- Accidental Pregnancy
On 13 March 1852, Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens “arrived at Tavistock House,” the tenth child of Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine (Dickens 625). While the birth occasioned paternal effusions—Plorn, as he came to be called, is deemed “a golden baby,” “a brilliant boy of unheard-of dimensions” in letters to Elizabeth Gaskell and W.H. Wills (Dickens 625, 624)—a sour note is also struck. One hopes that Plorn was spared the reading of Dickens’s announcement to Angela Burdett Coutts: “I am happy to say that Mrs. Dickens and the seventh son—whom I cannot afford to receive with perfect cordiality, as on the whole I could have dispensed with him—are as well as possible” (627). And to William Howitt: “Mrs. Dickens and her boy are in a most blooming condition. I am not quite clear that I particularly wanted the latter, but I have no doubt that he is good for me in some point of view or other” (Dickens 629).
Though Plorn came to be a favourite, the novelist’s account of his origins makes it easy to read the child as an accident (a word Dickens does not use), the last in a series of later pregnancies and births that he felt “superfluous” (Bodenheimer 152). It tells us nothing about Catherine Dickens’s perspective on the pregnancy; her biographer Lillian Nayder has suggested that Catherine “never voiced regret at giving birth ten times” (160). Without proof that Charles and Catherine were mutually and deliberately trying to limit their fertility by this point in their marriage, it is impossible to be certain that Plorn was the result of a slip. Even if it were possible, a married, financially comfortable couple is not the most dramatic context for an emblematic image of accidental pregnancy in an era in which literary fallen women such as Gaskell’s Ruth or George Eliot’s Hetty Sorrel captured the public imagination. And the hunt for a single representative instance of an experience that varies so greatly might be misguided in any case. Still, in its ordinariness as well as its specific features, the example of Charles, Catherine, and Plorn highlights aspects of the concept of accident that suggest its particular relevance to the gendered terrain of Victorian reproduction and risk. [End Page 43]
Charles and Catherine’s ten children were born toward the end of a long period, starting around 1750, in which fertility in Britain had been on the rise—a rise that resulted from both an increased frequency of marriage and increased fertility within marriage (Szreter 418). For the decades from 1860 to 1940, demographers describe a “dramatic” fertility decline, with the average number of births per woman falling to a little over two from approximately six (Szreter 1). While historians debate the mechanisms behind this decrease, they suggest that efforts to space or stop births played a key role. Periodic abstinence and coitus interruptus are credited for much of the decline; in fact, Simon Szreter suggests that these practices formed part of a larger cultural shift emphasizing the values of self-restraint and continence (chap. 8). For those with the knowledge and the money to employ them—not a large number, according to Szreter—and then the ability to negotiate their use, devices such as pessaries, sponges, douches, and condoms existed as tools to prevent pregnancy, and abortion also played a role in limiting births (McLaren; Szreter 424–31).
Insofar as accident implies a failure of intention and agency, this context is significant; one has to be able to imagine the possibility of control in order for the concept to make sense, whether describing a pregnancy that results from an imperfect method of birth control or simply a pregnancy that is unwanted or unintentional, and whether or not specific efforts had gone into prevention. To be sure, such efforts—and the need to name their failures—did not first occur to people in 1860. Accident was used to describe unwanted or unintentional pregnancy well before the start date assigned to this demographic shift: the oed gives 1850 as the first appearance of the usage, but the text that it cites...