Through July and August we ran a series of three creative writing workshops led by creative writing practitioner Michelle Crowther, as part of the Heritage Lottery funded Victorian Blogging project. Six pamphlets were chosen to provide inspiration for participants to write their own poems or short stories and some of the participants have kindly allowed us to share their work. This is the second of three blog posts about the workshops. You can read the first post here.
Charles Knowlton, Fruits of Philosophy
Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, a treatise on contraception, was written by an American doctor in 1830 and published in England by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh in 1877. The pamphlet is rich with detail about the female anatomy and advocates birth control for social and economic reasons. Combining this with biographical information about Knowlton and his wife, the writers were inspired to create dialogues, poems and stories about man’s ownership of the female body during the Victorian era. The poem below is inspired by Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry anthology The World’s Wife and imagines what Tabitha Knowlton thought of her husband’s treatise. It is entitled A Fruitful Connection, Knowlton’s term for the moment of conception.
According to my husband, my Fallopian tubes could admit a hog’s bristle –
a flexible and resilient fibre, used in the manufacture of artist’s brushes.
These bristles have an excellent capacity for holding paint, particularly oil,
which requires a stiffness unavailable in softer, sable brushes. Using these fibres,
paint is vigorously applied upon the canvas, reproducing the artist’s impressions
of all he sees.
My husband was never an artist, but a skilled anatomist, or at least I thought he was
from the number of bodies he brought home and dissected. I should have wondered
at his methods – the decomposing body in the suitcase, the number of chopped up
pudenda lying on the kitchen table, but I trusted that this was normal behaviour for a
medical student, even when they imprisoned him. As for me I scrubbed and bleached
the table with my cleaning brushes, washing away the stains left by my sex.
Charles got three month’s hard labour for writing his book. It was a relief not
to syringe away his secretions. I had endured a variety of concoctions – alum, pearl-ash,
white oak bark, nut galls and sulphate of zinc. And at last I could reclaim the salt cellar
for my cooking. He argued that contraception cost nearly nothing; was safe
and required no sacrifice. In short, all responsibility was mine and pleasure his.
There was no delicate sponge, moistened with water for me.
My pear with the long neck was the inspiration for the fruits of his philosophy,
yet I am only remembered as the mother of his five children.
– A Fruitful Connection, Michelle Crowther
Inspired by Knowlton’s advice to women on menstruation, Elizabeth researched old wives tales about periods and wove these tales into her poem. Elizabeth was interested in the words used for female body parts and how often these have been named after men.
A woman’s body is packed to bursting with men,
there’s an awful lot of them knocking together,
a meeting of the male mind and thought
to form a quorum particularly in the ladies’ inner sanctum,
Have you heard these words? A veritable roll call of old school boys
– getting under my skin, causing pressure sores:
These science men have the female anatomy mapped, inside and out,
in their name alone, maybe for ego’s sake? But boy, do they have clout.
They’ve climbed the Everest of Reproduction, for the first time it seems
and then again and again until forever, amen.
Their script is like an inked tattoo within our flesh and bone,
a little kinky, no? What perks? What kicks?
And I’ll tell you this, yes, these fellas above, have us stitched up, love.
But seriously, why should we care?
These markers, soft and squishy like puppies or kittens, stick,
are a gift not just for Christmas but a life time and more.
As they crawl up and down the feminine body with ease
until their fame fits tighter than the phrase the bird’s ‘n’ the bees.
Charting these choppy, muddied waters, we meet:
Dr. William Fetherstone Montgomery – girls, keep abreast of things!
Those little, round bumps in the areola, and on the nipple itself,
they’re Montgomery Tubercles.
No, they’re not yours at all, mister.
Sound it out loud on a Victrola, sister!
Then there’s Langer’s Lines enshrined around your boobs –
I prefer Cleavage Lines myself – it’s not that complicated, dude.
If we travel down south, taking a tour of the Female Pelvis,
you’ll encounter a motley crew navigating here, adventuring there:
Gabriel Fallopian hanging about the ovaries.
Fallopian Tubes? That’s just rude.
Caspar Bartholin the Younger attached, let’s face it, to the Labia.
Bartholin’s Glands, that’s grand.
Influencing stages of the Menstrual Cycle – it’s extracting the Michael!
The Pudendal Canal is Alcock’s Canal, what a nerve and
a shock! Benjamin Alcock!
And you seem keen to swim in deeper waters
Alexander Johnston Chalmers Skene
with your sexy, Vaginal Skene Glands for Female Ejaculation,
and how you’re lauded to inflation by a grateful nation –
as if you’d discovered the source of the Nile.
Lucky him … of course – he’s next to the Holy of Holies, the elusive G-spot –
In Ernst Grafenberg We Trust …
and all because the ladies love the treasure, pleasure pot he found –
though women in prehistory, will contest – what a hound, not true and scoff,
would you Adam and Eve it? Wasn’t I feeling ‘hot’ from day dot?
And please don’t point a finger at
the Douglas Pouch, ouch! A cul de sac in which
James Douglas ends up, tucked behind the Uterus.
And though this list is far from complete,
it’s really just a starter, to map a reference for your ease
on as thorny a subject as scratching nails down chalkboards,
Lord, it’ll set the public teeth on edge, give you goosebumps
and raises the hairs at the back of your neck, your head,
along your arms and chill your spine, divine
but all these phenomenon are also named by men.
So, gentles have a thought, every day, if you can,
to how many men run up, down and below your skin.
From cradle to grave, a woman’s body is not her own,
she’s been possessed and repossessed by the bailiff – man,
and can’t you see – she’s still treated as baggage, chattels and goods.
A solution? Maybe, we should return to the Goddess Store,
where woman once wore things of the spirit about her soul
and clothes and labels were of her own making,
her anatomy hers beyond night’s end and day breaking.
There’s no choice like no voice, since these Legends
have been foisted upon us with these gents hell-bent
on divvying up our physiology.
The female should be judge, jury and executioner
when it comes to decisions on feminal autonomy.
I’ve made a start and my final note – the usual suspects
are all dead, white males – the devil’s in the detail, so no more blame,
there’s a case for renaming living, women’s body parts.
– God’s Gift to Women? Elizabeth Uter