References in literary texts and texts about (mainly) literary women, to women procuring abortion. Many thanks to correspondents on the Histsex, Modernism and Victoria e-lists, Lisa Diguardi, Beth Sutton-Ramspeck, Gita Panjabi, Angela Bryant, Carol Dyhouse, Chris Willis, Angelique Richardson, Emma Jones, Marna Nightingale, Susan Hall, Lawrence Rainey, Farah Mendlesohn, Tanya Evans, Jennifer Gustar, Fran Bigman, Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, Keith Hindell, Barbare Green and the participants in the discussion on abortion and abortifacients on Victoria in October 2014, and one or two nameless correspondents for suggestions. Please e-mail me with any additional contributions.
Useful reading on the legal, medical, social and political background: for the UK, Barbara Brookes, Abortion in England, 1900-1967 (London: Croom Helm, 1988), and now available in paperback, Keith Hindell and Madeleine Simms, Abortion Law Reformed (1971); for the US, Leslie J Reagan, When Abortion was a Crime: Women, medicine, and law in the United States,
1867-1973 (Berkeley, Ca., University of California Press, 1997).
For contemporary historical background to the British 1967 Abortion Law Reform Act (the David Steel Act), the transcript of the July 2001 Witness Seminar is available for free as a downloadable pdf from the Centre for Contemporary British History website at King's College London
And on the path-breaking legal decision in the USA: see here for the judgement in Roe v. Wade, 1973
I produced a memorandum (PDF 58K) of evidence on the history of abortion in the UK for History and Policy submitted to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology enquiry into Scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967 (September 2007). Their report (downloadable pdf).
And a site on the History of the Pregnancy Test
Recently drawn to my attention: the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database entries for Abortion - entries seem predominantly but not exclusively US, and mostly fairly recent, and include fiction, non-fiction and academic studies. Thanks to Fran Bigman for the pointer.
Still a very useful snapshot of the situation in England and Wales just before the 1967 Act, Paul Ferris, The Nameless: Abortion in Britain Today (1966). Particularly good on the 'Harley Street' system.
Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria, or The Wrongs of Women includes the character Jemima's procuring an abortion
Doreen Thierauf in an article in Victorian Studies (56.3), 2014, suggests a reading of Rosamund Lydgate's miscarriage in George Eliot's Middlemarch (1874) as the result of a deliberate decision to go riding when she knew that she was pregnant and this was widely known to be contraindicated behaviour.
In the pornographic novel The Amatory Experiences of a Surgeon (1881, anonymous, attributed to James Campbell Reddie), the protagonist performs an abortion on his lover.
'My life has been a hell, mother': Victimisation and Abortion in George Egerton’s Virgin Soil' and 'The Regeneration of Two', by Emma Burris-Janssen,in The Latchkey, Journal of New Woman Studies, Vol. VIII (Winter 2016/17)
In Menie Muriel Dowie's Gallia (1895) there is a brief and easy-to-miss episode in which a young woman nearly dies from the complications of an abortion, apparently induced by furious dancing, "Bein' no stairs to come up and down", according to the charwoman who discovers Cara Lemuel in a collapsed and delirious state.
Thomas Hardy's poem A Sunday Morning Tragedy involves a herbal abortifacient and botched abortion.
Elizabeth Robins Votes for Women (1907) published in novel form as The Convert, turns partly on the history of an abortion, used to blackmail a politician into support for the suffrage
Harley Granville-Barker's play Waste (1907) centres on the ruin of a politician's career following the death from abortion of a married woman he had a brief fling with. It was denied licensing for public performance by the theatrical censor and never actually produced except in a club performance by the Stage Society until 1936.
'Richard Dehan' (Clothide Graves), The Dop Doctor (1911), set in South Africa during the Boer War, includes abortion among its melodramatic themes.
Amelia Edith Barr, The Measure of a Man (1916) - have been informed that Barr was an American, rather than British, novelist. However, this novel has a British setting, c. the 1860s. In context of the protagonist's wife not wishing to have any more children, there is the report of the funeral of a local woman, married, with a baby, and working in the factory, who became ill at work and sent home with the doctor called. Her husband, summoned from work, cries out 'So you've been at your old tricks once more, Susanna! This is the third time'.
In Volume 1 of her autobiography, Journey to the North (1969), the novelist Storm Jameson mentions 'a miscarriage I brought on myself, by inconceivable means' which she refused to detail. Elizabeth Maslen in Life in the Writings of Storm Jameson: A Biography (2014) places this in 1916, when Jameson already had a very young infant and was in a deeply unhappy marriage.
Annie Vivanti Chartres, Vae Victis (link to Italian version at Project Gutenberg (1918) (published in USA as The Outrage) - set in Belgium at the outbreak of the First World War, one of two characters raped and impregnated by the invading Germans chooses to have an abortion and prevails upon a British doctor to operate.
ASM Hutchinson, This Freedom (1922): misogynistic and anti-feminist novel in which mother more interested in career than children, is punished by, among other things, the death of her daughter (who I guess is also being punished for taking too much advantage of WWI freedoms for women) from illicit abortion
TS Eliot, 'The Waste Land' (1922): the pills Lil took to bring it off.
According to a review of John Campbell's If Love Were All: The Story of Frances Stevenson and David Lloyd George (2006), during the course of their long association Stevenson had 3 abortions.
According to Rene Weis's non-fictional study of the famous Thompson/Bywaters murder case of 1922, Criminal Justice, the fact that Edith Thompson had tried to self-administer an abortifacient was considered too dreadful to be mentioned in evidence during her trial for the murder of her husband in collusion with her lover, Frederick Bywaters. Her husband ate the porridge she had put it in and complained of the taste: without the explanation this underlined the prosecution's case that she had already attempted to poison him before Bywaters stabbed him. There have been several fictional studies of the case: in F Tennyson Jesse's A Pin to see the Peepshow (1934) the Edith-character Julia undergoes a backstreet abortion from a woman living over a newsagent's shop. Weis suggests that Edith Thompson was pregnant early in 1922 and either had a miscarriage or an abortion.
Michael Arlen, The Green Hat (1924): at one point Iris is in a Paris nursing home with 'septic poisoning', the implication being that this is the outcome of an abortion gone wrong.
In Naomi Mitchison's historical novel Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925), set in classical Athens, one of the characters, Moiro, dies after trying to induce the abortion of the child of an adulterous liaison (see below for Mitchison's deployment of abortion in a contemporary setting).
According to Jane Dunn's biography of her, early in 1924 Antonia White became pregnant as a result of her first act of intercourse (her first marriage had only recently been annulled), when a house-guest at her parents' house crept into her room one night. Surprisingly, she persuaded her devoutly Catholic father to lend her the money to obtain an abortion (though she had just returned home after her famous period in Bethlem - 'Bedlam' - mental hospital, which might have influenced his attitude towards the situation). She got advice from a worldly painter friend, who put her in touch with someone who could give her the name of an abortionist, who gave her 'injections' which cost ten shillings each. In great pain and danger of blood poisoning she was admitted to a nursing home. While she did not at the time appear to find this traumatic, and continued to practice her religion, it is noteworthy that her sequence of strongly autobiographical novels (always written against recurrences of writer's block) stalled when it reached this point in her life.
Marie Stopes, 'The Vortex Dammed' (ms. held in Brit Lib)
Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train (1926). Denham, unwillingly pregnant and loathing it, disobeys medical orders and continues her normal strenuous activities, leading to a miscarriage.
In her memoirs, Time Will Tell (2003), the writer Yvonne Kapp recounts how during the 1920s she became pregnant less than two years after having her first child. Her husband, the artist Edmond 'Peter' Kapp 'declared quite firmly that we "couldn't afford" another baby.' She 'went for an abortion to a doctor friend of ours' but although she 'liked and trusted him' and the abortion per se was successful, 'things went horribly wrong and septicaemia set in' (though she did survive this).
The artist (Dora) Carrington, member of the Bloomsbury Group and life companion of Lytton Strachey, got pregnant by Bernard 'Beakus' Penrose in 1928, aged 35, and chose to have an abortion, as he wanted a commitment from her that would have meant leaving her life with Strachey.
