Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

‘Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir’ by Catherine de Saint Phalle

Poum_Alexandre

2016, 256 p.

There is no shortage of memoirs about parents written by their children.  Too often, there is an underlying whine of grievance in such memoirs – admittedly, quite often justified- because the parents are too cruel, too self-absorbed or too mad, and the author/child is seeking to blame or understand (and often both at once).  Alternatively, there are memoirs of parents bathed in nostalgia, sorrow and yearning: yearning for a return to a simpler time and regret for lost opportunities and all the things the author did not say at the time.

Poum and Alexandre falls into neither of these camps. It’s significant that the title makes no reference to the author at all – there’s no ‘my’ in the title- and the subtitle ‘A Paris Memoir’ emphasizes place. The book is written from the child’s point of view, but the author’s own life, and most particularly her adult life, is largely absent, except in the final section. The book is written in three parts: ‘Poum’ dealing with her mother Marie-Antoinette, nicknamed ‘Poum’ because of a childish game in bouncing down stair ‘poum, poum, poum’; ‘Alexandre’ dealing with her father; and then a final short coda involving both parents.

Both Poum and Alexandre are eccentric. Poum is a disinterested mother, just as happy to stay in bed with her books, as to spend time with her daughter. Alexandre imbues his daughter’s mind with Greek myths, praise for the Magna Carta, and tales of Napoleon. Both parents are drawn to tales of blood and savagery, and they share these with their daughter, irrespective of her age.

Their daughter, Catherine, spends much of her early life away from her parents. Born in England, ostensibly  because of the freedoms bestowed by the Magna Carta, she is largely raised by her nanny Sylvia, and Sylvia’s own family. When she finally settles in France, she can barely speak French, and the book is largely devoid of friends or any other contacts other than her family.

Told from Catherine’s point of view, there are many gaps and non-sequiturs. Alexandre is already married and has an older, first family and what seems to be an ever-increasing number of offspring that Catherine gradually learns about, but does not meet. Alexandre and Poum are cousins, and have fallen out with their families over their relationship. Poum tries doggedly to maintain relations with her own family, but there is tension and resentment, and Catherine feels it. This ‘situation’ swirls around Catherine and her parents, marking them out as different and disreputable. Perhaps it’s this exclusion that turns them towards each other in a fey, irresponsible and downright strange way.

Yet there is no judgement here. Catherine describes them with love and acceptance, even though as a reader you find yourself raising a sceptical eyebrow or huffing with disapproval at the sheer irresponsibility that both parents display at different times.   The book is beautifully written, and it certainly subverts the chronological memoir genre. It shuttles backwards and forwards, and tells events from multiple perspectives. It withholds as much as it gives.  And yet at the end of the book, you realize just how much Catherine has given you as a reader, and you are left with a puzzling and yet rich view of her parents – much how the author finds herself. This is a challenging memoir, but I suspect that I will remember it long after the ‘misery memoirs’ have merged one into another.

Read because: CAE bookgroup selection (mine). And several people on the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge website had read it

My rating: 8

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I have added this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge database

‘Mistress of her Profession: Colonial Midwives of Sydney 1788-1901’ by Lesley Potter

Mistress_Profession

2017, 133 p plus notes.

I suspect that, of all the different types of historians, family historians are probably the most attuned to the world of the midwife. In their family trees they trace those successions of births just two years apart, often over two decades; those births of the baby followed by the death of the mother in the days and weeks afterwards. Most probably, other women were present at these events, but they are largely invisible. It was this invisibility that attracted me to this book.

The author of Mistress of her Profession emphasizes the difficulty of finding these midwives within the sources, but she has managed to locate and name some of them. Having done so, Lesley Potter then aims to

discover not only midwives’ attitudes to midwifery and to understand the kind of midwifery they employed, but also to discover the attitudes of others (patients, doctors, coroners and others in authority) towards them…. the purpose is to bring the colonial midwife to life, to encapsulate her humanness, fraught with all her faults, ideals, values and anxieties: to explain and interpret her past to the present generation. (p. 6)

