A New Set of Caps


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“You cannot let me go, my babies need me.” Kerry Sinanan has written a guest post about her experience of re-reading Jane Austen’s Emma a few months after she almost died after giving birth to her second daughter. She describes her return to consciousness, her recovery from this traumatic experience, and the connections she began to see between her own life and her research on maternal and newborn health in the eighteenth century. Reading Emma last December, she found herself focusing on Emma as a girl who had lost her mother, and she discovered a new appreciation for the chapter in which Mrs. Weston safely gives birth to baby Anna.

Kerry is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway. She specializes in the literature and culture of the long eighteenth century and she has published on slavery and abolition and gender in the period. Her current projects include completing a book on slave masters and editing a collection of commissioned essays on Jane Austen to celebrate the bicentenaries of her novels.

On this opening day of the JASNA conference devoted to Emma (Emma at 200: ‘No One But Herself’”), I’m pleased and honoured to introduce Kerry’s very moving guest post on the novel. Here’s a photo of her with her daughters in Galway.

Kerry Sinanan and her daughters in Galway

For December 2015 I had organized two Jane Austen treats for myself: one was to attend a conference at Chawton House to celebrate the work of Marilyn Butler, “Marilyn Butler and the War of Ideas.” The other, which I’m sure many of you also planned, was to re-read Emma in the month of its bicentenary. I could not have foreseen how much my life context would inflect the experience of both of these when I planned them. I gave birth on 16th September, 2015 to a beautiful baby girl. As she was my second baby I had known that trying to write and present a conference paper during the first twelve weeks of a baby’s life was going to be a challenge! But the challenge turned out to be far greater than I imagined for, after having a relatively smooth home birth, I suffered a sudden and almost fatal postpartum haemorrhage, losing 3.2 litres of blood in less than an hour. Even in the midst of it I remember thinking that this was a very eighteenth-century thing for my body to do! I had not realized that this is, in fact, a terrifyingly common event today and the leading cause of maternal death worldwide. The World Health Organization states that “In Africa and Asia, where most maternal deaths occur, PPH accounts for more than 30% of all maternal deaths. The proportions of maternal deaths attributable to PPH vary considerably between developed and developing countries, suggesting that deaths from PPH are preventable.”

I am one of the lucky ones and was saved by rapid response paramedics, a large emergency team at the Central Delivery Suite of my local hospital, and the blood donors who supplied the blood for my transfusion. After returning to consciousness I looked into the eyes of the female paramedic who had brought me back. We recognized each other as she had been an English student of mine ten years ago! I said, “You cannot let me go, my babies need me”: it was my one thought. I was reunited with my newborn, held safely by her dad in my absence, just hours after the haemorrhage and we were able to breastfeed successfully (this is not always the case after PPH). We remained pretty much glued to each other for weeks after and she did not lose a single ounce from her birth weight. I wrote my paper for the conference with my baby sleeping in her stretchy sling. Her breathing and heart-beat, right beside my own, helped me to recover from the trauma of what had happened. Alongside the relief at our outcome was deep sorrow for the 127,000 mothers a year who die and for their children left behind because of postpartum haemorrhage. Two million deaths among mothers and newborns occur at the time of birth. Birth is still a high risk event in developing countries, and October is Infant Loss Awareness month. (Care #StealTheseStats).

After the birth, writing my conference paper on Pride and Prejudice and the research I was doing on maternal and newborn health were entirely separate areas for me until I went to Professor Isobel Armstrong’s paper, “Illegitimacy and the Haunting of Jane Austen’s Novels.” She began with a reading of the first paragraphs of the novel and paid particular attention to the wonderful last sentence that upsets the apparently blithe tone:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father, and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses, and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection. (Emma, Volume 1, Chapter 1)