In Mary Borden's novel A Woman With White Eyes (1930), the narrator contemplates, but does not undergo, abortion when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock around the early 1900s. 'Wigmore St' rather than the adjacent Harley Street is mentioned as the locale where medical abortion is likely to be procurable. Later, after the Great War, she assists her best friend in obtaining the services of a 'sage-femme' in Paris, with lethal results.
According to Timothy D'Arch Smith's The Frankaus: Prejudice & Principles Within a London Literary Family (2015), in 1930 the novelist Pamela Frankau went to Berlin for an abortion arranged by her father, the novelist Gilbert Frankau. There is a very elliptical reference to the incident in her Pen to Paper (1961): that this is what she is implied by 'the dark adventure' is indicated in D'Arch Smith's footnote to be substantiated by a letter from Frankau's husband to her cousin and intending biographer.
Jean Rhys's Voyage in the Dark (1934) ends with a pretty disastrous abortion (predictably so for a Rhys heroine).At first Anna takes 'the Abbe Sebastian's Pills, primrose label, one guinea a box, daffodil label, two guineas, orange label, three guineas' imagining that as a result 'if I had it, it would be a monster.... No eyes, perhaps...' A friend knows of somebody: 'But whether she'll do it for you is another question. It's a thing that can happen to anybody, but you really ought to have done something about it before. I could have told you that all that business of taking pills is no good.' The amount is initially said to be 'about fifty', and then 'forty pounds. She says she must have it in gold'. Anna manages to get the money from a man (not the father). The operation is done by a Mrs Robinson', 'French-Swiss', in the bedroom of her flat, who then sends Anna away to wait for the outcome. This is clearly fairly horrendous and eventually a doctor is called, and told she 'had a fall', something about which he sounds extremely cynical.
Simon Blumenfeld's 1935 working-class novel Jew Boy includes a chapter in which Ettie, an older married woman, who 'had had some experience of these things', helps Olive to access an abortion. Olive has tried hot baths, strenuous exercise and Epsom salts without any effect. Ettie, knowing how dangerous the operation is and how painful, tries to dissuade Olive without success, but 'living as she did, she didn't dare have a baby' and insists on going ahead. The woman abortionist lives in a big house, and takes the money first. Ettie stays with Olive during the operation. Afterwards, Olive stays in bed for three days and rejects suggestions that she should see a doctor; on the fourth day she feels a little better, gets up and goes back to work.
Geoffrey Trease, 'The Lovers', short story in collection The Unsleeping Sword (1934): Mary and Jim are planning to marry, until Jim loses his job. Mary becomes pregnant after they make love during an outing but though a good girl, refuses to be forced to marry on the dole, and gets an illegal abortion which goes wrong (but she survives). A doctor 'damn[s] the system which let the quacks smash first, forbade the hospitals to do more than patch the wreckage.' The blame is largely laid on the capitalist system. His novel Only Natural (1940) also contains allusions to 'the illegal operation'.
Vera Brittain's Honourable Estate (1936), includes an attempt in the earlier generation by Janet, unhappy suffragette wife of a clergyman, to terminate a suspected pregnancy: she writes to her friend. 'I have had reason to believe that I am again confronted with the prospect of motherhood I am terribly upset about it. Fro several days I resisted the temptation to take medicines to stop it but at last I gave in, and for the past two days have been doing everything I could think of to prevent it going further. I have done this deliberately, knowing it to be a sin', This appears to succeed, as she has a miscarriage, but it is implied that afterwards she finds some means of contraception to prevent further offspring.
Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets (1936): Olivia aborts pregnancy by her married lover. Her raffish cousin Etty knows the address of a suitable doctor (‘He’s a what d’you call it--manipulator or something.... He’s got a more or less respectable practice. This is a side-line’), and reveals that she too had once had need of such information and that another friend who had also used him had referred her to him. This episode was based on Lehmann's real-life experience, as described by Selina Hastings in her biography, Rosamond Lehmann (2001). Her first husband had a passionate distaste for fatherhood, and when she became pregnant, her socialite cousin knew the man to go to for an abortion. This was a Mr Osborne, a successful physiotherapist in the West End, who ran a 'flourishing practice on the side for fashionable ladies.' The cost was (as in the novel) £100. For this the service was somewhat basic - after the 'little intervention' in his consulting room, Lehmann was sent home to await the miscarriage.
In the Nigel Strangeways mystery by Nicholas Blake, There's Trouble Brewing (1937), Dr Cammison reveals that he performed an abortion upon his sister-in-law, pregnant by her lover: 'I don't approve of abortion, as a general rule.But I happened to discover that there was insanity in Kate's young man's family, so of course I did it for her'. The loathsome owner of the local brewery was holding the knowledge of this over him to avoid being accused of major health and safety violations on his premises.
According to Mary S. Lovell in The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family (2001), at least two of them (Diana and Jessica) had abortions, and their maternal grandmother, Jessica Bowles (nee Gibson) apparently died from an abortion undertaken by her doctor because he thought that her four-month pregnancy with her fifth child would prove fatal. Diana had an abortion in 1935 when she was living with, but not yet married to, Sir Oswald Mosley, to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy and scandal which might harm Mosley's political career. This was very likely with all the benefits of a Harley St nursing home. Jessica ('Decca') had a termination in very different circumstances in 1938, while she was living in the East End with her first husband, the Communist Esmond Romilly. Not expecting her family (from whom she was anyway estranged as a result of her runaway marriage) would be likely to have 'useful ideas', she went to a Bohemian woman acquaintance, who gave her an address 'deep in the East End slums' where for £5 'an ordinary middle-aged Englishwoman' injected soap into her uterus, which was horribly painful, and warned her not to call a doctor. Decca did call a doctor and did survive (and had further children). Lovell finds her decision to terminate the pregnancy (shortly after the loss of their much-loved first child from measles) curious: but in 1938 the Romillys were surely anticipating imminent war and its potential dangers for committed left-wing activists such as themselves, and the additional threat that pregnancy and an infant child might add, or at the very least felt that it was 'no world to bring a child into', a not uncommon view of the time. In Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love (1947) we learn that it is not happenstance that Fanny is the only offspring of her mother The Bolter: when Fanny and her cousins are discussing the idea of 'back to the womb' in the Hons' Cupboard, she says:
'... I imagine the one I was in wasn't very comfortable at the time you know, and nobody else has ever been allowed to stay there.'
'Abortions?' said Linda with interest.
'Well, tremendous jumpings and hot baths anyway.'
'How do you know?'
'I once heard Aunt Emily and Aunt Sadie talking about it when I was very little, and afterwards I remembered. Aunt Sadie said: "How does she manage it?" and Aunt Emily said: "Skiing, or hunting, or just jumping off the kitchen table."'
Barbara Hedworth, How Strong is your Love (1938 - published by Mills and Boon!). The heroine's father, the village doctor, 'helps out' a young girl in trouble, but the girl dies of a blood clot, and the doctor shoots himself. This made the banned list of the Irish Government (according to Joseph McAleer, Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon, 2000)
The plot of Ruth Adam's I'm Not Complaining (1938) kicks off with the narrator, Madge, a teacher in an elementary school, being told by a hostile parent that her colleague Jenny has been seen at 'a certain little chemist's shop' in the local slums where one can 'buy forbidden goods' (abortifacients), a well-known practice in the area - the narrator, who is aware that it is a crime for which she mentions the sentence of 7 years, also knows that the local hospital usually just administers a stern warning and does not inform the police, given the high level of poverty and unemployment in the community. Jenny admits that she went there. Madge asks to see the bottle, and pours the contents away, having heard from a nurse friend at the hospital about a women who died unpleasantly after taking the same thing. She exhorts Jenny to tell her married lover, one half of a self-consciously progressive couple, who turn out to have 'a medical friend who will put it all right' and even arrange for Jenny to recuperate at their home.
