Born to a Changing World: Childbirth in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand, Alison Clarke, (Bridget Williams Books, 2012) 312 pp., $39.99.
Just when it seems that there cannot be yet another fascinating historical topic lurking in New Zealand’s literary undergrowth, another will appear. ‘Of course,’ we think immediately, ‘what a wonderful idea. Why hasn’t someone written about this before?’ But the wonderful idea has to be transmuted into a book that is articulate and authoritative, a book that adds to our knowledge of ourselves and our past, a book, above all, that we want to read. In all these areas Alison Clarke’s Born to a Changing World more than succeeds.
As she explains in her introduction, her aim is to ‘recover the largely untold story of childbirth in nineteenth-century Aotearoa New Zealand’. Medically, and socially, this was a very different age – ‘an era before the registration of midwives, before hospital birth became the norm, before “safe” Caesarean sections, before antibiotics, before the Plunket Society, before proven infant formulas and before effective contraception’. The comparisons with our own time are sharp and telling – one only has to watch the television documentary series, One Born Every Minute, to be aware of this – but Clarke’s interest does not lie in using the 1800s, as other studies have done, to foreshadow ‘some dramatic modern development’. Rather, she wishes to understand, and to show her readers, ‘the lives of New Zealand families of that period on their own merits’, and this is exactly what she does.
Although, obviously, anatomical and medical matters – the mechanics of childbirth, as it were – play a large part in the book, Clarke’s focus is much wider, offering a fuller picture of the rituals, culture and social expectations associated with pregnancy and infancy in this country’s first European century.
The book opens with an account of Maori birth practices, and of the shock and disbelief expressed by both races at the other’s approach. The contrasts were many and extreme – for example, birth in a secluded, tapu spot for Maori women but usually in a bed for the wives of missionaries and colonists, and the significance of the placenta (whenua) and umbilical cord (iho) for Maori – and there were both misunderstandings and insights when the two cultures intersected. The second chapter discusses Pakeha childbirth, often in isolated and remote areas initially, the roles of midwives, doctors and monthly nurses, the concept of lying in and the medical texts that were relied on for guidance and information. Throughout, Clarke’s book is richly particular, full of examples and stories and recorded cases.
Unlike our own time, hospital birth in the nineteenth century, the subject of the third chapter, was associated with poverty and charity; those who had the means gave birth at home, ‘paying for professional assistance as required or relying on the lay expertise of friends and neighbours’. The death toll caused by disease, especially puerperal fever, in many public hospitals was alarming. Clarke also considers the perils of Caesarean section, then a rare and dangerous procedure.
Any photograph of a nineteenth-century infant – and the illustrations in Born to a Changing World are first class – makes us immediately aware of the complex, multi-layered clothing regarded as de rigueur for Victorian babies. Clarke’s chapter on clothing the baby is a delight. She looks at the preparation of the clothes, the prescribed list of items (one Dunedin draper store advertised a 30 shilling ‘little stranger’s parcel’), fashions in gowns, baby clothes for the poor and changing styles in Maori infant clothes as European influence took hold.
That other essential, feeding, is the subject of a chapter containing fascinating insights into the traditional practice of wet nursing and the terrible death rate that resulted when babies were hand fed: caused by contamination of cow’s milk and water, and of the bottles used, and by malnutrition, owing to the wrong kind of nourishment. There are heart-breaking accounts of infants wasting away before the eyes of their distraught parents until both equipment and alternatives to breast milk improved. Clarke also touches on the extraordinary popular notion, which survived into the nineteenth century, that infants ‘imbibed the characteristics of their milk provider’, whether human or animal, along with the milk: one theory suggested that children given goat’s milk ‘displayed a tendency for climbing’.
The religious rituals associated with childbirth are the focus of another intriguing discussion, in which Clarke covers everything from baptism, both Maori and Pakeha, to folk beliefs, christening gowns, the churching of women and circumcision. The naming of the child, as it is today, was a vital decision. Clarke assembles some memorable detail on this subject: the Maori use of names that spoke of important events or objects; the proliferation of Pakeha children with imperial monikers when the Queen celebrated milestones in her reign – Victoria Jubilee Williams, for example; the babies named for the migrant ships on which they were born; and the late nineteenth-century fashion for flower names, which is flourishing again today as little Lilies and Roses and Olives appear in the birth notices.
But childbirth was not always a cause for celebration and delight. As Clarke points out in the chapter called ‘The Angel of Death Was Waiting for Them’, childbirth in the 1800s could be fatal: towards the end of the century New Zealand women were over 50 times more likely to die from giving birth than they are today. It was a risky business, though, as Clarke sensibly points out, this was a risky period for health generally, and most nineteenth-century women of child-bearing age were in fact killed by tuberculosis. But many women perished after giving birth, from such diseases as the dreaded puerperal fever, septicaemia and peritonitis. The absence of antibiotics and the carrying of disease from woman to woman by midwives were just two factors that made this a much more perilous era in which to have a child. Clarke also documents the cases of medical manslaughter brought against doctors and midwives, and explores the vexed subject of abortion – an alarmingly primitive business – and birth control, such as it then was. There is a poignant section in this chapter, too, on the link between childbirth and mental illness: what we would understand as varying degrees of post-natal depression might mean a period in an asylum or even drive a woman to suicide.
And of course babies died too, far more often, in fact, than mothers. Once again, the statistics are sobering: from 1861 to 1899 almost 53,000 Pakeha babies died before the end of their first year, and the rates for Maori infants were even worse. Stillbirths, premature babies (the biggest cause of neo-natal death in an age without incubators), infectious diseases and accidental death through smothering in the parental bed or overdosing with drugs such as chlorodyne – all these were threats. Saddest of all, perhaps, was infanticide, resorted to by impoverished single European mothers in a morally less forgiving, pre-welfare state New Zealand – far too many tiny bodies were found in streams or hidden in houses and gardens. The court cases of infanticide reported in contemporary newspapers make for heart-rending reading.
But, as Clarke notes in her epilogue, although the story of childbirth in this century was ‘bittersweet’ and many families faced tragedy the end of a pregnancy, ‘the great majority of Victorian mothers and children did survive childbirth’, and she ends the book with the story of two women, one Maori and one Pakeha, for whom childbirth brought ‘immense fulfilment and joy’.
Born to a Changing World is a model of its kind, in the tradition readers have come to expect from publisher Bridget Williams – impeccably and thoroughly researched, and written with clarity, balance, authority and some nice little flicks of humour. This book is not only an excellent piece of scholarship but a pleasure to read. The illustrations illuminate and amplify the text in an exemplary manner, and the many portraits reach beyond the formality of Victorian photography to convey the universal emotions of joy and pride, and sorrow, associated with nineteenth-century childbirth. A slightly less textbook-like and more imaginative cover would have enhanced what is otherwise a well-designed volume, but this is a minor cavil. Alison Clarke has made a fine contribution to this country’s social history, and to our understanding of a time so different from ours in many ways but, in its human essentials, not as far removed as we may think.
ANNA ROGERS is a Christchurch editor, author and reviewer. Her latest book is The Shaky Isles: New Zealand Earthquakes.