Last weekend, my husband and his father wallpapered the room that is going to serve as our child’s nursery. The paper – sky blue, littered with clouds – pleases me; it transforms a small space into something wide with imaginative possibilities. Kieran snapped a photo of me against the new paper. I can see a lot of the wear and tear of late pregnancy in the photograph – the eye bags of broken sleep, the strain on my curving back – but I think it’s also an image of possibility.
Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
People who have known me for a while tend to also know that T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday is a poem I return to repeatedly as a source of spiritual and emotional consolation and inspiration. For me it has always been a poem of transition and transformation; of unfolding. Yesterday I read an article called “The Last Days of Pregnancy: A Place of In-Between”, and I found myself thinking of bodies and moments in time that are liminal, posed on thresholds of transformation.
Germans have a word, zwischen, which means between. I’ve co-opted that word for my own obstetrical uses. When I sense the discomfort and tension of late pregnancy in my clients, I suggest that they are now in The Time of Zwischen. The time of in between, where the opening begins. Giving it a name gives it dimension, an experience closer to wonder than endurance.
Yes, the article is a little bit “granola-crunchy”. In these final weeks where I wake at least three times a night, sometimes more, because of the simple biological imperative to empty a bladder now crushed under the weight of a baby, I’m not really thinking very often about existing in some magical membrane between this world and the next. Instead I’m wondering how to lie so that my hip doesn’t scream and that allows me to breathe comfortably. But all the same, it is a time of transition, and as I’ve been using recent days to try to wrap up some bits of work before I officially go on maternity leave on Monday, I found myself thinking about medieval women in romance who are also the liminal space of pregnancy/childbirth, but who are in a place of greater danger.
The romances Sir Torrent of Portyngale and Sir Eglamour of Artois both share the similar conceit of the hero who is repeatedly tested and sent away by the heroine’s father. In both romances, the eponymous heroes give Christabelle and Desonell a gold ring after they have spent a night together ” Yyf God send the a chylde” (Eglamour, 705), presumably to serve as a token of their betrothal (or informal marriage; the sexual intercourse having taken place after vows of future consent would by canonical law have ratified the marriage, though the number of cases of contested marriage that show up in church courts show that public opinion and canon law unsurprisingly didn’t always match up). In both cases, the heroines fall pregnant – Christabelle with a son, Desonell with twin sons – and in both cases they need to keep their pregnancy hidden from their oppressive fathers, who do not recognise the validity of their partnerships.
In Torrent, Desonell faints, which exposes the physical reality of her pregnancy. In a poignant scene, her maidens try to cover her body, but it’s too late. Her father is disgusted and furious, and says she and her bastard should be put to sea. His earls and barons plead for her; the queen, meanwhile, says that if the king won’t spare her life, he could at least wait until she’s delivered of her children. And so as soon as Desonell has given birth to her twins, her father has her set adrift. Eglamour skips over the discovery of pregnancy, but the outcome is the same – Christabelle gives birth to a boy, and her father has her put out to sea. Once again the lady’s maidens play an emotive role, weeping and fainting over her fate. There is a deep tenderness between the heroines and their close female companions that reminded me a little of the gentle mutual touching in Rogier van der Weyden’s “Visitation”, showing the meeting of the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth, who show a sisterly recognition and support of each other’s pregnancies. Desonell and Christabelle’s maidens don’t share their mistresses’ pregnant or postpartum states, but their physical empathy is demonstrated by the way they bodily fall down, both in an attempt to protect their ladies and as a marker of their own distress.
All medieval women must have known that pregnancy, labour and the immediate time after birth was a twilight between birth and dying, and I thought about who might have been reading these romances. Traditional scholarship has tended to dismiss romances as “women’s literature”, but that dismissal has been based on romances’ preoccupation with romantic love, dashing heroes and vivid descriptions of clothing, food and scenery – things women like, of course. That is, it’s a misogynistic reading of what women like, rather than reflecting on what women actually want from their texts. Later scholarship, which has widened the perspective on who read romance, has had a more sensitive appreciation of why women might enjoy romance. But these “calumniated queen” narratives are still often seen as vehicles for hapless heroines who are literally adrift in the world, who cannot steer their own course, and who are ultimately saved by men. I wonder, though, about a pregnant woman who read Eglamour or Torrent. In the twilight time of transformation – one that might just as easily bring death as life – what kind of aching empathetic understanding might come from seeing these vulnerable bodies put to sea? Because there is only so far that the support of one’s maidens (or nowadays a birth partner, midwives, doctors) can take a woman: in many ways, the journey through childbirth is one that is taken alone. What perhaps those women hoped for – what we all hope for – is passage through a storm to calmer waters, and then the safety of shore.
This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.