The night before my youngest daughter was born in August 2020, I finished a round of revisions on my book about pregnant bodies in the Victorian novel. These bodies defy an impulse toward concealment. They whisper the possibility of somatic plots running just under the surface of language, plots that sometimes burble and splash into plain sight for a moment before receding. I think that those of us who study Victorian novels are often drawn to this expression of the “real”: the thrumming, almost unspoken suggestion that there are thousands of threads of existence that cannot or will not get gathered up tidily. We like to try, though, pinning down passages and playing them at quarter speed, pausing frequently at a word here, an evocation there. In some ways, these methods stretch and enlarge our loose, baggy monsters; in other ways, they are like quick flashes of light that illuminate something we weren’t seeing before.
I’m reading as I pace through my home with the baby strapped into a carrier. Something catches my attention—a turn of phrase, a description, a gap—and I slow down. The page in front of me shifts into sharp relief, cresting out of the words moving under my eyes. This is an encounter that demands my full presence. It’s like praying or grieving; it’s like mothering.
I’m in a meeting, explaining to my colleagues from other disciplines that English is not a field devoid of method but a field in which method can engage impression, desire, distaste, and idiosyncrasy directly. We investigate qualitative data, I say. We practice locating that fuzzy line between ourselves and something beyond ourselves, I say. I explain the steps of close reading as an example. I don’t think I convince anyone.
The baby has become a toddler and she’s crying during naptime. Daycare is shut down (again). I have two kids under four at home, and this is the only period during daylight hours when I can work. When my older child was the same age as the kid fighting her nap right now, I would sometimes take her to a play-place when I needed to do my job. I’d follow behind her, grading papers on a clipboard. I daydream about that. My younger child didn’t go inside a public space until she was eighteen months old. She is still mesmerized by the grocery store.
And now, I’m teaching close reading again. This is a method for staging a conversation between objectivity and subjectivity, I say. This a method for building bridges between the “facts” of words on a page and the personal responses we each whisper into our acts of reading, I say. I don’t quite say that I want to believe this is a magic spell that can sometimes—when conditions are just right—release the secrets of the body and mind into the realm of language.
The particular, personal grief of my first pregnancy shines strangely. When the baby was stillborn, floodlights were switched on over a whole vista I hadn’t really seen before and couldn’t unsee.
In March of 2020, when I was 4 months pregnant with my youngest, the suspended time of pregnancy in which all things are immediate and all things are waiting seemed to burst outward from me into a world that had both stopped and accelerated. I held my breath and I checked my breathing; I counted kicks, I counted weeks (in COVID-free increments of 2) and months (toward 9), I counted my toddlers’ number blocks and cases and deaths and papers turned in and the number of pregnancies that would have worked out if this baby were to be born alive (2 in 5).
I thought a lot about counting and history. I thought about Queen Anne (0 in 17 pregnancies worked out, 3 in 17 if you’re counting babies who lived long enough to be christened, 5 in 17 if you’re counting babies born alive at all). I thought about Princess Charlotte (0 for one plus maternal death). About Queen Victoria’s diary entries in the weeks after the births of each of her children: you can tell when it was bad because she counts the number of steps she was able to take each day (it’s notable that Queen Victoria doesn’t seem to have lost any pregnancies and that none of her children died in infancy). Anthony Trollope became my pandemic bedtime reading, so I thought about Emily Wharton’s baby who dies in The Prime Minister. Not because there’s anything particularly interesting about this plot point but because there isn’t. It’s just a normal occurrence, a coherent loss in a world where infant death is part of the landscape.
I read the Mommy Memoirs. The emergence of this genre gestures toward the pressures of mothering in a world where infant death is not a coherent part of the landscape but an incoherent tragedy we just might be able to avoid by following strong methods for pregnant-ing and parenting. But the ideal of strong method often gives way to something more fragmentary when these narratives center loss. The historian Sarah Knott’s Mother is a Verb, for example, spans the maternal- and infant-morality divide the long twentieth century erected for privileged white women and their babies. In stitching together “fragments and…anecdotes” loosely associated by theme and connected to particular, personal experiences, Knott imagines memoir itself as a flexible method for catching glimpses of past and present the exceed our limited perspectives. I want to believe that fragments and anecdotes can–when conditions are just right–illuminate the distant and the so-close-it’s-internal simultaneously.
Years ago, someone at a conference said to me about the pregnancy in the Victorian novel project: “you know these aren’t real pregnancies, these aren’t real bodies, right?” She took issue with the way I tried to chart literary pregnancies and miscarriages like I would the pregnancies or miscarriages of women I know. She took issue with my little hoard of literary fragments and personal anecdotes all mixed up together in an impossible geography. But that’s where I live. I want close reading to illuminate the bridge between bodies and books as a spectrum of possibilities that range from the imaginary to the visceral, like the flashes of type I could see unspooling from my body during each of my labors. I want a magic spell that fosters intimacy with the wide arc of time it takes to make life and to make death.
Livia Arndal Woods is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She teaches British literature in modernity, genre literatures, methods courses, composition, and the health humanities. Her book, Pregnancy in the Victorian Novel, is forthcoming from the Ohio State University Press.