So I'm going to join the Whingers' Bagnold Revival and apart from National Velvet this is the only other book I have, The Squire, published in 1938 and I had immediately been drawn to Dame Margaret Drabble's suggestion,
'Imagine To the Lighthouse written by Mrs Ramsay expecting her fifth child and you get something of the spirit of this intense and passionate novel.'
It is certainly one of the most deeply moving books I've read on the subject of pregnancy, birth and motherhood, almost existential in its thinking as a woman known as the 'squire', prepares for the birth of her fifth child whilst her husband is away on business. The house also has the luxury of staff,
'Ah this old feudal nonsense in a toppling world,'
and as the midwife arrives, she and the squire are able to escape into a mutual world of time-honoured ritual and tradition as the labour progresses and the baby is born.
I'm not sure why I might assume that perceptions surrounding childbirth and motherhood should be any less insightful in 1938 than they are in 2008, but I would be profoundly misguided if I did.
The role of the midwife as curator of the mother and baby, lionishly protective, fierce and involved but equally able to walk away when her job is done, is uniquely described by Enid Bagnold, and I fancy we could learn much from the way that this allowed the mother-baby attachment to develop. Given protected time and space away from her older children, the squire wallows in the languid, soporific stress-free post-natal environment created by the midwife and meditates on life, love, children, ageing and so much more as she feeds and gets to know her newborn. This is about utilising that special and unrepeatable period of time to the full, nature facilitates this but the environment needs to be quiet and still enough for it to be heard.
The lying-in period as was, has all but been swallowed up in early hospital discharge and off to the supermarket shopping on Day Three, and we have high expectations of a baby's ability to withstand the bright lights and the hustle and bustle after so long as a snugly well-wrapped and insulated little traveller.
Enid Bagnold's midwife knows this too,
'I should say that as your baby is now so he will be in old age, that the perfection of his introduction to life will reassert itself again and again in all his crises.'
Here's me with my mum, September 1953, I'm a day old, yes, yes I know and beautiful too, so blessed. But I'll bet we stayed put here for weeks. No wonder I now take to my armchair when it all gets too much.
The midwife has a dream ,
'Some day, ' said the squire, 'you will be helped to your dream. A
convent-clinic, where nuns abet the mothers. And birth is worshipped.
What a mother-superior you would make.! ...
'How seldom I can care for a mother and her baby in the peace I want for my work, away from the household and its surroundings! My clinic would be a palisaded place, far in the country.'
Enid Bagnold knew what she was talking about. Old style Maternity Homes have all but disappeared from the face of the earth in the UK, designated an unaffordable luxury service but I'm grateful to have benefited from ours x 3 and for ten days each time. I know it all set me up to succeed, after ten days I was raring to get home and get on, after three I was most certainly not.
Enid Bagnold's midwife, childless herself, is a strange, single-minded, ethereally goddess-like being; almost other-worldly with a touch of the wise but stern Fairy Godmother about her,
'I have seen so many bad mothers, poor indifferent mothers.Yet often the babies do well with them...There is something between the mother and the baby.Not only love, not only milk. Some sort of closeness. A baby, when it has been so close to her, needs to be close again after it is born.'
And here's a very modern concern, I'm almost comforted to know it was a problem then too,
'The book of instinct has long, long been closed, ' said the midwife
'But what do we get instead?' said the squire. ' The science-guided baby! Labelled, its tears and stools in bottles, its measurements on a chart, its food weighed like a prescription!'
So much more I could write about this book, it has been a read which has made me consider deeply at every level, both personal and professional, and hopefully that's enough to encourage you in the direction of The Squire if you feel so inclined. If you then find you are in the mood for more childbirth reading don't miss Winter's Child by Dea Trier Morch, and excellent to see one of my favourites, Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth, (where the midwives are actually nuns) up there amongst the best-sellers at the moment.