Reading for Abortion in the Victorian Novel

Emma Burris-Janssen is a third-year PhD student at the University of Connecticut. Her research interests center on gendered violence and trauma, and she intends to bring these research interests into tighter focus in her dissertation by examining figurations of abortion in the British novel from 1861-1967. As this project is in its early stages, reading recommendations are more than welcomed!

You can contact Emma via email at or via Twitter @CairdTooMuch.

Wellcome Library, London. Baldwin's Herbal Female Pills

Wellcome Library, London. Baldwin’s Herbal Female Pills

Near the opening of Jude the Obscure (1895), young Jude Fawley meets “Physician Vilbert” in the roadway. Keen to strike “a blow for Christminster,” Jude offers to solicit orders for “Physician Vilbert’s golden ointment, life-drops, and female pills” in exchange for Vilbert’s old Latin and Greek grammars (24). I want to focus on the last item of Vilbert’s list: his “female pills.” Throughout much of the nineteenth century, this phrase – “female pills” – served as a euphemism for abortifacient drugs. Here, it punctuates Jude’s abortive attempt to gain the knowledge he needs in order to forward his bildungsroman. This reference to abortion serves a dual purpose, as it both gestures toward the miscarriage of Jude’s hopes and points to women’s inability to determine their own reproductive fates. For, as we know, Vilbert’s pills are hardly to be relied upon. They are nothing more than the false medicine of an “itinerant quack-doctor” who practices among the “rustics” in order “to avoid inconvenient investigations” (23).

Though abortion was criminalized more or less severely throughout the nineteenth century, it lurks beneath the surface of many Victorian texts. However, its presence cannot be acknowledged – cannot be “spelled out” for the reader. This, I would argue, is not only because it was criminalized by the Victorian legal system, but also because it was criminalized by the generic conventions of the Victorian novel.

In his 2014 article, “Hardy and the Vanity of Procreation,” Aaron Matz observes that the Victorian novel as a form typically drove toward the procreation plot’s fulfillment. As such, one of the genre’s primary rules was that the novel give “life by insisting on the continual peopling of the world” (23). What, Matz asks, are we to do with a novel like Jude, a novel that radically overturns this standard plot through its staging of Little Father Time’s act of “suicide-fratricide-infanticide” (Matz 7)? What are we to do with this “coming universal wish not to live” in the novel (Jude the Obscure 264)?

While Matz focuses his examination of Hardy’s “anti-procreative tendency” (10) on instances of child death in such novels as Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess, and, of course, Jude, I wonder what we can make of Hardy’s novelistic allusions to abortion? How does it complicate things when Hardy’s “anti-procreative tendency” is not expressed through a child’s will or fate’s will but, instead, registers a female wish not to gestate life? What – to quote Doreen Theirauf’s article on the hidden abortion plot in Middlemarch – “avenues of possibility…are opened up when abortion, at once a biological, medical, political, moral, and personal category, is introduced to the text” (480)? What might it mean to read abortion into texts like Hardy’s – texts that, because of national and generic laws, could not explicitly represent the possibility of abortion?

In preparing for my dissertation, I am trying to do what Doreen Thierauf suggests in her abortion reading of Middlemarch: I am trying to read for abortion in these Victorian texts “rigorously [and] in the absence of explicit evidence” (480). One text that I’ve begun to mine for these hidden meanings is Hardy’s 1887 novel, The Woodlanders. Near the end of this novel is a memorable scene of confrontation between Grace Melbury (the wronged woman) and Felice Charmond (Hardy’s much-maligned femme fatale):

“I am not at all frightened at the wood, but I am at other things.” Mrs. Charmond embraced Grace more and more tightly, and put her face against that of her companion. The younger woman could feel her neighbour’s breathings grow deeper and more spasmodic, as though uncontrollable feelings were germinating. “After I had left you,” Felice went on, “I regretted something I had said. I have to make a confession – I must make it!” she whispered brokenly, the instinct to indulge in warmth of sentiment which had led this woman of passions to respond to Fitzpiers in the first place leading her now to find luxurious comfort in opening her heart to his wife. “I said to you I could give him up without pain or deprivation – that he had only been my pastime. That was absolutely untrue – it was said to deceive you. I could not do it without much pain; and what is more dreadful I cannot give him up – even if I would – of myself alone.”