In the 'Sally Bowles' section of Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin (1939), first published separately in 1937, Sally has a dubiously licit abortion: this was based on the actual experience of Jean Ross in Berlin in 1931, when according to Peter Parker in Isherwood (2004) she had an illegal and unskilled abortion after which she nearly died. But as both the real and the fictional operations took place in Weimar Germany, perhaps do not say much about abortion in the UK at the time.
Letters from the bohemian novelist Ethel Mannin to her friend and former lover Douglas Goldring c. 1930 (among the Goldring papers in the University of Victorian British Columbia) talk of being 'legally curetted' with two doctors' certificates (providing she can get them - she mentions the names of various doctors who might be persuaded to help) but also implies that she could get it done in Prague with less trouble, apart from the inconvenience of going there. She also tells him that his wife, who may be pregnant. could be 'curetted, legitimately'.
In Mary Renault's first, contemporary, novel, Purposes of Love (Promise of Love in the US) (1939) the central character is a nurse and has access to the steroid stilboestrol (it is possible that the substance in question was actually ergot) when she finds herself pregnant. In her second novel, Kind Are Her Answers (1940), the doctor protagonist says to the young woman with whom he is having an extra-marital affair 'if anything does go wrong, you're not to mess about with these patent poisons, or go to some crook or other. Promise that. You'll come straight to me.... There are lots of perfectly safe things if you don't leave it too late.'
In Nicola Beauman's The Other Elizabeth Taylor, biography of the novelist of that name, we learn that while appearing to be a respectable middleclass wife of a provincial sweet-manufacturer, during the 1930s she was a member of the local Communist Party and had an affair with a younger comrade. She had a pregnancy scare for which she took a boiling hot bath and 5-6 grains of quinine; it is not clear from the text if this turned out to be the spring 1939 pregnancy about which she wrote to her lover 'I shall go up to London & fix things next week', leading to an abortion in a London maternity home (this raises unanswered questions about how she found the details of a sympathetic doctor and was able to afford an upscale operation while presumably keeping this all a secret from her husband).
According to Peter Conradi, Iris Murdoch: A Life (2001) during World War II Murdoch helped an 'impoverished, distressed civil service friend' to obtain a termination, it is claimed out of a 'regard for the freedom of women'. Abortions also feature in a couple of Murdoch's novels but in a somewhat negative way. In A Severed Head (1961), the narrator Martin Lynch-Gibbon's clandestine lover Georgie had become pregnant some while before the beginning of the story: 'there was nothing to be done but get rid of the child', but it is described as a 'hideous business', a 'catastrophe', a 'nightmare' that Georgie negotiated with considerable grace; however they find it exceedingly difficult to discuss, at the time and subsequently. Martin describes the episode as 'uncannily painless' and has a 'sense of not having suffered enough'. In The Book and the Brotherhood (1987) Violet alleges that her daughter Tamar was only born because she could not afford an abortion in the days when it was 'illegal, secret and expensive'. In the context of an elaborate web of relationships involving the older characters in the novel, the young girl Tamar becomes pregnant from a single encounter which she wishes to keep entirely secret, so wants to have an 'entirely private abortion', and is given a recommendation by one of the older women in her circle. She then, however, suffers extreme guilt and a sense of being haunted by the 'murdered child', and undergoes a religious conversion under the influence of the priest Father McAlister, who performs a ritual with her for the dead child which he thinks of as an exorcism.
In prototypical 'bodice-ripper', Kathleen Windsor's Forever Amber (1944), set in Restoration London, protagonist terminates several pregnancies by drinking noxious potions and being driven in a carriage over cobblestones.
The Mass Observation diary of Olivia Cockett (edited by Robert Malcolmson), Love and War in London, A Woman's Diary, 1939-1942 (Wilfrid Laurier Press, Waterloo, Canada, 2005): had an affair with a married, older man she met at work and had two abortions ('forced draughts') although she was desperate for children, while waiting for him to get a divorce (which he never did). Used contacts with doctors through work to obtain advice on contraception and abortion, also wrote letters to her aborted foetuses.
Barbara Comyns, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950): 'I had to tell Charles I was awfully sorry but there seemed to be another baby coming. He was simply horrified and said he just couldn't bear the idea of any more babies and I must do something to get rid of it'. They try a range of folk remedies, including drinking port and quinine, but eventually they hear of a doctor who will do the operation for £25 -'it did not work at all as it should. I couldn't go to hospital, as we would all have gone to prison if I did.' She feels disgusted and cheated and wishes she had not gone along with her husband's wishes.
Monica Dickens' My Turn to Make the Tea (1951), based on her experiences as a cub reporter on a provincial newspaper, includes a gruesome scene at the boarding house where she is living, when one character, a married women, aborts what is subtextually indicated to be an extramarital pregnancy. Dickens's One Pair of Feet (1943), based on her experiences as a nurse, includes mention of the women brought into the gynae ward following backstreet abortions gone wrong, and indicates that this made her reconsider her position on legalisation.
In Josephine Elder's The Encircled Heart (1951), the central character, Marion, a doctor, during the Second World War is besought by her friend Philippa, a pathologist who has become pregnant by her fiance who has just been killed, to provide her with an abortion. Marion refuses, but Philippa obtains one anyway: however the result is sepsis and haemorrhage, and in spite of sulphonamides and blood transfusion Philippa dies.
In Antony Powell's A Buyer's Market (1952), Vol 2 of A Dance to the Music of Time (set in the interwar years), Widmerpool reveals to Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator, that he 'was induced to do an almost insanely indiscreet thing about the girl you introduced me to', the bohemian Gypsy Jones. '"A doctor was found".... He spoke in a voice hollow with desperation.... "I believe everything is all right now," he said. "But it cost a lot of money. More than I could afford. You know, I've never even committed a technical offence before".'
Elizabeth Jane Howard, in Slipstream: A Memoir (2002), mentions, but without much detail, two abortions she had around the early 1950s. In the case of the first, her then lover took her to a doctor 'and in no time I was on a table, unconscious, then conscious again. "Please get on with it." "It's done."' Needing another abortion when she became pregnant by Arthur Koestler, 'I thought again about the last time: he had been a Polish doctor and had done me no harm. I'd go to him.' For some reason, not entirely clear from the text, she had to wait until she'd reached three months. However, then 'Everything went smoothly at the nursing home, where officially I had a D and C - a respectable euphemism for abortion.' One of the characters in Howard's Casting Off: Cazalet Chronicles Book 4 (1995: set in 1946/7) become pregnant by her married lover and has an abortion: 'lying on the high hard table while a small, obscenely merry little man assaulted her deftly in his rubber gloves'.
Backstreet abortion in the 1950s: oral history interview with Agnes in the feminist magazine Spare Rib, no 50, September 1976, about her own experiences and those in her community around 1951 - published in the anthology Spare Rib Reader (1982), but the relevant issue of Spare Rib is included in the British Library Spare Rib Online Project.
In A S Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden (1978, set in 1952-3). In the course of the production of the play that is central to the plot, Anthea, a schoolgirl, is made pregnant by Thomas Poole, a married lecturer at the local teacher training college. Marina Yeo, a professional actress taking part in the play 'said that her career in the past had depended on knowing reliable doctors with reliable nursing homes, and that she considered it a public duty to pass these names on'. Thomas anticipates some difficulty in finding the money on his salary: 'Marina Yeo moved in the best circles, gynaecological as well as in other ways'. Anthea has 'to convince Mummy and Daddy I've got a good reason for going to London for a week or two' and expects Marina to help with this.
Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958): the hero's married lover's gin, hot baths and old woman episode
Susan Miles, Lettice Delmer (1958), novel in verse set in the period 1912-1920s: Lettice becomes pregnant by a friend of her brother and has an abortion arranged with brother's help
Penelope Mortimer, Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1958): respectable middle-class woman discovers her daughter at Oxford has become pregnant. 'There's a old woman in Cowley charges fifty pounds and that's just with a catheter or something'; the man involved also says 'I've got a friend [?medical student - the one who confirmed the pregnancy perhaps] who says he'll give her an injection'. The sum of £100 is mentioned (this seems to have remained the standard sum for a medical abortion for several decades). The mother, through friends, obtains the name of a doctor in London ('Fickstein.... perfectly sweet and does the whole thing almost legally, it's all very smart and will cost the earth') who appears to be based in Maida Vale. Interviewing the daughter, the first thing Dr Fickstein says is 'Abortion... is illegal'. He is emphatic that nothing can be done until he has a psychiatric report advising termination. He is presented as an immigrant doctor from Vienna; 'Every time he helped one of these unhappy girls he risked his career. In the private nursing homes he was treated with contempt, even with insolence. His patients were given the worst rooms, neglected by the nurses, despised by the Matrons'. The abortion is done in a nursing home where the 'labour ward becomes the operating theatre' at night. In Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater (1962): the narrator, a multi-married, many-childed woman is persuaded by husband to abort her latest pregnancy and undergo sterilisation. While in hospital recovering she discovers he is having an affair. This apparently reflected similar occurences in Mortimer's own contemporaneous marriage to John Mortimer the playwright.
Bill Naughton, Alfie (play 1963, novel 1966) (again, hero's married lover)
Nell Dunn, Up the Junction (1963). Tony Garnett, who produced a BBC Wednesday Play based on the book in 1965, had a tragic personal story - his mother had died from a backstreet abortion - that influenced his depiction of the abortion scene.
In Doris Lessing's short story, 'Between Men' published in A Man and Two Women (1963), Peggy admits to 'several abortions' and Maureen confesses in return, 'I've had five abortions and one of them was by one of those old women'.
Sean Hignett, A Picture to Hang on the Wall (1966): set in contemporary Liverpool; a young man arranges an abortion for his pregnant girlfriend.
Judith Grossman, Her Own Terms (1988): another abortion at Oxford during the late 1950s story, but this time it's a working class girl from London. The narrative takes the form of an extended flashbacks over her life to date, framed by her journey to London from Oxford, and concludes with the actual miscarriage in her college room after her return, and her feeling of 'glad to have got away'. First she tries the traditional remedies of gin, hot bath and quinine, without effect. The nurse girlfriend of a male acquaintance provides 2 tablets of ergot, but nothing happens apart from a few slow mild contractions. She is given an address by 'the radical ex-wife of the Regius Professor of Philosophy', who knows abortionists 'for all pockets, from the five-pound address of a pub to the sixty-pound doctor with the Russian name'. The one she is able to afford (with help from friends) comes to thirty pounds, and is performed by a 'Nurse' - who turns up in uniform, leading to the conclusion that she really is one - at the house of a bohemian woman painter in Kensington. While they are waiting for the nurse to arrive an older friend of the artist mentions that her own 'latest count is seventeen', and recalls a woman practising during the war who 'used to do it by massage - she could draw it out of you'. This time the nurse performs it (soap and catheter method) in the bathroom, hands her sanitary towel, and trots off, telling the protagonist that she can expect the pains to start in 8 to 12 hours.
Andrea Newman, A Share of the World (1964): novel of life among students at unnamed college of London University, probably Bedford College when it was still in Regent's Park. In spite of much passing on of information about contraception and doctors who will supply it, one character becomes pregnant and has an abortion. In her 1966 novel The Cage the narrator's best friend mentions having been given abortifacient pills by her boyfriend but tells the narrator that they have to be taken as soon as a period is missed, which is too late for her. Abortion plays a significant role in the plot of her A Sense of Guilt (1989). It also features in her Another Bouquet (1978) and An Evil Streak (1977). There is probably a thesis to be written on unwanted pregnancy and abortion in the fiction of Andrea Newman. Maybe there already is?
Account by Ian Jack (2011) of him and his girlfriend seeking and achieving abortion as students, just prior to the 1967 Act.
In Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede (1969) the nun Dame Philippa's former secretarial assistant Penny is persuaded by her ambitious husband (against Philippa's endeavours to convince Penny to go ahead with the pregnancy) to have an abortion for financial reasons, although she wants the child - it is presumably pre-1967 Act as a former girlfriend of his is said to have provided the necessary contacts. Penny becomes desperately ill afterwards: the nuns pray for her. She recovers (and eventually has a child).
In Paul Scott's The Towers of Silence (1971), set in India during World War II, Sarah Layton becomes pregnant following a one-night stand with an officer at a party; subsequently her mother discovers this and orders her sister-in-law to make arrangements to "get rid of it" by "booking her into an expensive clinic in Calcutta for a D&C". The abortion is successful and Sarah has children subsequently (according to the related novel Staying On (1977)
Richard Gordon's The Medical Witness (1971, but set in 1936) features Dr Rumbelow, an arrogant forensic pathologist (possibly modeled on Sir Bernard Spilsbury - does a lot of grandstanding featuring in court as a Crown witness). His wife remarks to him that 'It's simple compassion. A lot of things which happen outside the law deserve that, not punishment.... look at some poor miserable unmarried girl, procuring herself an abortion. She's a criminal, because she doesn't want to give the world an unwanted life. But the law doesn't think twice about taking one.' Rumbelow however has strong views on abortionists, both old women with knitting-needles and those who are members of his own profession. He is a prosecution witness in the case against the suave gynaecologist, Dr Elgin, for causing a young woman's death through abortion. It comes out in the course of the case that the young woman in question had already feared pregnancy during an earlier relationship and 'took some drugs. Something a friend gave her'. Elgin is acquitted, and defends his position to Rumbelow as 'the social service I perform'. Later, when Rumbelow's lover becomes pregnant while he is still waiting for his wife to give him a divorce, he goes to Elgin who refuses to help them. Instead, Maria goes to Switzerland, but returns already suffering from post-operative septicaemia, from which she dies. While Gordon himself was born in 1921 and thus would not have been studying or practising medicine in the 1930s, presumably he heard stories from somewhat older doctors.
A couple of late Agatha Christies, Elephants Can Remember (1972) and Postern of Fate (1973) feature 'illegal operations' in the backstory to the immediate mystery.
In Stella Gibbons, The Yellow Houses (published posthumously, 2016, written, from internal evidence, around the 1970s) the morally vacuous waif Sylvie tells Mary on their first encounter that 'I been done' - 'I started something and I had it took away' - 'I didn't want no kid. It wasn't my day, that was all. Might have happened to anyone' at just 16, pregnant by a boy of no more that 17. The implication is post-1967, legal, NHS.
Graham Swift, Waterland (1983): features a horrific abortion by the local ‘witch’ which leaves the young girl infertile
Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love (1995) - but set in the 1970s. Another pregnancy among university students: although set after legalisation, the pregnant girl is lent the money by a better-off friend to have a private termination. 'The operation cost one hundred guineas.... It is a depressing fact about the women of my generation: name them a year, ask them the fee for an abortion,and they'll be able to tell you.... And if they don't know, it's because they repress and refuse the memory: you may be sure that they knew at the time.'
Deborah Moggach, You Must Be Sisters (1978): Laura, the sister at university, becomes pregnant in spite of having herself fitted with a Dutch cap: however, a quick visit to a clinic terminates the inconvenient pregnancy with little regret.
Julia Hamilton, A Pillar of Society (1995) - abortions achieved and contemplated in the back-stories of Marjorie and her daughter Chloe. Chloe (implicitly after legalisation) has an abortion at Rupert's urging when she accidentally becomes pregnant while he is still married to his first wife - Rupert invokes the expression 'right to choose' in conversation with Lucy, who is a Catholic and shocked. Marjorie became pregnant by her Dutch officer lover Hubert during the War, while her husband was a prisoner of war: her friend Babs gives her an address and admits that she had 'used him'. He practises from a 'large, gabled, suburban house in East Sheen' with a dentist's brass plate by the front door, but Marjorie decides not to go through with it. Abortion is also discussed between Rupert and Lucy when she becomes pregnant during their affair, but she refuses to have one, on religious grounds and also, it is indicated, from her desire to have a child while she can.
In Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole: The Cappucino Years (1999), the ever-hapless Adrian, supporting his sister by driving her to the clinic, inadvertently outs her to the family by enabling their mother to trace his phonecall asking for directions.
Michel Faber's neo-Victorian The Crimson Petal and the White (2003) includes the prostitute Sugar's endeavours to terminate a pregnancy.