Her book starts with a case study, one of the eight which separate the chapters. Sarah Ann Hopkins, who boarded the Steadfast from London in 1848 as an emigrant to NSW was a trained midwife, possessing a diploma from Westminster Lying-in Hospital. As a trained midwife, she accepted the temporary position of matron on the Steadfast, working under the supervision of a Dr Read. Seven confinements took place on the ship, and not all had happy outcomes. Twenty-four year old Lydia Lever went into premature labour, triggered by dystenteric diarrhoea (it doesn’t do to think about just how awful that must have been). Her premature baby died, and she died about six weeks later. That same day a second baby was born, this time to 26 year old Jane Calder. The baby died at five days, and the next day Jane Calder’s one year old child died. Twenty year old Matilda Humpreys developed ‘epilepsy’, which was often the diagnosis of eclampsia at the time. Nor did this baby survive.   Four of the babies and mothers did survive, and one of these was Sarah Ann Hopkins herself. Just in this one case study, we have writ large the uncertainty of childbirth in the early nineteenth century.

Potter divides the midwives of colonial Sydney into several groups. First there were the convict midwives, many of whom only became midwives after transportation, using midwifery as a way of gaining respectability and a economic foothold in the colony. The second group were free immigrant midwives, often widows, who had been practising as untrained midwives in their own communities prior to immigration. Third, as the century drew on, overseas-trained midwives emigrated for a range of reasons. Finally, there were colonial-trained midwives who appeared at the end of the 19th century, some of whom were registered with the Australasian Trained Nurses Association.

The books starts with Aboriginal birthing. Probably as a result of the curiosity of early officials and naturalists, there are quite detailed descriptions of indigenous births. Although (and because?) the details in these descriptions sprang from the mindset of ‘otherness’ held by their male writers, they provided more information about actual practices in terms of pain relief and rituals than the European sources about European births did.

Where Potter was able to find such information was in the coroners’ inquests, but even in these there is not the detail that she as historian, and I as reader, wanted to know in terms of pain relief and the actual birth. What is interesting is that most 19th century cases involving midwives charged with misdemeanours associated with childbirth did not advance to higher courts (p. 41). Most often the verdict was ‘visitation by God’ or ‘natural causes’, reflecting the ignorance of an all-male jury.

Of more concern was the charge of ‘for want of medical aid’ , which spoke to the authority relationship between male medical doctors and female midwives- a familiar story even today. Midwives and nurses operated in a legal system that did not recognize them or consider them part of the health system. The law had no precedent  whereby a midwife at fault could be prosecuted, and as a result several midwives whose care was deficient, escaped sentencing. Likewise, the number of midwife-abortionists is unknown, and here too the courts were reluctant to convict.  But as the century progressed, their activities increasingly fell under the purview of the law.

The book traces through the beginnings of maternity care in Sydney, from the Female Factory in Parramatta, through the unsuccessful efforts of Dr Tierney to establish a private lying-in hospital, the development of the Benevolent Asylum, which did not have trained midwives until after 1879 and the gradual increase in private lying-in and maternity homes, especially in the 1890s. Midwifery was a commercial enterprise for women acting independently, and after midwifery training was instituted in the late nineteenth century, employment opportunities within an institutional setting increased. In terms of training, Australia followed the British trends, and midwifery became a certificated qualification, earned through on-the-job training in hospitals. However, as in Britain, midwifery training was kept separate from the training of medical men (although as Potter notes, there were men-midwives). Legislation and registration had to wait until the twentieth century.

I enjoyed the case studies which separated the chapters of these books, which generally illustrate the chapter to which they are attached.  They vary in the amount of detail that Potter was able to uncover, and unfortunately some of them are rather bare-bones, factual accounts. But even this highlights the difficulty of the task Potter set for herself.

I found the law chapters in this book the most illuminating, but even they do not really answer my questions about what it was like to give birth in colonial times. Did they sit? stand? lie? What was the attitude towards making noise? And even the most basic question- what did they do with all that boiling water that people were sent off to fetch in the movies? (or was that just a way of keeping them busy?) I recognize the paucity of the sources, but I do wonder if Potter had access to the records once training moved into more institutional settings which might have shed more light on this. Were there textbooks? Did new, more standardized techniques  replace traditional, ‘old wives tales’?

Potter has brought many of these women out of invisibility by naming them, but I’m not sure that she actually achieved her aim of bringing them to life or explaining and interpreting them to the present generation. I think that perhaps, given the limitation of the sources, her aim may have been too ambitious, and for me, still unmet.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

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I have included this book as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.