Professor Armstrong asked us whose voice this was and emphasized the sibilant “s” sounds running throughout the last sentence. The word “caresses” brings to our imagination the tender and intimate whispers, breaths and touches between mother and child, sounds that had been part of my life for the last twelve weeks. As I listened I felt that Emma’s “indistinct remembrance” of this intimacy would make it something to be yearned for because of its bare tangibility. I imagined Emma as having a trace of a memory of irreplaceable love. In my barely-recovered state, it was all I could do not to burst into tears at the thought of my own little ones almost losing me. George Justice, in his blog post for the series Emma in the Snow, has written movingly about this sentence and, based on his own memory of losing his mother in childhood, concludes, “Emma must have been seven or younger when her mother died” (“Mrs. Woodhouse”). Put in this way, we see Emma’s loss as an enormous trauma for a very young child to have suffered, one with lasting effects.

After the conference I returned to my Christmas re-reading of Emma with a new perspective; given that I had almost left my own newborn and her sister motherless, my over-riding view of Emma now was of a child who had lost her mother. Like my own baby, she was “the youngest of two daughters” and I kept pondering how the opening sentences in fact emphasize this motherlessness, and how Emma is put in a position of responsibility from a young age. This mother is replaced, we are told, by a swift shift in tone created by the clichéd description of Miss Taylor as an “excellent woman.” This is sharp and brisk, halting any moment of indulgence for Emma. The irony of the last words became freshly apparent to me for Miss Taylor falls “little short of a mother in affection.” Emma should not complain! My sense of Emma now was of a young girl who has not been permitted to grieve for she has so many “blessings.” It is true that she and Miss Taylor do love each other but, crucially, with “the intimacy of sisters” (Volume 1, Chapter 1). Emma has a memory of a lost mother who can never be replaced but is obedient to the community around her in feeling herself blessed.

And so, when I came to the account of Mrs. Weston’s own maternity—“Mrs. Weston’s friends were all made happy by her safety” (Emma, Volume 3, Chapter 53)—I felt, anew, the power of Austen’s under-statement. This simple sentence glides over the reality that giving birth is a serious risk and the predominant feeling of Mrs. Weston’s family and friends is anxiety, for she and her baby may not survive. Maternal deaths, as we know, were part of life in the period with approximately 90 out of 10,000 women dying in childbirth (Robert Woods, Death before Birth: Fetal Health and Mortality in Historical Perspective). Infant mortality rates were even higher but evidence shows that fewer babies died as mothers were encouraged to breastfeed in the eighteenth century. The commonplace way in which Emma and her circle must bear with their fears for Mrs. Weston and her baby was shared by Austen and her family. Upon the birth of her nephew, Austen writes to Cassandra, “I have just received a note from James to say that Mary was brought to bed last night, at eleven o’clock, of a fine little boy, and that everything is going on very well. My mother had desired to know nothing of it before it should be all over . . .” (18 November 1798). Austen’s mother indeed knew the risks and could not bear the anxiety of waiting through the birth.

Our narrator subtly tells us that the birth of this baby girl gives Emma an opportunity to heal from grief for her lost mother as she happily imagines the life the child will have with its mother, one without separation. “She had been decided in wishing for a Miss Weston” for a daughter is “never banished from home; and Mrs Weston—no one could doubt that a daughter would be most to her” (Volume 3, Chapter 53). And as the news of Emma’s engagement to Mr. Knightley is made known, the chapter stresses the togetherness and unity of family:

It was a union of the highest promise of felicity in itself, and without one real, rational difficulty to oppose or delay it.

Mrs. Weston, with her baby on her knee, indulging in such reflections as these, was one of the happiest women in the world. If any thing could increase her delight, it was perceiving that the baby would soon have outgrown its first set of caps. (Volume 3, Chapter 53)

I see mother and child nursing here with Mrs. Weston cradling her baby’s head as she supports her. The beauty of this everyday moment belies the seriousness that gives rise to it: Mrs. Weston can see that her baby is growing and thriving and will indeed need its next set of caps. She is there to fit them on her.

Quotations are from the Penguin edition of Emma, edited and with an introduction by Juliette Wells (2015), and the Oxford edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (4th edition, 2011).