"An exaggerated type of many lives": Ouida, women writers, and the critical reception of the representation of childbirth

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Abstract

The current objective is to consider the ways in which women writers were considering the physicality of female subjects—the lives of women, and specifically their health and bodily processes. Its ability to collapse or transcend conventional boundaries is particularly interesting; the difficulty of the “delicate” subject matter—women’s bodies, their reproductive health, childbirth and pregnancy—jars with the fact that these are crucial and unavoidable aspects of women’s lives that must be considered, even if by so doing they undermine patriarchal standards. As a result, we see a large number of women writers, including those who have been labelled “conventional” or “feminine” or even “antifeminist”, addressing or attempting to negotiate such difficult subjects. It seems as if depicting this physicality, these female biological circumstances, is an essential ingredient of realism when it comes to portraying female life, and thus, even to overlook or ignore them is to be conspicuous. How the public reacted—or did not react—to these “messages” about women’s health (reproductive or otherwise), when they clearly had the potential to undermine patriarchal standards, is also revealing. How these reactions differed between men and women and in between countries is likewise intriguing. In this paper I will consider the writer Marie Louise de la Ramée, also known as “Ouida”, who was received (translated, commented upon, reviewed, etc.) widely in Europe, and in particular in the five countries covered by the HERA Travelling TexTs project. Four novels, encompassing a variety of these female messages about women’s health, including miscarriage, premature birth, infant death, maternal mortality, self-starvation, madness and fear of childbirth, will be explored: Maremma, Moths, Folle-Farine and Princess Napraxine. The Dutch and British reaction to these texts, focusing specifically on the reaction to these “moments”, characters, situations, and even the writer herself—or indeed the lack of a reaction— will be compared, while the wider European reaction will also considered. We will argue that this snapshot of the use of messages regarding women’s (reproductive) health has the ability to transcend a number of boundaries: religious, gendered, political and national.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jan 2015

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