‘Haworth, 1855’: HG, Charlotte Brontë and winning the 2018 YorkMix Poetry Prize

When I was pregnant with my daughter Emmeline I was sick. I mean REALLY sick. I was one of the estimated 1 in 100 women who suffer from what’s known as Hyperemesis Gravidarum during pregnancy. It’s severe morning sickness, but that doesn’t quite do justice to how incapacitating, horrible, and for some, life threatening, it can be. And even better, I had it in varying degrees for the duration of those nine months, which made them feel interminable.

At the time I was working as a Teaching Fellow in English Literature at Leeds, but there was no way I could even get up and get to work, let alone read and lecture and teach. My colleagues were fantastic, and I was so lucky to have such a supportive department/faculty/HR team that understood and empathised, but still, it was devastating to have to leave a job I loved so much, and to feel my that (early) career was being put on hold nine months earlier than planned. As someone who needs to read and write, it was also so hard to not be able to even look at a book cover without throwing up. And when I wasn’t vomiting, I was so drugged up with anti-sickness medication that I could hardly talk. My partner was absolutely amazing throughout, but it can’t have been that fun coming home to a green zombie every night. I was so lucky though, to be surrounded by friends, family, colleagues, doctors, and midwives who understood this illness, and who were able to help, and to have access to medication that kept things at bay enough to prevent severe dehydration and save me and my unborn child.

When I was about six months pregnant, and my cocktail of drugs was fine tuned enough to allow me one or two days a week of respite(ish), I started to try and write again, and specifically, to write about what it was like to have HG and those strange, dreamlike months, but I found it really hard to find the words. Then, while doing some background reading around ‘Jane Eyre’, I came across the story of Charlotte Brontë’s death and learnt that it was highly likely that this fantastic author – one of my favourites – had died due to HG. Although her cause of death was recorded as tuberculosis, many biographers have since speculated that it was actually dehydration and malnourishment that led to Charlotte Bronte’s death at the age of 38, when she was four months pregnant. Where I had benefitted from modern medicine, Charlotte had not.

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After that, it was her story and not my own that I wanted to tell, especially after reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s account of her final days:

‘Martha tenderly waited on her mistress, and from time to time tried to cheer her with the thought of the baby that was coming. “I dare say I shall be glad sometime,” she would say; “but I am so ill – so weary” Then she took to her bed, too weak to sit up … Long days and longer nights went by; still the same relentless nausea and faintness.’

The Life of Charlotte Brontë, 1857

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That line – ‘I dare say I’ll be glad sometime’ – captures the hope bound up in pregnancy, even in the midst of severe illness and the loss of identity that comes with it. To know that for Charlotte, as for so many women who didn’t – and don’t – have access to medication and free healthcare – this time would never come makes it all the more poignant.

It was this line that formed the basis of my poem ‘Haworth, 1855’, and my attempt to articulate both the experience that Bronte would not have had the chance, or the ability, to record, and my own sense of what those months felt like, trapped in a body that no longer belongs to you.

The poem took a long time to write, and then I didn’t do anything with it for a while. Finally, on a whim, I entered it into the 2018 YorkMix/York Literature Festival Poetry Prize, not expecting anything to come of it. I was therefore so surprised and excited to find out that Andrew McMillan, this year’s judge, had picked ‘Haworth, 1855’  as the winning poem.

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It was great to go up to York and meet the other shortlisted, highly commended, and placed poets, and to listen to all the poems as we cruised along the river Ouse with the sun setting behind us. The quality was so high, and it was just a great evening. YorkMix have just published all the poems here, including ‘Haworth, 1855’, as well as a little write up of this story and a photo of me grinning from ear to ear.

I would love to hear what you think of the poem, and to hear how it matches up to your own experience. But I would also love to hear other stories of Hyperemesis Gravidarum. I don’t know how women many across the world, and across the centuries, have died of HG, and how many continue to die or lose or have to terminate pregnancies because of it. So far, the only other account I’ve come across (apart from Kate Middleton’s story, which I know I need to try and write about at some point!) is the brief mention of Megetia of Carthage in De miraculis sancta Stephani (thanks to the wonderful Perceptions of Pregnancy blog).

I’m looking for more though, as I’m working on a sequence of difficult pregnancies to build on Charlotte and Megetia. If you know of any other historical cases – speculated or confirmed – please get in touch and let me know about them.

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