Sarah Waters The Night Watch (2006), set during and just after the Second World War, includes an episode of one of the characters undergoing an illegal abortion.
Neil Bartlett's 2007 novel Skin Lane is set in 1967 at a manufacturing furriers. The 16-year-old nephew of the owner, who is working as an apprentice there, impregnates 17-year-old Christine, one of the machinists who sew the linings for the fur garments. She is seventeen. The nephew asks the main character (the fur cutter who has been teaching him) to fix this. The main character asks the head of the machinists to take care of it. She collects £35 from him in cash and takes Christine away at lunchtime a few days later. We're not told what happens, but later find out that Christine marries someone else and has two children.
The recent, 2016, biography of the novelist Beryl Bainbridge, reviewed here, mentions the 'most fascinating revelation.... a young woman, Anne Lindholm, who got pregnant by Austin Davies [Bainbridge's philandering husband' and had an abortion (a trauma for the Catholic she was [another review implies that the trauma and subsequent enduring guilt and misery led to her conversion to Catholicism]. Extraordinarily, she later resurfaces in Bainbridge’s life as Anna Haycraft, Duckworth’s fiction editor'.
At the beginning of Polly Williams The Rise and Fall of a Yummy Mummy (2006), Amy, the pregnant protagonist, mentions an abortion within a previous relationship and alludes to all her friends having had them.
Sarah Moss, Night Waking (2012): immediately after taking a pregnancy test which is positive, goes to a clinic: 'Given my history, it was not hard to persuade two doctors that my mental health would be jeopardized by a third child'.
Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders (1722): 'one time, in discoursing about my being so far gone with child, she said something that looked as if she could help me off with my burthen sooner, if I was willing; or, in English, that she could give me something to make me miscarry, if I had a desire to put an end to my troubles that way; but I soon let her see that I abhorred the thoughts of it; and, to do her justice, she put it off so cleverly, that I could not say she really meant it, or whether she only mentioned the practice as a horrible thing.'
It has been suggested (Helen Bradford, "Olive Schreiner's Hidden Agony: Fact, Fiction and Teenage Abortion," Journal of South African Studies, 1995, 21.4) that the pregnant Lyndall's ride in a roughly jolting cart in Olive Schreiner's Story of an African Farm (1883) may have been intended to induce miscarriage
In Ford Madox Ford's Some Do Not (1924: setting is just before the First World War) Edith Ethel Duchemin asks her friend Valentine Wannop, ''How do you get rid of a baby? You've been a servant. You ought to know!', but we never discover the outcome of this request.
Winifred Holtby's South Riding includes a passage in which a women who's got an unwanted pregnancy contemplates an illegal abortion but is too scared to proceed. (Book 5, Chapter 1). Her need for an abortion is underlined by the situation of her neighbours - a large, motherless family whose mother died in childbirth, after being warned that having another child would kill her. In her non-fiction study Women and a Changing Civilisation (1934) Holtby voiced a passionate plea for the legalisation of abortion, beginning 'The control of parenthood does not stop at contraception', laying emphasis on the importance of the mother's choice.
Naomi Mitchison, We Have Been Warned: Dionne, married with several children and concerned about the uncertain political future, wonders whether it is self-indulgent to have another child, contemplates abortion, but eventually decides to go ahead and have the child - her discussions with her husband indicate that the procedure would have been to go to Paris. There is also a graphic scene of an abortion being performed in a hospital in Soviet Russia, and a number of discussions on the subject between various characters.
Pamela Frankau, The Devil We Know (1939): the protagonist spends an anxious time investigating the possibilities in early 1930s London on behalf of his cousin, pregnant by her young man in Air Force who is not in a position to marry. She has already tried 'Steel and apiol and iron and aloes.... from a chemist in the Charing Cross Road'; 'All those medicines that don't work'. He finds that 'There were... two methods for procuring an abortion in London. The first method cost a hundred pounds and was safe. The second cost from ten to twenty pounds and was all right': 'A man in Hampstead.... he's been at it for years'; 'A man in Shaftesbury Avenue. A woman at Putney'; 'They are usually nasty little men and it is such fun for them to realise that there are times when decent people do need nasty little men'; 'I used to help those little Communist girls of hers sometimes'. He tells her, about the one recommended to him, who used to help the Communist girls 'you would be scared if you saw the room; it is an ordinary consulting-room, very shabby and rather dusty and there is a black couch with a white towel over it. And his hands aren't clean'. Ultimately he borrows £100 from their wealthy relatives under the pretext that he has himself got a girl pregnant, but his cousin's young man realises she is pregnant and is determined that they shall marry in spite of everything. In her later The Winged Horse (1953) there is a fleeting mention of one character's second wife having died as the result of an abortion, possibly or possibly not her husband's child.
In Evelyn Waugh's Unconditional Surrender (1961, but set during the Second World War), Virginia Troy finds herself pregnant out of wedlock. When informed of the pregnancy she says '"Dr Puttock, you must doing something about this". "I? I don't think I understand you," said Dr Puttock icily.' Her friend Kirstie then goes to try and persuade him, and he concedes '"She won't find it a cheap operation". That rather gave him away. I said "Come off it. You know there are doctors who do this kind of thing," and he said "One has heard of such cases - in the police courts mostly"'. Finally Kirstie softens him up to the point where he admits 'he did know the name of someone who might help, as as a family friend, not as a doctor, he might give me the name.' Dr Puttock gives her a piece of paper (having first cut his name and address off it) and makes her write down the details, adding '"If your friend wants an appointment, she had better take a hundred pounds with her in notes." However when Virginia goes to the address she finds that the site has been bombed. Kirstie then asks the charwoman who '"knows just the man. Several of her circle have been to him and say he's entirely reliable. What's more he only charges twenty-five pounds. I'm afraid he's a foreigner." "A refugee?" "Well, rather more foreign than that. He's black."' And he turns out to be on (seriously spooky) government service and not in the old business. Mrs Bristow has '"a friend says she can give me another doctor as might help your friend."' who turns out to be in Canvey Island, a location completely off Virginia's mental map. In the end she persuades Guy Crouchback, her former husband, to remarry her (in full knowledge of the situation).
Edmund Crispin, Frequent Hearses (1950): the young film starlet who is murdered was pregnant, and it is remarked by other characters that she would have had an abortion in the interests of preserving her career - 'such things are done' - even though novel is set at time when abortion was illegal, but obtainable
Christianna Brand's murder mystery London Particular (1952 is about a girl who tries desperately to get an abortion at a time when it was still illegal
Lynne Reid Banks, The L-Shaped Room (early 60s): gynaecologist assumes that the protagonist, pregnant out of wedlock, is looking for an abortion.
Doris Lessing, A Proper Marriage (1964): including futile jumping off kitchen table, hot baths, etc.
Margaret Drabble, The Millstone (1965): central character has no idea how to find an abortionist, and fails miserably at the hot bath and gin routine - friends arrive unexpectedly and drink most of the gin, and the temperamental hot water geyser produces a freezing cold bath. Includes tale of her friend who also failed to persuade a doctor to give her an abortion, but miscarried anyway.
According to the biography of LP Hartley by Adrian Wright, Foreign Country (1996), in his 1970 novel My Sister's Keeper, one of the characters is impregnated by a scoundrel who deserts her and considers an abortion. This seems rather surprising as a topic for Hartley to even mention but then one considers that he had numerous society women friends, some of whom may have had or at least discussed abortions.
In Molly Keane's Good Behaviour (1981 but set between the wars) there is a very oblique indication that one of the Crowhurst girls has been trying gin and a hot bath, and her sister mentions that they are about to take a trip to England.
Kingsley Amis's You Can't Do Both (early semi-autobiographical novel, published 1994) includes account of seeking abortion in the late 1940s, based on his own experience.When the protagonist discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant, another male character instructs him in the requirements and responsibilities of the situation. The couple try various expedients including gin, and 'things' borrowed from a nurse, and finally discover that the girl's apparently genteel and respectable lower-middle-class landlady can put them in touch with a doctor who, for a large fee, will do safe abortions. The doctor is in Cardiff and she knows of him since her late husband was a chemist in Pontypridd.
