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Wombs With a View—to Narrative

PUBLISHED: January 8, 2013


Sybil Crawley, Downton Abbey

Jessica Brown-Findlay as Lady Sybil Crawley and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley Photo: ITV


Editor’s note: We are very happy to announce that Bethanne Patrick (@thebookmaven) will be joining VQR on a monthly basis. Look for her column on the second Tuesday of every month.


A young Englishwoman is ordered to take bed rest due to pregnancy complications. Is that Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, about to be hospitalized again for severe morning sickness, or “hyperemesis gravidarum”? No, it’s Downton Abbey’s fictional Lady Sybil Crawley, the Earl of Grantham’s beloved youngest daughter, whose marriage to Branson the (former) chauffeur has proven fertile.

It’s no spoiler to the beloved series’ new season, which began airing in the United States this week, to reveal that Lady Sybil is put on bed rest; many a pregnancy involves health challenges. It could just as easily have been Duchess Catherine as a TV idol, given all the media attention her recent hospital stay attracted.

Why do we watch the pregnancies of the rich and fragile so closely? What is it about a young royal or aristocrat that makes her “delicate condition” something to be indelicately discussed on every street corner? Are we waiting for something bad to happen?

I’d like to propose that our fascination with these gestation periods has less to do with schadenfreude and more to do with our common humanity. One of the things that make us human is what acclaimed psychiatrist Robert Coles terms “the call of stories”: that impulse toward narrative shared by all members of the genus homo sapiens.

In his recent book The Storytelling Animal, academic Jonathan Gottschall reminds us not only that we adore fictional realms, but we also adore those fictional realms that contain less-than-pleasurable elements: conflict, struggle, fright, pain, sorrow, and hopelessness. Clever animals, who have evolved big brains, want to use those brains to think through as many possible permutations of what might happen as they can—without experiencing those permutations. (No wonder my mother-in-law loves horror novels!) Furthermore, creating narratives from those permutations has a purpose, too. When we make up a story, we’re helping our brains to remember what they’ve learned.

Each and every pregnancy has a beginning, a middle, and an end—like all the best stories. While the moment of conception—sperm, meet ovum—may not lend itself to thrilling discourse, the getting-to-conception story has any number of variations, not all of them as sweetly satisfying as the Duchess’s and the Lady’s matrimonially sanctioned ones.

Of course, what we’re watching with both the real-life Catherine Mountbatten-Windsor and the fictional Sybil Crawley Branson is the fraught middle, when plot developments can go in any direction. Will dreadful morning sickness herald problems with the fetus (we do tell ourselves that terrible nausea means a healthy pregnancy, one of those aforementioned permutations)? Or will third-trimester pre-eclampsia threaten the mother’s health? The questions can be put together in so many ways, right up to the labor-and-delivery suite, which may be a modern medical state-of-the-art hospital room, a hut’s mud floor, a suburban backyard hot tub, or the back seat of a taxicab.

What we learn from pregnancy stories is wondrously enriched by the fact that every pregnancy is a narrative within a narrative, as well as a story with two protagonists. Although mother and baby are connected by an umbilical cord and have a shared history, each also has a story that will take place apart from the other. If you think about this for too long, you may find yourself dreaming of books that stack inside each other like matryoshka dolls, as I have recently.

Complicating the entire narrative arc is a recent scientific discovery: Cells of children have been found in their mothers’ brains. We’ve known for some time that children inherit many things from their parents and other ancestors—but to find out that mothers literally “keep” parts of their progeny is astounding, although most modern moms will consider this evidence of their intuitive connection to their children.

However, while Duchess Catherine and even Lady Sybil, both women born in the twentieth century, might agree that that connection is intuitive, it was not ever thus. It’s not that women of earlier times did not feel a connection—they did, and fiercely. We have only to look to literary sources to find tiger mothers like the Biblical Sarah, the mythical Jocasta, and the historical Maria Theresa, who had sixteen children and held on to her throne for forty years. But Sarah and Jocasta and Maria Theresa, along with Olympias (mother of Alexander the Great) and Queen Victoria and other mothers of history ancient and modern, might not have peppered their thoughts, however clever, with words like “intuitive” and “nurturing.”

Narrative, you see, also gestates. Ideas are developed, hypotheses are tested, and territories are explored as our entire species develops and learns to tell its story. As we work through conflicts in groups, our ideas of how the story comes together definitely evolve—but our ideas of what makes a good story? Those don’t change as much, which is why a twenty-first-century real-life royal pregnancy captivates us as much as a fictional childbirth. Stories allow us all to be “pregnant with anticipation,” and perhaps we can even go so far as to say that as readers, we retain bits of all the stories we take in, just as women who have given birth retain a connection to their children. If so, then we develop and influence our own narrative through what fascinates us, whether it’s a TV series about British aristocrats or the impending arrival of a new British royal. The good news? New life provides new stories—and new stories help us all to live.


Bethanne Patrick (@TheBookMaven) is a writer and editor focusing on books and culture. Her work has appeared in AARP, O: The Oprah Magazine, and The Washington Post. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.


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M.Ochapa · 8 years ago
Well written, and thoughtful; I will look out for your future contributions. Thanks.

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