In western society it’s easy to think that giving birth is safe, yet according to the World Health Organisation, about 800 women worldwide still die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth every day. In the UK, you don’t have to travel too far back in time to find maternal death was also a very real risk for women here. This blog pays tribute to three famous writers who have become immortal through their books, but tragically died in this way.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) was a founding feminist who argued for equality and for women to be educated on equal terms as men. She wrote a number of books, but is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
“Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.”
She was years ahead of her time — it took a century for the feminist movement to really take hold — and incredibly brave to write it. Her book continues to be cited and inspires women even today.
Wollstonecraft died at the age of thirty-eight, ten days after giving birth to a baby girl. Some believe she’d developed septicaemia (an overwhelming, inflammatory immune response to infection). Her daughter would go on to become an extraordinary writer herself, as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
Isabella Beeton (1836 – 1856) will always be remembered as Mrs Beeton. Her famous book of Household Management contained numerous cookery recipes, advice on running a Victorian Household and documented the essential qualities for the mistress of the house.
“When a mistress is an early riser, it is almost certain that her house will be orderly and well-managed. On the contrary, if she remain in bed till a late hour, then the domestics, who, as we have before observed, invariably partake somewhat of their mistress’s character, will surely become sluggards.”
Oh dear, there is no hope for me! I imagine Mrs Beeton as a prim, mature woman, but Isabella actually died at the young age of 28. The day after she gave birth to her fourth child she too developed a postpartum infection and died a week later.
Charlotte Brontë (1816 – 1855) needs no introduction. Her novel, Jane Eyre, had immediate success and continues to be one of the nation’s favourites. My copy is falling apart from being read so many times.
“Why are you silent, Jane?”
I was experiencing an ordeal: a hand of fiery iron grasped my vitals. Terrible moment: full of struggle, blackness, burning! Not a human being that ever lived could wish to be loved better than I was loved; and him who thus loved me I absolutely worshipped: and I must renounce love and idol. One drear word comprised my intolerable duty — “Depart!”
“Jane, you understand what I want of you? Just this promise — ‘I will be yours, Mr. Rochester.’”
“Mr. Rochester, I will not be yours.”
Eventually Jane Eyre does get her happy ending — “Reader, I married him.” — but the author’s own story didn’t end so well. She became pregnant shortly after getting married and suffered from extreme nausea and vomiting. Within nine months of her wedding she was dead. Her death certificates states ‘phthisis’ (tuberculosis) as the cause of death, but over the years a different medical opinion has formed. It seems she probably had hyperemesis gravidarum (persistent severe vomiting leading to weight loss and dehydration) or a combination of both diagnoses. In The Brontës, Juliet Barker writes, “her small frame and thinness would lead to rapid and severe deterioration, and that by fifteen weeks [of pregnancy] she would have been so worn and emaciated by the constant vomiting which in itself would have caused poisoning of her body fluids as her kidneys failed, that the death certificate verdict of phthisis, general wasting, would have been appropriate.”
If Charlotte had been born 200 years later she would probably have been hospitalised, given intravenous fluids and anti-sickness medication, and may well have lived to tell the tale. That’s, of course, if she was born in a country with good maternity care and she had access to it.
Sadly, these brilliant authors died needlessly because medical science and healthcare was not as advanced as it is today. I think it also says something about women’s place in society at a time when they had no rights and no vote; there wasn’t an incentive for political parties to fight their corner. Issues that were important to them were simply not addressed. Worldwide, women are still dying needlessly. The World Health Organisation say unavailable, inaccessible, unaffordable or poor-quality care is to blame. They believe that women should not die in pregnancy or childbirth. I do too.
This blog was first published on my own site. kimdonovanauthor.wordpress.com
Here are some links to organisations working to reduce maternal death: