I was seven months pregnant and up for the second time in the night, achy and tired, when I read Sarah Waters’s newest abortion scene. The scene comes midway through The Paying Guests, a historical novel set in Britain in the early 1920s and centered on the story of Frances Wray, a middle-class spinster, and her obsessive love for her seductive lodger, Lilian Barber, a young married woman of a lower class. Left alone in the house together, Lilian and Frances begin an affair under the nose of Lilian’s unsuspecting husband, Leonard. But about a third of the way through the book, just as the two are starting to talk about leaving and embarking on a new life together, Lilian discovers that she’s pregnant with Leonard’s child. In desperation, Frances and Lilian procure a handful of “filthy-looking” pills—illegal, unregulated, and potentially deadly abortofacients—from a West End chemist. Lilian gulps them down, hoping that ending her pregnancy will clear the way for the two women to live out their love affair away from any family ties to Leonard.
The pills work as they’re supposed to, inducing a miscarriage in Lilian. But neither woman is ready for the physical effects of the procedure. Vigilantly watching for the first signs of a miscarriage, Lilian discovers a trace of blood on her underwear and feels “an ache, low down in her hips. Her bowels were looser than they ought to be, and, in wiping herself in the lavatory, she’d discovered a ‘show.’” After helping Lilian into her bedroom, Frances returns to the bathroom and peers “gingerly” into the toilet pan: “The china rim was spotted with red, but the stuff at the bottom was dark as black treacle.”
This is what is supposed to happen: the pills, unlike many supposed abortofacients sold in secret before the legalization of abortion, actually work, and, despite Frances’s misgivings, they don’t seem to do more damage than is necessary to end Lilian’s pregnancy. But Waters doesn’t shy away from the muck that women dig into in medical experiences like these. Her description makes animal the bodily experience of abortion. The scene is saturated with blood. “Lilian lowered herself with a wobble over the bowl, and soaped and rinsed between her legs,” Waters writes. Frances watches with mingled concern and revulsion as “[t]he water grew pink, then distinctly crimson: her pose had brought on another gush. Frances, alarmed, could see it falling from her; it was like a glistening dark thread. She helped her to rise and dab at her thighs with a towel.” In Waters’s hands, the occasion becomes both a practical emergency—Lilian may be bleeding to death—and a macabre parody of birth or sex, the ropy, dark blood pouring out of Lilian a gruesome portent of the future of their romance.
It’s a strange thing to read about women ending pregnancies when you’re squarely in the middle of one. When I reached this scene at around 3 am, I’d been sullenly awake for an hour or so after an earlier bout of restlessness. I had been woken up by a sharp kick to some gutty, soft innard, a sensation I could not quite get used to, and I was experiencing nothing but dread when I thought of the small, potential life wriggling around in my lower abdomen. I knew what the ache in Lilian’s hips after she took the pills presaged. I’d felt it myself, many times over. On my way to this pregnancy, I’d had a series of miscarriages, and I knew that a pregnancy in the process of ending always began with that dull pulse. As I read, I kept thinking I was feeling it again, a phantom pain for something that hadn’t happened, at least not yet. This time, I had had a relatively uncomplicated pregnancy, especially given my history, but even the easiest pregnancy after so many earlier disappointments is a state of constant, vigilant pre-trauma. I had made it through the first twenty weeks, vomiting a few times a day, subsisting on yogurt and granola and fizzy water, gripped with a panic that I’d lose yet another fetus. I had made it through a tense period as my blood pressure climbed. I had canceled a longed-for trip, planned to give me a last gasp of solo adult normalcy before everything—I hoped—changed. I was feeling blob-like, brittle, and very, very tired.
I’d had my last miscarriage, a missed miscarriage, the previous May, late in the first trimester. A missed miscarriage means you have to have a dilation and curettage—a D&C—to remove the dead fetus. In a D&C, the doctor numbs your cervix, and then dilates it, removing the tissue from the womb. It’s perhaps most often associated with elective abortion, but in my case, this would remove the dead and now decaying tissue from my uterus, giving me a chance, perhaps, of conceiving again.
The clinic had fit me in at the earliest appointment, a week after I found out that the baby’s heart had stopped beating. A week of living with a pregnancy I had wanted, but that was no longer happening, that was no longer hopeful. At some point during that week, I’d donated a huge sum to Planned Parenthood. I knew the procedure I was having wasn’t an abortion—the baby had died—but I also knew that D&Cs, and miscarriages more generally, were in the sightlines of anti-abortion activists. And after that week, I knew that no woman in my position should be forced into an even longer limbo, waiting until the body rejected what it had already rejected; waiting until something else happened; waiting until all that tissue was reabsorbed, quietly, invisibly, into the body from which it had been beginning to separate itself.
As I read Waters’s scene, the seeping blood in Lilian’s menstrual napkins kept me reaching down to my own crotch, making sure, again and again, that any slight dampness was just sweat, just the stuffiness of being propped up in a hulking nest of pillows. My husband’s soft snoring and my own bed-cloth-trapped musk, things that should have been comforting and safe, felt malevolent in the dark. Waters’s prose was almost too detailed not to be an account of a real thing, something that might have happened to me, had I been alive, and a married, expecting lesbian, in the early 20th century—something that might be happening to me now.
For the past two decades, Sarah Waters has been the best-known contemporary novelist of women’s sexual history. Her novels all develop, in some way, from her earlier work as a researcher focused primarily on lesbian and gay historical fiction. Her first, Tipping the Velvet, which Waters conceived of while writing her PhD thesis, details the hidden-in-plain-sight world of what we would now call queer life in Victorian London. An unexpected success when it was published in 1998, it was followed by two more Victorian pastiches, Affinity and Fingersmith, both bodice-ripping lesbian reworkings of 19th-century sensation novels. Waters’s three most recent books, which have been set in the 20th century, are moodier, and more self-consciously literary, combining the suspense plotting of her earlier work with domestic fiction’s absorption in the details of everyday life. To these genre pastiches, Waters adds graphic descriptions of the bodily experiences of people—particularly women—in the past, making the blood, dirt, and pleasure of those lives as explicit as possible.
Published in 2014, The Paying Guests begins with a clear, firm account of lesbian life in the aftermath of World War I. As the novel opens, its heroine, Frances, is living with her widowed mother in her family home in the suburbs of London. The two are in mourning for Frances’s brothers, who were killed in the war, and her financially reckless father, who left nothing for his wife and daughter but a pile of unpaid bills. Their troubles, Waters makes clear, are the troubles of the recently bereaved, but also the troubles of women raised as late-Victorian hothouse flowers, whose men have left them unable to fend for themselves and struggling to make ends meet; without money or male relatives, the two women face the uncomfortable necessity of letting out their spare rooms. Into this shabby, genteel world enter the Barbers, upwardly mobile representatives of a striving lower middle class. Frances, who fell in love with another woman while both were campaigning for suffrage, knows she is a lesbian by the time the novel begins. As a result, it is Lilian’s developing awareness of her desire for Frances that motivates the first half of Waters’s book; and it is Lilian’s decision, midway through the book, to risk a dangerous, illicit abortion that serves as its hinge.
This is not the first viscerally described abortion in Waters’s work: the scene is, in part, a reimagining of one she had previously developed in The Night Watch, a novel set in the years during and after World War II, in which an illicit wartime abortion at a dentist’s surgery almost leads to a woman’s bloody death. As in The Paying Guests, Waters draws attention to the processes, both medical and bodily, that lead up to the end of the pregnancy. Here, too, the scene progresses by the relentless detailing of the procedure’s physical effects, and there are copious amounts of blood: “[W]ith every step it seemed to her that she could feel the soft, hot release of a little more blood. At last she was sure that it was running down her legs, soaking her stockings, filling her shoes.” Waters’s real strength in both scenes is the meticulous historical research she has done to recreate the experiences they describe. From the chemist’s pills and cotton menstrual napkins in The Paying Guests to the dentist’s surgery doubling as a back-alley abortion clinic in The Night Watch, each precisely details the medical resources to which British women of their heroines’ class and time would have had access.
Waters’s abortion scenes serve a pedagogical purpose. They are at once warnings about the threat illicit abortions pose to women’s bodies and reminders of the long history of reading women’s sexual acts and appetites as dangerous or corrosive. Reading her exquisitely worked recreations of bygone women’s intimate lives, it is impossible to forget that there is an overarching perspective, one informed by 20th- and 21st-century lesbian feminism, built into the structure of her books.
Throughout her work, Waters uses thoroughly researched detail to argue for a connection between the world her readers occupy—a world, for now, at least, of both legal abortion and a more open acceptance of queer sexuality—and the worlds she describes, all of which feature stricter limitations on women’s sexual lives and reproductive choices. The vivid depictions of bodily life, drawn from period-specific life writing and fiction, entice readers who are looking for those connections, and curious about the things past lives might have in common with their own. For English professors, in particular, Waters feels like one of us. Her novels inspire a kind of palpitating adoration from literary scholars, especially literary scholars who work on sexuality, for the way they seem to uncover the sexual lives overlooked by the respectable writing of the period.
But, it seems to me, Waters’s historical fiction relies on the painful fungibility of the women’s stories she tells: even though her plots are distinct and unusual, they encourage us to think of the experiences they describe as what any lesbian who recognized her desire, and who was in a position to act on that desire, might have encountered in 1870 or 1890, or what any woman having an abortion might have experienced in 1922 or 1945. And while Waters is sensitive to the ways historical contingency shapes sexual expression, this attention to contingency is subordinated to a greater, more powerful story arc about the enduring features of women’s lives through the ages.
To return to my moment of late-night communion with Lilian’s abortion. The novel was doing what it was supposed to do: it was making me, a straight, married, pregnant woman in 2016, think about how my life was like the secretive lesbian lives of women in 1922. But in Waters’s novels, the sense of direct connection between her characters and the present-day readers she wants to attract has the unintended effect of obscuring the profound gulf between the past and the present. As contemporary readers, we know that abortions are medically and emotionally necessary; we know that the misery Frances and Lilian endure to keep their romance secret is wrong; we know that Leonard’s attitude to Lilian is cruel and brutal. And Waters’s protagonists often seem to know this, too. Frances and Lilian know almost too well how to deal with the unwanted pregnancy, and they navigate the procurement and use of the pills with ease. (The critic Amanda Anderson has written about this feature of historically minded research, which she calls “aggrandized agency.”) Like Waters’s other characters, Frances and Lilian feel prescient—they’re more like her readers, with views and ideas we recognize as modern and progressive, than creatures of their own time.
When we read novels that are full of well-researched descriptions of past lives, we enter into bargains with their writers. By insisting that every detail is true to life, these works insist on their capacity to tell us something real, something about the world as it was, and perhaps about the world as it still is. Historical fiction, more, perhaps, than most realist novels, insists on its reality by assuring its readers of the potency of the sensory experiences it describes, creating a sense of immediacy that dissolves the difference between the past and the present. There is a powerful benefit to books like this, as anyone who loves biography or history knows. It is comforting to be given information, to be told how things really were. It is comforting to feel like we are learning something that might help us live our lives in ways that are more ethical, more engaged, and more thoughtful than we might have otherwise done. It gives us a sense of satisfaction that we might know better, or act better, because of our reading, because we understand history.
But investing too heavily in history can make us skeptical of abstraction, of metaphor, of poetry. Take, for example, the scene from Middlemarch where the reticule chain on Rosamond Vincy’s dress becomes a metaphorical chain that binds her to Lydgate: a detail, one of the novel’s “real” objects, suddenly becomes a sign of its narrative arc, a rhetorical feint pulling parts of the story together into a whole. Devices like these lay bare the bones of the fictional form, showing us that the novel is just as artificial, just as constructed, as a play, or a poem. Reading this scene as historians, we might see this chain not as a sign of Eliot’s verve, her artful power, but as a kind of unforced error—a sloppy, aestheticizing mistake that draws attention to Eliot’s manipulation of her readers, a brief tell that exposes, once and for all, that none of this really happened.
Waters’s novels, in contrast, rarely employ this type of device, and when they do attempt to transform incidental details into signs of the story’s larger narrative arc, these attempts are often clumsy. Rather than metaphor, they generally proceed through the straightforward, unrelenting accumulation of historically accurate details: how a British woman in the 1870s might have dressed or done her hair; how a woman in the 1920s might have responded to an unplanned pregnancy. This overreliance on historical fact dismantles the fictional frame upon which the story’s unraveling narrative might otherwise hang, and changes the motive behind the novel from telling a story to describing history—and a specific kind of history, one that underscores the inexorable march of progress.
The abortion scenes in Waters’s novels, so well-researched and presented, don’t only draw our attention to the intimate details period novels kept hidden, they flatter our sensibilities by suggesting that the main difference between the present and the past lies in our superior knowledge. The way her books “correct” the period genres they rework implies that if only more people in the past had known about the horrors of their own time—if they had been able to look at their own lives from the privileged vantage point of 21st-century readers—these horrors might have been eradicated.
This way of looking at the past tricks us into thinking the problem of human life is simpler than it is. It makes grotesque pain seem like the product not of individual or general cruelty, or the difficulty of being housed in a body, but of too little social awareness, of not enough light shone on secret lives. It absolves us of the responsibility to question our own historical perspective. And it insulates us from the dangers of the present, making us feel that our own time is safer, more forward-thinking than it really is. The belief in history’s unswerving progress tells us, comfortably, that we could never find ourselves in Lilian or Frances’s situation. But we could. Many women in the US—women of color, women of limited means, women in Indiana and Texas and in many blue states, as well—find themselves in similar situations today. It is not difficult to imagine a near future where no woman in America is guaranteed access to safe and legal abortion or reproductive healthcare.
Back to my gloomy pregnancy ruminations: Do you want to know about my round ligament pain? Or my endless googling of “maternity belt?” Or the biting tang of panic that gripped me every time my doctor slipped the blood pressure cuff on my arm? Or the time I cried dumb, fat tears in the clinic’s bathroom about a missed appointment, my husband’s work trips, all my lost babies, and the endless worries of all mothers, always, everywhere? No. Of course not. The details are all somewhat interchangeable; the plot is what you want. You want to know that I managed to come through it, and thrive, and that everything turned out OK. That despite all the strife and worry, goodness and happiness prevailed: that a woman’s life wasn’t undone by pregnancy, pregnancy’s failures, childbirth, and child rearing. That women can be powerful actors, despite their bodily lives. But, unlike Waters—who always marshals detail to do the heavy work of plot, and whose plots always hum along to a polemical, if muted, conclusion, one that confirms the sense of progress we have when reading these stories of past lives—I can’t tell you that. I’m not sure that’s what happens.