“Why? Because you love him, you mean?”

Felice Charmond denoted assent by a movement.

“I knew I was right,” said Grace exaltedly. “But that should not deter you,” she presently added in a moral tone. “O do struggle against it, and you will conquer!”

“You are so simple, so simple!” cried Felice. “You think, because you guessed my assumed indifference to him to be a sham, that you know the extremes that people are capable of going to! But a good deal more may have been going on than you have fathomed with all your insight. I cannot give him up, until he chooses to give up me.”

“But surely you are the superior in station and in every way, and the cut must come from you.”

“Tchut! Must I tell verbatim, you simple child? O, I suppose I must! It will eat away my heart if I do not let out all, after meeting you like this and finding how guileless you are.” She thereupon whispered a few words in the girl’s ear, and burst into a violent fit of sobbing.

Grace started roughly away from the shelter of the furs, and sprang to her feet. “O my great God!” she exclaimed, thunderstruck by a revelation transcending her utmost suspicion. “He’s had you! Can it be – can it be!” (The Woodlanders 218-219)

The imagery in this scene travels from the orgasmic to the abortive. The meeting begins with a focus on Felice’s breathing, which we are told grows “deeper and more spasmodic” as Felice embraces Grace’s body “more and more tightly” (218). And, we are immediately instructed to parallel this physical closeness between Grace and Felice with the physical closeness between Felice and Fitzpiers, as the narrator observes that Felice’s confessional indulgence stems from the same instinct that had drawn her to “respond to Fitzpiers in the first place” (218). Felice then tells Grace – and the reader – that she could not give Fitzpiers up without “much pain” and that she could not “give him up – even if I would – of myself alone” (218-219). On the surface, this pain and inability to sunder the tie between them seems to be referring to an emotional pain – an emotional tie. But, what if we interpret Felice’s words as referring to a physical pain and a physical need for Fitzpiers’ assistance in severing the physical tie between them? What if, in other words, we interpret Felice as referring to the binding presence of a fetus, one whose removal would require her pain and Fitzpiers’ medical help? I would argue that this interpretation is supported by what follows it: There is a cleansing release of fluids (tears), followed by a physical “fit” (219). Finally, the scene ends with the sundering of the younger woman’s body from the womb-like protection of the older woman’s furs – a gesture that renders this promised union between the two as ultimately “abortive.”

Reading the possibility of abortion into this scene offers answers to many questions. For instance, if this is only the staging of a confession to sexual intimacy between Fitzpiers and Felice (which is how most critics have read it), then how is this a revelation that transcends Grace’s “utmost suspicion” (219; emphasis mine). Grace must surely suspect Fitzpiers of sexual infidelity. After all, she knows of his dalliance with Suke Damson before their marriage, and she knows that Fitzpiers is in the habit of taking many a midnight ride to Felice’s home. Given all of this, wouldn’t a revelation of sexual intimacy be somewhat predictable, as opposed to going beyond Grace’s “utmost suspicion” (219)? For me, seeing the possibility of abortion being the crux of this confession makes sense of some of these contradictions. Felice’s abortion – like Tess’s rape – cannot be spoken, even if its author is Thomas Hardy, the arch nemesis of the procreative narrative.

Works Cited:

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. 1895. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999. Print.

—. The Woodlanders. 1887. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Matz, Aaron. “Hardy and the Vanity of Procreation.” Victorian Studies 57.1 (Autumn 2014): 7-32. Print.

Thierauf, Doreen. “The Hidden Abortion Plot in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.” Victorian Studies 56.3 (Spring 2014): 479-489. Print.




2 responses to “Reading for Abortion in the Victorian Novel

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year2, Vol. #19 | Whewell's Ghost·

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