Welcome to Sara Read, whose new book The Gossip’s Choice is out next week. As a fellow enthusiast for the Seventeenth Century, I was particularly keen to interview her and discover more about her new novel.
“Call The Midwife for the 17th Century”
Lucie Smith is a respected midwife who is married to Jasper, the town apothecary. They live happily together at the shop with the sign of the Three Doves. But sixteen-sixty-five proves a troublesome year for the couple. Lucie is called to a birth at the local Manor House and Jasper objects to her involvement with their former opponents in the English Civil Wars. Their only-surviving son Simon flees plague-ridden London for his country hometown, only to argue with his father. Lucie also has to manage her husband’s fury at the news of their loyal housemaid’s unplanned pregnancy and its repercussions. The year draws to a close with the first-ever accusation of malpractice against Lucie, which could see her lose her midwifery licence, or even face ex-communication…
What made you want to write a novel, and what was the most difficult moment in the process?
This novel grew out of my day job which is as an academic who researches aspects seventeenth-century women’s lives. I have wanted to write a historical fiction based on the lives of women I have read about over the years but it took me a long time and a few false starts to get it done. On my laptop there are several abandoned versions of the opening chapters going back a decade. Funnily enough, I found that it was not until the title The Gossips’ Choice came to me that the story would come. So the hardest part was getting started. Once I had the title it came together very speedily.
Who is your favourite minor character in the book and why?
This is such a good question, it really made me think about the novel in a different way. The answer has to be Ned the apothecary’s apprentice. He is nineteen and gets into a rowdy crowd of fellow apprentices. He has a lot to put up with since he gets teased when he has to carry the heavy birthing chair around town for his mistress, Lucie Smith. But he still finds ways around the discipline of his puritanical master and sneaks to the tavern in the evening when the rest of the household has gone to bed.
Tell me about an object or place that is important in the novel, and what it signifies.
The novel has a very strong sense of place in that it is all set in and around the Three Doves which is the name of the apothecary shop in which Lucie and her family live. Lucie has lived there all her married life and all the episodes and events which happen in the course of the novel, see her safely back at the Three Doves. The shop is marked by a hanging sign of the Three Doves which is illustrated on the reverse of the cover of the novel, and Lucie gets a notion that the tatty and worn sign should be revamped as a surprise for her husband as they approach the 30th anniversary of their marriage. The name is taken from an historical apothecary shop in Bucklersbury Street in sixteenth-century London.
What fascinates you about 17th Century midwifery, and can you share some of your sources that helped in the creation of The Gossip’s Choice?
I first encountered a seventeenth-century midwife as an undergraduate on a module all about seventeenth-century women’s writing. Jane Sharp is the first named Englishwoman to have written and published a midwifery textbook, The Midwives Book (1671) and although she takes lot of her material from other printed sources, such as Nicholas Culpeper’s books, you can still hear her own voice loud and clear. The ideas about best practice and the recipes for remedies used in the novel are largely taken from Jane Sharp’s book. The second main source was the case notes of a midwife called Sarah Stone who published a set of around forty cases in 1737. Each case is the story of a difficult birth in which she was typically called in to help after others had failed. These cases provided me with a base for a good number of the birth tales in the novel.
Gossip seems to play a part in the novel. What form does this take? If you could have a good old gossip with anyone from the 17th Century, who would it be?
A gossip was a woman who supported another in labour. This female support circle was a major part of the birth experience of women at this time and it was reciprocal, so you would act as a gossip for a friend who would then be a gossip for you in your hour of need. Lucie Smith is the gossips’ choice because she is the midwife of best repute for miles around. However, when events take a dark turn she finds herself the topic on everyone’s lips and is the gossips’ choice for all the wrong reasons. If I could have a good old gossip with anyone from the seventeenth century I would love to do so with a woman called Mary Trye. Trye published a book in 1675 called Medicatrix, or the Female Physician in which she launches into an angry and spirited defence of her late father. This woman knew a lot of gossip, had connections to friends in high places, and was also incredibly witty. You could not want to get on the wrong side of her, but I bet she would be excellent company for a gossipy afternoon!
Huge thanks to Sara for sharing the process of birthing her novel with us!