Aristocratic Pregnancies

I found this story during my PhD research in Jennifer Newby’s Women’s Lives: Researching Women’s Social History 1800-1939 (2011). She discusses the breeding expectations of aristocratic women at the time, usually providing accounts from their own journals and letters to illustrate how horrible it could be.

It is well known that while Queen Victoria really, really enjoyed sex, she hated pregnancy and wasn’t very fussed by babies. She admited to her eldest daughter ‘after giving birth to her eighth child that she felt “like a cow or a dog at such moments'” (85). But since birth control was not as widely available or acceptable to aristocrats until the second part of the nineteenth century, she didn’t really have much of a choice.

While it was an aristocratic woman’s duty to provide an heir and a spare, it really wasn’t ‘the done thing’ to have loads and loads of children. Of course, this couldn’t always be helped, but it was a serious drain on financial resources. You would have to provide a dowry for every daughter you had, and you’d have to find appropriate work for any extra sons you had, maintaining their station appropriately.

Such was the case with Lord Stanley, who blamed his wife solely for her pregnancies. Because, you know, he played no part in them:

‘Pregnant for the twelfth time, Lady Henrietta Stanley wrote to tell her husband, who  protested, “What can you have been doing to account for so juvenile a proceeding?” She replied, “A hot bath, a tremendous walk and a great dose have succeeded but it is a warning’” (120).

The dose was clearly a reference to some form of abortant, though I’m not entirely sure what was commonly used back then.

And in case you didn’t think aristocratic women were just as objectified as untitled women, take this story about the upper-class Constance Ward, who seemed to be there only to produce children and be judged for her appearance:

“Constance Ward’s husband made her ‘put on all her jewels for his special benefit when they were alone. He would admire her thus for hours.’
“After she died in childbirth, he displayed her corpse to a friend. Opening her mouth, he remarked, ‘I always told you she had bad teeth’’ (119).

Wow, he sounds really cut up about her death. Where, oh where, will he ever find another hanger on which he can display jewelry for his admiration? Eh, he’ll find a better one soon enough. One with better teeth.

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