Sunday, 12 July 2015

Penguin no. 464: Death on the Borough Council
by Josephine Bell

There are a great many ladies present in this room, many of whom have brought up, or are bringing up, young families. These ladies will not need to be reminded that the first years of their children's lives were the most anxious ones...Now consider the case of the less fortunate of our residents. They are hampered by lack of means and lack of knowledge. They are hampered most of all by tradition, by obsolete, and often obnoxious ideas, handed down one generation to the next, and given to young mothers with all a grandmother's weight of authority.

For a crime novel, there seemed to be an unusual focus on pregnancy and motherhood in Death on the Borough Council. Two characters are heavily pregnant, and another is a new mother, though a reluctant one. There is also a long passage in the middle of the story - with little relevance to the plot - in which the Councillors of Stepping Borough, excepting the one recently murdered, interview candidates for the position of assistant medical officer in their soon-to-be-opened child welfare and maternity clinic. One candidate is eliminated immediately for being male; another is aware she has little chance of securing the position because she is married.

Josephine Bell was a medical practitioner, and she seems to use this novel to make a point about what she must have considered inappropriate attitudes to prospective motherhood among the working classes. A comparison is being made across classes: the middle-class mother does nothing but rest in the final weeks of her pregnancy and is delivered of a healthy child; the working class mother works herself to exhaustion keeping her house spotless, and risks opprobrium if she fails to do so, and the health of her newborn suffers as a result.


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