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Hidden mothers and poetic pregnancy in women's writing (1818 - present day)

Blewitt, Sarah Emily 2016. Hidden mothers and poetic pregnancy in women's writing (1818 - present day). PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
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Abstract

This thesis investigates representations of the pregnant body in works by women writers in the period from 1818 to the present day, tracing the multiple connections between the actual bodily experience of pregnancy and its use as metaphor for literary production. Setting a diverse corpus of work by women poets and novelists in dialogue with medical constructions of the pregnant body – from eighteenth-century anatomical atlases to contemporary ultrasound images – it offers a provocatively feminist contribution to the field, by defining ‘poetic pregnancy’ as a fertile, corporeal and important variant on the childbirth metaphor. In so doing, it both explores women's writing as a site of resistance to the objectification of the pregnant subject by medical discourse and traces the ways in which this might also challenge traditional constructions of the dominant male canon. Chapter I explores the early stages of pregnancy, from Consummation to Quickening, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's verse-novel Aurora Leigh (1857). By examining Barrett Browning's poet-heroine as a pregnant subject, it considers the gestation of the book/baby in relation to nineteenth-century theories of ‘maternal impressions’. Chapter II, on Miscarriage, begins by conceptualising the nineteenth-century female body underneath the corset, before investigating what happens when the girdle is unclasped and the waistline is dropped during the early twentieth century, by uncovering the non-reproductive, ‘mis-carrying’ silhouette of the flapper in Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928) and Rosamond Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets (1936). Chapter III identifies and explores the phenomenon of ‘Ultrasound poetry’ written by contemporary women poets such as Kathleen Jamie, Pat Borthwick and Leontia Flynn, a phenomenon spawned from twentieth- and twenty-first century developments in New Reproductive Technologies. This chapter analyses two particular characteristics of the ultrasound poem: firstly, the conjuring of an unspecified, atavistic past; secondly, the emergence of the futuristic and spectral foetal spaceman. Chapter IV, on Labour, moves back to the nineteenth century, by examining Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, Frankenstein. Situating the text in terms of its medical and scientific context – the rise of the man-midwife and the entry of the anatomised headless image of the pregnant torso into popular medical discourse – this chapter offers a fresh way of reading Frankenstein, not only as a 'birth myth', but as a text engaged with the increasingly medicalised pregnant body. This thesis’s structure thus replicates thematically the rounded shape of the pregnant belly, offering a critical re/membering of the pregnant subject that foregrounds both the embodiment of pregnancy and its metaphorical significance for these women writers. Overall, it argues that the pregnant body, which is often Gothicised, obscured and made spectral in representations, is also resistant, disruptive and potently corporeal. The metaphor of poetic pregnancy, like the childbirth metaphor, is not fixed and singular, but comprised of metaphorical matrices, which generate multiple meanings.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Status: Unpublished
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
Funders: AHRC
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 4 April 2016
Last Modified: 01 Apr 2017 01:30
URI: http://orca.cf.ac.uk/id/eprint/88617

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