The character 'Mother Jezebel' (beautician, abortionist and blackmailer) in Wilkie Collins' Armadale (1866) (which also includes a Doctor 'Downward' who provides abortion) is based on the real-life Madame Rachel Leverson, discussed in Richard Altick's The Presence of the Present (1980)
In her semi-autobiographical novel, Lark Rise to Candleford (1939) set in the days of her youth, Flora Thompson mentioned the herb corners of cottage gardens and that 'the women had a private use for the pennyroyal, though, judging from appearances, it was not very effective'.
Natalie Linda Jones explores abortion tropes in the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson in her PhD thesis 2013, 'The abortion trope: a study in contemporary criticism and nineteenth-century poetics'
In the rather unlikely context of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Making of a Marchioness (1901) (aka Emily Fox-Seton), it seems that Ameerah, the Indian servant of the Marquis's heir presumptive (who is deeply embittered by the Marquis's surprising marriage) has some expertise with native drugs, including abortifacients. There is a rather encoded incident involving servants' hall gossip about a local'cottage scandal' to do with a village girl in 'trouble', followed by the dramatic scene in which the pregnant Marchioness is only just prevented from drinking milk doctored by Ameerah. This motif of Indian servants with a somewhat sinister competence with abortifacients crops up also in John Masters' Nightrunners of Bengal (1951), set just before and during Indian Mutiny (the ayah of the protagonist's wife has apparently prepared a ergot mixture for her mistress on at least one occasion). Abortion in the Indian context also features in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust (1975) - in the historical part of the dual narrative Olivia's pregnancy by the Nawab is terminated by Indian midwives by a traditional method involving a twig and the juice of some plant, a method which is known to, and discovered by, the local British doctor when Olivia miscarries; in the present-day narrative her step-granddaughter is offered a traditional abortifacient massage, but decides to continue with the pregnancy.
In Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure,'female pills' are among the spurious remedies purveyed by the itinerant quack doctor Vilbert.
Modernist poet Mina Loy (British by birth, lived for extended periods in continental Europe and eventually became American citizen) includes an interesting abortion image in Songs to Joannes (1915-1917): "Once in a mezzanino The starry ceiling Vaulted an unimaginable family Bird-like abortions With human throats And Wisdom's eyes Who wore lamp-shade red dresses And woolen hair..."
In Margaret Leonora Eyles' novel Margaret Protests (1919) the protagonist/narrator, a young widow with children to support, is driven by poverty to set up in business with a friend marketing an abortifacient preparation (aided by her friend's medical student boyfriend). This is very profitable but she increasingly suffers the pangs of conscience and eventually gives it up to make a new start
John Galsworthy's short story "Late-299", 1923 concerns the homecoming of a doctor jailed for performing an abortion: but is largely about his alienation from his family.
In Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Cloud Howe (1933, second book of A Scots Quair: Chris Colquohoun 'raises a row' in the Women's Rural Institute, when she is the only member to support an offered visit from a 'socialist creature' offering to 'lecture on birth control': which in the small Scottish town of Segget is considered 'just murdering your bairns afore they were born, most likely that was what she herself did'.
Dame Alix Meynell, in her autobiography, Public Servant Private Woman, mentions that for the unmarried sexually active woman of the interwar years (like her) the possibility of needing an abortion was always on the cards - £100 in a discreet nursing home. (Lehmann also indicates that this was the usual price)
AJ Cronin, The Citadel (1936): passing allusion to fashionable Harley Street society doctor making a good deal of his income from 'curettage' -'nothing but a damned abortionist'.
In Doreen Bates' Diary of a Wartime Affair (the affair in question, with a married colleague in the Tax Office where she was employed, actually began in the early 30s ), entry for 24 Nov 1936 mentions a delayed period and 'I decided not to have an abortion if it is a baby' (later entries indicate that her doctor was Joan Malleson, one of the founders of the Abortion Law Reform Association and a key figure in setting up the Bourne case).
Another mention of medical attitudes as a passing reference in H G Wells, Star Begotten (1937): 'Like every practising obstetrican Dr Holdman Stedding knew all the faint intimations of a tentative to abortion, and knew how to nip any such suggestions in the bud'. The twist here is that it's in the context of a conversation with the expectant father - who gives the doctor a 'queer feeling that a less reassuring reply [about his wife's state of health] would have been more acceptable. For obscure reasons--sub-reasons rather--it seemed that Davis did not want the child'.
There is a mention in Grahame Greene's Brighton Rock (1938) of pills, suspected not to work, to end pregnancy, in a conversation between the gangsters Pinkie and Dallow.
Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (1941), has Isa reading The Times report of the Bourne case which led to a common law judgement theoretically enabling doctors in England and Wales to perform abortions if continuing pregnancy posed severe threat to a woman's physical or mental health. For further details see Stuart N. Clarke, 'The Horse with a Green Tail' from Virginia Woolf Miscellany, No. 34 [Spring 1990]
Patricia Hollis, in her biography of Labour politician Jennie Lee (1997), records Lee as having learnt about abortion from a forensic medicine class at Edinburgh University, and passing on the information to a friend that 'even if an accident occurred [using birth control]' it was possible to 'safely evade the consequences' by abortion. She also shocked her sister-in-law, following her marriage to Aneurin Bevan, by saying 'If I had an accident I would have an abortion.... I've got some money by me, a hundred pounds... and I would go to Holland. I know exactly what to do'. While her support for birth control and abortion law reform during the 1920s and 30s seems to have been muted, if not non-existent, Lee did support David Steel's 1967 Abortion Act.
Passing reference in Vita Sackville-West's The Easter Party (1953), to where Lady Quarles might go to 'take steps' after having 'a fright'... 'quite easy... if you know how, and if you can afford to pay. It costs about £50.'
According to the biography by Pam Hirsch, The Constant Liberal: The Life and Work of Phyllis Bottome (2010), Bottome's 1956 novel about delinquent girls in a remand home, Eldorado Jane (aka Jane) deals among other controversial issues with illegal abortions 'in a matter-of-fact rather than a scandalised fashion'. This is a very passing allusion to 'gittin' rid of 'em when yer don want 'em before they're born is tough too' by the cat-burglar and general criminal George.
Arnold Wesker's play The Kitchen (1959), includes the taking of pills by the waitresses with unwanted pregnancies and the implication that Monique has had backstreet abortions
Helen Lourie (pseudonym of the pychiatrist and children's author Catherine Storr), A Question of Abortion (1962): features a woman gynaecologist who believes in women's right to abortion and that she is preferable to backstreet knittingneedle operations, and her (female) psychiatrist friend who is charged in court for recommending abortions.
In Nicola Thorne's The Girls (1968) about a group of young women in a London boarding house, during the 60s but before the Abortion Act, the more mature and responsible Jacoba exhorts frivolous Honey and Pauline to get fitted up with contraception but they declare they will resort to the 'soap woman' if anything happens. It is Jacoba who, in spite of her precautions, falls pregnant, and she decides to keep the child
In Angela Carter's dystopic fantasy, The Passion of New Eve (1977), the protagonist has an affair with Leilah, an exotic young African American night club dancer in a corrupted and rotting futuristic New York, and abandons her to an abortion when she becomes pregnant. This begins the protagonist's journey to rebirth.
Pearl Doles Bell, Gloria Gray, Love Pirate (1914) - apparently in this novel the heroine, a secretary in a long-term affair with her employer, has a frankly depicted abortion.
In Edith Wharton's Summer (1917), 'the young protagonist, pregnant and unmarried, visits a woman abortionist--a very sinister figure--but can't go through with her plan.Instead, she agrees to marry her adoptive father, who had tried to seduce her early in the novel.'
In Eugene O'Neill's experimental drama, Strange Interlude (1923), Nina, learning the family secret of hereditary insanity from her mother-in-law, aborts her husband's child on this eugenic ground.
