- Fertility as Sociological Metaphor; or the Ambiguities of Unchecked Reproduction in Dickens's Novels
During his lifetime and, arguably, still today, Dickens was known as the novelistic champion of Victorian domesticity. As Elaine Showalter puts it in a bicentenary review of several books about Dickens's private life, "Philanthropist, performer, patriarch, [Dickens] seemed the embodiment of the Victorian domestic virtues of family, hearth, and home." Much of this reputation rests on Dickens's warmly approving depictions of family life, especially of families with many children. In what follows I would like to look at Dickens's portrayal of large families, and the way in which his depiction of human fertility changed as he grew older. For the purposes of this paper, I am defining large families as those with five children or more – not an unusual number in Victorian times, when knowledge of birth control was speculative and uncertain. After all, Dickens himself had eight siblings, his wife Catherine had nine, and together they were the parents of ten children, a tally which does not include Catherine's two miscarriages. Catherine's ten children were only just above par for Victorian families of the time, the average married woman giving birth to about eight children during her reproductive years (Cook 11).
In Dickens's earlier fictions, large, working-class families play an important role, both literary and ideological: Dickens's insistence on the boisterous conviviality of such families and the good feeling that they generate augments his literary purposes and serves as a refutation of the Malthusian and Utilitarian doctrines that he despised, especially as these pertained to the lower classes. However, by the time he came to write Bleak House in 1852, his personal life had become more unhappy and his personal philosophy more conservative, and this conservatism expresses itself in a misogynistic tendency to blame women alone for unchecked fertility, as well as a distrust of the abilities of mothers to care for their own children.
But before I turn to the fiction, I would like to look at the state of [End Page 176] birth control in Victorian England. While large families were not unusual, the Victorian decades of the nineteenth century actually saw a decline in overall population in Great Britain. As the population expert R. I. Woods has noted, "Fertility in England and Wales increased in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and declined thereafter until the 1940s, with only a short interruption in the 1850s and 1860s" (283). Historians, such as Angus McLaren, have noted this decline in the birth rate as arguably the most important social change in Victorian England (11). According to F. M. L. Thompson, 50% of the decline was due to birth control, while the rest was attributable to "delayed marriage and marital celibacy" (Brodie 4).
Throughout this period, couples were looking for ways to space their children. For men, the most common method of avoiding conception was coitus interruptus (Langer 681). Condoms made of animal bladder or intestine had been used since the Middle Ages, mostly as a prophylactic against venereal disease. But as a means of preventing pregnancy they were notoriously unreliable. The more dependable rubber condom became commercially available after 1855, but these were expensive and not comfortable to use, so they did not become popular until the end of the nineteenth century.
Women, too, resorted to a number of age-old birth control methods, which included the use of various drugs to limit conception or induce miscarriage, as well as abortion itself, which seems to have been widely practiced despite being made illegal in Britain after 1837. Janet Farrell Brodie writes that "Victorian women did have many ways to procure miscarriage relatively easily and safely." In America, for instance, "[t]here was little outcry about abortions being immoral or unethical until the American Medical Association began a campaign to curb it in mid century. Nor were abortions illegal so long as quickening (fetal movement) had not yet occurred, generally in the second trimester."1 However, none of these contraceptive methods were foolproof and some were simply wrong. Most damaging to women who wanted to avoid pregnancy was the so-called "rhythm method," which...