Reading list

Great expectations: 7 books featuring pregnancy

From unorthodox childbirth in Roman mythology to contemporary dystopian visions of a world where fertility is for sale, we take a look at the history of pregnancy in literature.

 

'Leda and the Swan' by W. B. Yeats

Inspired by Roman mythology, this sonnet by Yeats describes the rape of Leda by a swan. As in much Greek and Roman mythology, having children is a complicated business. In this instance, Leda lays two eggs, from one of which hatches Clytaemnestra, future wife and murderer of Agamemnon and a key player in the Trojan War.

 

 

 

The Winter's Tale and Macbeth by William Shakespeare

It seems that no woman can catch a break when it comes to her child-bearing decisions in Shakespeare's work. Hermione in The Winter's Tale has her pregnancy used as a weapon against her, as her husband Leontes becomes convinced of her infidelity and throws her in prison. Needless to say the birth of his daughter does little to soften his convictions and matters get a lot worse before they get better.

Lady Macbeth meanwhile suffers the opposite fate. As well as committing the sin of being a woman with, arguably, an excess of ambition, her childlessness is used as proof of both her lack of femininity and her husband's impotence.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Illegitimacy crops up again and again as a theme in Dickens' work, and the smattering of poor abandoned children in novels like Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit highlights the way that the problem particularly affected working class women. The real parentage of Esther Summerson, the central character in Bleak House, is a secret carefully maintained through the book, and is used as a foil to the concept of the innate immorality of the illegitimate child.

 

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

As chilling now as when it was written in 1985, The Handmaid's Tale draws a speculative future in which environmental damage has caused widespread sterility, forcing fertile women into servitude as breeders under the ownership of wealthy families. Our hero, Offred, is one such handmaid, whose quiet acts of rebellion and refusal to forget her past place her in grave danger.

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

This wonderfully progressive novel follows Rosamund Stacey, a Londoner in the Swinging Sixties who finds herself less than comfortable in an era of sexual liberation. In an attempt to get with the times, Rosamund leaps into a one night stand and finds herself pregnant. Our central character's decision to buck convention and raise her daughter on her own couldn't stand in starker contrast to some of this novel's literary antecedents.

 

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

A foetal Hamlet lies in his mother's womb, overhearing her misdeeds and murderous plots and plotting his revenge in this narratively acrobatic novel. This book will make any pregnant woman nervous of being constantly watched by her unborn charge.

Read an extract from Nutshell