Hemingway's story 'Hills Like White Elephants': centers on an abortion, with the couple refusing to discuss it directly. Set in Spain, characters are American (male) and (possibly) English (female)
Both recent biographers of Edna St Vincent Millay, Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty: the Life of Edna St Vincent Millay, 2001, and Daniel Mark Epstein, What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St Vincent Millay, 2001, agree that in 1922, while staying in England, Millay, with the assistance of her mother, a nurse and herbalist, procured an abortion 'by a brew concocted from the native flowers and herbs of Dorset'. Milford also claims, based on the oral testimony of Millay's sister Norma, that Millay had earlier suffered a 'botched abortion' while living in Greenwich Village in 1920.
Anais Nin's short story 'Birth' which describes a stillbirth, is in fact based on an abortion she had in 1934 (and still implied to be a stillbirth in the first published volume of her Diaries). According to Claudia Pierpont in the chapter on Nin in Passionate Minds, the unedited diaries reveal that, believing herself to be pregnant by Henry Miller rather than her husband, Nin (at that time resident in France) initially sought assistance from a 'sage-femme' (midwife or unlicensed practitioner), without success, in terminating the pregnancy, and only went to a doctor when she was six months along. Nonetheless an operation was undertaken.
Abortions feature in two short stories by Dorothy Parker - in 'Mr Durant' (1924) the eponymous character impregnates the stenographer at his workplace with whom he is having an affair - despite claiming to know 'a thing or two' he doesn't actually manage to fix things and she, much to his horror, approaches one of the other secretaries, who finds 'a woman' who will do it for $25. In 'Lady with a Lamp' (1932) a tactless woman is paying a visit to the sickbed of a friend of hers who - it is never mentioned but is the subject of constant allusion - is recovering from an abortion. Hemingway wrote a spiteful poem about Parker nastily referring to her own abortions, as cited in this article by Meg Gillette on abortion narratives of the 1930s.
In 1935 Alice Davey (who later became a science fiction writer under the pseudonyms James Tiptree jr and Racoona Sheldon) became pregnant during the first year of her unsatisfactory first marriage, in which neither partner wanted a child. Her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, arranged for a legal abortion at a San Francisco Hospital. The operation was in fact incomplete: Alice developed a high fever after discharge and an infection and nearly died. This is described in Julie Phillips's biography, James Tiptree, jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon (2006)
In Nancy Hale's The Prodigal Women (1942), Maizie Jekyll undergoes an abortion in Guayaquil on her post-marriage trip. Having got herself pregnant in order to get Lambert Rudd to marry her, she then decides to abort the pregnancy to allay his hostility at having been forced into a marriage he did not want. A doctor in Panama recommends her to try Dr Jackson in Guayaquil: this doctor 'had negro blood' and was a native of Philadelphia, and the reader gathers rather obliquely that he is doing medical work among the locals ('a crying need'). Following the abortion - without anaesthetic, as she has to get back to the boat - Maizie descends into a career of physical and mental ill-health.
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943): the midwife recommends an abortion because Katie and Johnny don't have money to support the child they already have.
In Dawn Powell's A Time to Be Born (1943), set in New York as America is poised on the brink of entering World War II, the scheming novelist Amanda Keeler, who has believed herself to be sterile, finds herself pregnant by her lover, Ken Saunders. Unable to seek reputable medical assistance in case her husband, newspaper magnate Julian Evans, finds out, she seeks help from her former protege, Vicky Haven, in spite of the fact that they have quarrelled as a result of Ken Saunders' affair with the latter. Vicky has no idea (she is a relative innocent in New York from the Mid-West) and asks Corinne Burrows, the divorcee girlfriend of Saunders' friend, Dennis Orphen, 'a warm, obliging creature, [who] was quite free with her information about a certain doctor in old Chelsea who could be obtained by mentioning her name'.
A letter (published in Tim Page (ed.) Selected Letters of Dawn Powell) from Powell to her husband in 1925, while on a family visit, refers to her sister's children getting 'into the ergo-apiol [sic] box in my suitcase, each ate one of these delicious bonbons and then threw up heartily'. It is not clear whether she was employing ergot-apiol for abortifacient purposes as there were other possible uses.
Letter in the Florence Rose papers, Sophia Smith Collection, 10 Jan 1943: she is 'abysmally ignorant when a specific case arises' concerning abortion though 'supposedly "professionally informed"' (as a birth control activist); suggests that 'discussion among women will sooner or later unearth someone talkative who will either have the information you seek or know someone who knows someone who knows someone, etc, etc. The same might be true of a doctor.'
In Christopher Morley's Kitty Foyle (1944), the eponymous independent working girl heroine finds herself pregnant by her upper-crust Philadelphian lover just at the point that his engagement to a suitable girl selected by his family is announced. Her employer, a sophisticated but kind Frenchwoman, arranges an abortion with a doctor who does a 'high-class trade' and turns out 'skilful and decent'. Kitty reports 'I felt sorry, and selfish maybe, and like I'd lost something beautiful and real, but I couldn't feel any kind of wrongness. I did what I had to do.'
Speculation by Bruno in Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train (1950) that Guy's unfaithful wife Miriam might have had an abortion to conceal evidence of her adultery.
Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman (1951) set in a women's college, has a passing mention that 'An unnamed girl, also in another house, was said to have died in an abortion'.
Failed attempted self-abortion with knitting needle by Cathy in John Steinbeck's East of Eden (1952), detected by Dr Tilson.
In Mary McCarthy's A Charmed Life (1955), a woman moves with her new husband into a community which includes her former husband and his new wife. The woman and her former husband have sex once (in a fairly rape-like encounter) and when she becomes pregnant she doesn't know if it's his child or her husband's. As she can't ask either of them for the money to pay for an abortion or for information about doctors she has to ask a (married) male friend, involving him in all sorts of lies and embarrassments. Everything is finally lined up and she is about to go away to have the abortion when she is killed in a random traffic accident.
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961): at the beginning April is persuaded by Frank Wheeler not to have an abortion, They marry and have two children. She attempts a home abortion for her third pregnancy and dies from the complications.
Jaqueline Susann. Valley of the Dolls (1966): pregnant by singer Tony Polar, and having broken off their relationship but deciding to keep the baby, Jennifer learns from Tony's sister that he suffers from a severe brain disorder likely to be hereditary, so she has an abortion.
Harrowing description in chapter 7 of James Purdy's Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967). (Purdy, postwar American gay writer) Published in UK 1984 by GMP.
Nora Ephron, in her Commencement Address to Wellesley Class of 1996', in The Most of Nora Ephron (2013), mentions, among other contrasts with her time there 1958-1962: 'If you needed an abortion, you drove to a gas station in Union, New Jersey, with five hundred dollars in cash in an envelope and you were taken, blindfolded, to a motel room and operated on without an anaesthetic'.
Joan Didion's Run River (1963) and Play It As it Lays (1970) both include characters who undergo abortions.The Last Love Song: a biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty (2015) mentions that when she was working at Vogue in the early 1960s, 'there were rumours of abortions [among her colleagues] all of which seemed to have been performed in Hoboken'; and one colleague managed to procure a legal D & C in hospital by turning informer on another matter to the District Attorney. A doctor to whom Didion herself went when fearing she was pregnant told her 'she'd need a ticket to Havana', implying that he could arrange the matter there.
John Updike's Couples (1970) includes an abortion, arranged via the local dentist by a married man for his married lover (who had recently given birth and was breastfeeding...), and mainly from his point of view.
S J Wilson, To Find A Man (1970) is the story of a rather nerdy young man who is asked by a local popular pretty girl who has never previously paid him much attention to assist her in obtaining an abortion.
In Rita Mae Brown's classic lesbian novel, Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), it is Molly's caring for her college room-mate Faye through an illegal abortion that brings them together in her first real romance.
Chris Kraus's biography After Kathy Acker (2017) records that Acker's letters indicate that she had several abortions (a 'past-life regressionist' also told her that her mother had tried to abort her before she was born). Abortion featured in her works Blood and Guts in High School (1984) and Don Quixote (1986).
