turn of Events. In this story the dangers of childbirth come right to the doors of Pemberley. Elizabeth Darcy delivers a daughter named Grace, her fourth child, and seems to do well for a time. Then she exhibits the classic signs of childbed fever. Darcy is at her side, along with Mr. Bennet (Thomas) while she fights for her life. The physician who has attended Elizabeth tells Darcy and Thomas to expect her battle to be won or lost that night.
Elizabeth was agitated, and for the first time Thomas heard her struggling to breathe, drawing quick rasping breaths that did not seem to satisfy. New splotches of color were on her face and arms, and when he took her hand he felt her pulse race alarmingly.
“Shall we call the doctor again?” he asked, but Darcy shook his head, his face a mask of pain.
“He said there is nothing more he can do. All we can do now is wait.”
Thomas took a chair on the opposite side of the bed from Darcy and the long vigil began. Neither man slept as Elizabeth struggled valiantly against her illness. She was mostly unconscious as the night progressed, but that did not prevent her from calling out from time to time, incoherent snatches of sound that served no purpose but to reflect the delirium in her mind. They could not even offer her relief by sponging her face or forehead, for both had grown cool to the touch. Despite the warmth in the room, she shivered from time to time.
“At least the fever has broken,” Thomas offered after a long while, looking for any hopeful sign.
Darcy nodded tiredly. “Yes. The doctor said that might happen.” From the tone of his voice, Thomas could not tell if it was a good thing or not.
Except for Elizabeth’s labored breathing and an occasional hiss from the fire, the room was silent, but Thomas did not think he would fall asleep at such a time. It came as a surprise, therefore, when the clock over the mantle struck one and Thomas bolted awake. He must have accidentally drifted off for a short time.
He saw that Darcy had gone down on his knees next to his wife’s bed, his forehead against the mattress next to her shoulder; Thomas could not see his face. Then he heard the sound he had been most dreading: Elizabeth’s breath was catching in her throat, rattling alarmingly.
This was it, he thought despairingly. There was nothing he could do. Elizabeth had lost the fight, as so many other women in her position had done before her. At any moment she would draw her last breath and leave this world forever. Darcy would be alone, and their children would grow up without a mother.
Grace, he thought in a panicked rush. Elizabeth had barely had a chance to hold Grace.
Without a word he rose and rushed from the sick room, straight into the nursery. Mrs. Reynolds started when he came into the room. He lifted the baby from the cradle and turned back to the sick room, not stopping for explanations. Darcy did not look up when Thomas approached the other side of the bed from him until Thomas said, “Help me lift her up. She ought to have a chance to hold her daughter one last time.”
Darcy nodded silently in agreement. His eyes glistened with tears as he slipped one arm behind his wife and sat on the edge of the bed next to her. Thomas took her other shoulder and together they lifted Elizabeth to a reclining position, propped up on her husband’s chest. Thomas carefully placed the infant so that she was against her mother and cradled in Darcy’s other arm.
“Elizabeth. My dearest, loveliest Elizabeth.” Darcy spoke for the first time in many hours, his tender voice barely above a whisper. “I have loved you for the best years of my life. Forgive me where I failed you. I tried to be a better man for your sake.”
Thomas looked down on the scene, tears burning his own eyes. He was an intruder, trespassing on sacred ground. But he could not turn away.
“Do not fret about our children. They will be fine men and women when they are grown, thanks to you. I will make certain they always remember you. You will be with us in our hearts every day. Nothing can separate us. Every hour, every second that goes by, you will still be a part of us, and one day we will be together again.” Darcy stopped to press a kiss on her forehead, tears now clearly visible on his face.
“Dearest Elizabeth! It wrenches my soul to give you up! Thank you, my love, for coming into my life. Thank you for the joy you have given me, and the lessons you taught me. Thank you for letting me love you.”
He paused. Elizabeth had not stirred but something about her had changed.
“Do you hear that?” Thomas asked in a hushed voice after a moment. “Has her breathing stopped?”
In the quiet Darcy listened closely, placing his ear against his wife’s chest. “That might have been her last breath,” he said, his voice breaking.
“No, I see her chest moving!”
“You are right,” Darcy said after a moment, his voice tremulous. “She is still breathing. In fact, I think she is breathing easier than before.”
It was true. In her raised position Elizabeth’s breath no longer rattled in her throat; she had stopped gasping and was instead taking in long draughts of air. She coughed once, then coughed again.
“Dear God, can it be true?” Thomas said in wonder.
“Is this the turn the doctor spoke of?” Darcy asked, speaking almost to himself. “Her hands are warm.”
“And her color is improving!” Thomas exclaimed.
“Take another breath, love,” Darcy begged. “That is it, draw it in deeply.”
“Yes, Lizzy, fill your lungs,” her father urged. “Keep breathing. Do not give up now!”
Don’t worry, there is a happy ending for our favorite couple! But you will have to read the story to find out how it comes about, and the critical role Thomas Bennet plays in saving his daughter’s life. Look for An Unexpected Turn of Events to be released in early summer!