'The Princess' (1982) in Ursula Le Guin's Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989) is an account of the abortion she had during her college days. In spite of the difficulties she describes herself as having been 'privileged' - her parents were supportive and active in assisting her, they had connections who were able to provide them with contacts, they could afford a 'slick outfit' in New York with a reputation as the highest-class abortionist in the city.
In about 1952 in New York City, Audre Lorde had an abortion, which she describes in chapter 15 of Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1983). She knows of a doctor who will do them, but the police are preventing him from working. Another doctor is too expensive ($300). She attempts "castor oil and a dozen bromo quinine tablets," "mustard baths," and "jumping off a table" without effect. She has a friend who is a licensed practical nurse, whom she asks for "ergotrate from the pharmacy, a drug which I had heard from nurses' talk could be used to encourage bleeding." Her friend refuses because this could kill her with hemorrhaging, but finds another nurse whose mother does "An induced miscarriage by Foley catheter. A homemade abortion. The narrow hard-rubber tube, used in post-operative cases to keep various body canals open, softened when sterilized. When passed through the cervix into the womb while soft, it coiled, all fifteen inches, neatly into the womb. Once hardened, its angular turns ruptured the bloody lining and began the uterine contractions that eventually expelled the implanted fetus, along with the membrane. If it wasn't expelled too soon. If it did not also puncture the uterus. The process took about fifteen hours and cost forty dollars, which was a week and a half's pay." Lorde describes the insertion and what happens next. It is very painful but she survives without any further medical care.
In Gail Godwin's A Mother and Two Daughters (1983), the elder daughter, Cate, approaching middle age, finds herself pregnant after an unexpected affair. She has a (legal) abortion but this is preceded by an encounter with a spooky woman who haunts the clinic with a mission to dissuade women from having the operation.
Cider House Rules (1986) by John Irving deals heavily with abortion before it was legalized in the US. At the back of the book he makes notes to where he got specific incidents. His grandfather was a gynecologist and gave him many stories which he used in the book, including toxic methods women used to induce abortion.
In Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments: A Memoir (1987), she recounts a conversation with her mother about their abortions, hers in around the mid-1960s,and presumably still illegal, since it was performed in a Manhattan apartment some distance from the doctor's actual consulting-room (though at least with some form of painkiller), and her mother's three during the Depression for $10 in the basement of a Greenwich Village nightclub by a doctor who molested his patients.
Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994), includes an episode in which the adolescent narrator helps her friend who is seeking an abortion (implied pre-Roe-v-Wade)
Lucinda Ebersole and Richard Peabody, Coming to Terms: A Literary History of Abortion (1994) includes short stories and extracts from novels and memoirs on the topic, largely by mid to late C20th US authors, although there is one early C20th Russian (Fyodor Sologub), and 1 UK author (Zoe Fairbairns). The authors included are Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Langston Hughes, Babs H Deal, Ellen Gilchrist, Richard Brautigan, Caroline Thompson, Audre Lorde (from Zami, as cited above), Gloria Naylor, William Faulkner, Kathleen Spivack, and Amy Hempel.
D. B. Borton, Six Feet Under (A Cat Caliban Mystery) (1997). Contemporary mystery, set in Cincinnatti. The former foster-mother of a young woman who has ended up in prison says 'When she had them first two babies at sixteen, I had me a conniption.... I wanted her to go to the midwife, even offered to pay for it. Not that I hold with killin' babies, I don't, but the way I saw it, she could either kill it quick or kill it slow, kind of life she was livin'.' Given the age of the character and her children at the time of the story, this must have been well post Roe v Wade, but suggests that more traditional recourses were still resorted to in some communities. In another mystery by Borton, (as Della Borton) Fade to Black (A Movie Lover's Mystery) (1999), a fatal, though medically-performed, illegal abortion (reported at the time as an operation for a 'ruptured cyst') features as part of the backstory to the crimes in the present.
Rona Jaffe's The Road Taken (2000) is a family saga of the twentieth century, with changes in medicine and health care constituting significant points in the narrative. During a conversation in the 1920s, between Rose, shortly to marry, and her married sister Maude they talk about the illegality of contraception and the case of Margaret Sanger, 'If all else fails, there’s abortion, but it’s illegal, violent, dangerous, and very nasty, and I hear it hurts a great deal. You could easily die from it if you go to the wrong person.' In the 1930s with the advent of the Depression Maude does tearfully admit to undergoing abortion: 'illegal abortions soared'. Around 1960, career woman Joan is pregnant (for complex plot reasons she wishes to continue with the pregnancy): '"[C]ongratulations," the doctor said, looking considerably relieved. He was a middle-aged man with eyeglasses and iron-gray hair, he had a wife and three children of his own. He did not do illegal abortions, and he did not enjoy sending girls to homes for unmarried mothers because they were always so ashamed and unhappy.' In the late 70s: 'Four years ago the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade. had made abortion legal for every woman who wanted it. Rose remembered when even birth control information had been forbidden, and Margaret Sanger had gone to jail for trying to give it. And she remembered Maude’s illicit abortion during the depression because she couldn’t afford to feed another child. . . . Maude had been lucky she didn’t die right then. All those days of desperation, so long ago, and now there was "a woman’s right to choose."' By the 1980s, Joan reflects: 'And childbirth was still occasionally dangerous too. And the woman had the responsibility. At least a woman didn’t have to ask her husband for permission to have an abortion anymore.' Shortly afterwards, Markie, a young woman of the third generation, gets pregnant and tells Joan: 'I can’t have it, of course. David isn’t ready to help bring up a child. He isn’t even ready for me. He’s a kid. I can’t do it alone. I’m having an abortion on Wednesday and I need you to come with me because someone has to bring me home'. Joan tries to dissuade her but she is determined. Later on, Markie, older and married and having problems in conceiving, feels guilty and wonders if the earlier abortion is responsible for this. In Jaffe's earlier family saga, Family Secrets (1974), there is a passing mention of Adam Saffron arranging an abortion 'up in the Bronx' for his sister Becky, married to a bad provider and unable to afford any more children, around the 1920s.
Percival Everett, Erasure (2003) the protagonist's doctor sister is killed by an abortion protester at her women's health clinic
In Marge Piercy's autobiography, Sleeping with Cats (2002), she describes performing self-abortion as a college student in the late 1950s. This formed the basis for a similar episode in her novel Braided Lives (1983). A friend (cousin in the novel) died from what was probably an illegal abortion in her 20s. See also the title essay in her My Life, My Body (2015)
Cathleen Schine, Fin and Lady (2013), has an unwed pregnancy 'taken care of' in the backstory, but although this would have been a time when this would not have been an easy thing to do, there are no details, just the indication that the woman in question did so rather than marry the father.
Jane Smiley, Early Warning (Last Hundred Years Trilogy 2) (2015) includes an allusive dialogue in the 1953 section, between two women, one of whom is having an affair, concerning their mother's question to whether she knows where to find Queen Anne's lace and its difference from poison hemlock: 'Everyone knows the difference who was raised on a farm'. In the subsequent volume, Golden Age (Last Hundred Years Trilogy 3)(2015), there are two allusions to abortion: the character Nadie tells Riley, who is pregnant and not sure whether to have another abortion, that her mother 'lived in a much more horrifying world that you do [Soviet Russia], and abortion was routine there' but nonetheless had Nadie. The devoutly Catholic Loretta contacts Janet, her sister-in-law, whom she supposes may know more of the matter, when her son Chance's girlfriend, who is said to be eighteen but it is implied is younger, becomes pregnant - 'Everyone knew that everyone knew that women had abortions, had always had abortions' - there is an allusion back to the 'ancient days of Queen Anne's lace'. It is arranged to send Hanny to Janet to undergo the procedure at Loretta's expense. This appears to be the right thing all round.
|Condom Page||The Clitoris||The Great Scourge||Sex, Victorians and Historians|
|Histsex List||Useful links||My own writings||Research register|
|Women's history walk||Women in medicine||Useful links||My writings||Reviews||Recent recommended reading|
|History of Sexuality||Women's History||Stella Browne||Archival matters|
|Interwar Progressives||Science Fiction and Fantasy||Random Links of Interest|
Last Updated 13 February 2019
© Lesley Hall