Thursday, December 30, 2010

Holiday reading: "Reluctant Genius" by Charlotte Gray

The more I read, the more stories of pregnancy loss & bereavement I stumble upon, sometimes where I least expect to find them.

This book caught my eye when it came out a few years ago, as I've read & enjoyed some of Charlotte Gray's other Canadian history books (such as "Flint & Feather," about Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson, whose "Song My Paddle Sings" was a staple of my grade school language arts curriculum). (Do Canadian schoolkids still read Pauline Johnson?)

But I wasn't prompted to pick it up until this fall. Just before our mid-September trip to Nova Scotia, Stuart McLean of the Vinyl Cafe radio show devoted an entire episode to the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island, which was also on our itinerary. He devoted a long segment of the show to his stay in Baddeck -- near the start of the Cabot Trail -- & his visit to the Alexander Graham Bell museum there, where he met one of Bell's descendants & was invited to lunch at the Bell family's Baddeck estate, Beinn Bhreagh, (which remains the extended family's summer home).

We were already planning to stay two nights in Baddeck, promptly added the museum to our list of places to visit, & sought a copy of this book at our next bookstore visit. I started reading the book while we were in Halifax. Then the busy season kicked in at work, & the book sat untouched for some weeks. I brought it with me to my parents' house over Christmas & finished it while I was there.

I didn't expect to find pregnancy loss in a book about the inventor of the telephone (among many other accomplishments). Perhaps I should have -- after all, pregnancy & infant loss was not uncommon in the Victorian era. Beyond his inventions, Gray's book vividly describes Bell's personal and emotional life. In particular, she shines the spotlight on -- and gives ample credit to -- Bell's wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard Bell.

Despite being profoundly deaf in a world even less prepared to accommodate disabilities than it is today, Mabel Bell was a well educated and highly accomplished woman, ahead of her times in many ways: among other things, she was the majority shareholder in the Bell telephone company, she financed Bell's aeronautical experiments, ran their large estate, and (gasp!) dressed her young daughters in trousers to allow them to play freely outside at their Baddeck summer home. ("His wife was pretty smart herself," the waitress at our Baddeck resort dining room noted approvingly, after asking whether we'd been to the museum.)

The Bells had two daughters, but two subsequent pregnancies resulted in the premature births -- and deaths -- of two sons. Sons, of course, were of paramount importance in Victorian society, and Mabel longed to give her husband a son who could carry on the family name and help him with his work. Gray writes movingly about the losses, and the effect they had on the couple. I was struck by how familiar her descriptions sounded, and by how easily I could relate as a bereaved parent and infertile woman:

After the death of their first son, Edward, while Alec was away in 1881:

"Neither parent found it easy to accept their son's death as 'the will of God.' Mabel struggled to maintain her health and equanimity, but was pale, thin and weak for months after the tragedy. Her mother visited her every day; her young daughters often caught her weeping quietly... Edward's death was no easier for Alec. He kept telling himself that Mabel had been well looked after during her pregnancy, and had he been close during the birth, he probably could not have done anything... He was never much good at expressing any feelings other than his devotion to Mabel... but he grieved for both his wife and the dead child... he quietly commissioned a photograph of his own deceased son, and then asked the French artist Timoleon Marie Lobrichon to paint a portrait from it. (There is no evidence that Mabel allowed the painting to be hung.) He also started working around the clock on a mechanical device for administering artificial respiration to patients with breathing difficulties. This 'vacuum jacket' was a forerunner of the iron lung..."
Later, Mabel "wondered if God was chastising her." She expressed feelings of envy & longing for another child in letters to her mother when two of her sisters had babies shortly after her loss.

The Bells' second son, Robert, was born prematurely and died in 1883, when Mabel was seven months pregnant. She began feeling ill, but her doctor assured her it was just a cold coming on, & advised her to stay out of drafts. She woke up later that night in labour. Alec arrived three hours after the baby did, from a conference he'd been attending out of town.

"He was saddened by the baby's death, but he was particularly upset because he knew how much Mabel longed for a son and he did not know how to comfort her. He berated himself so vehemently for once again being away from home during such a crisis that Mabel had to dry her own tears and look after him. He would brood for years on his lost sons, his helplessness in the face of their deaths, and Mabel's sorrow."
There's a suggestion that Alec blamed himself in part for Robert's death -- that Mabel had not yet physically recovered from Edward's death when she got pregnant again. After two consecutive premature births and losses, Mabel's doctor warned her she should not attempt a fifth pregnancy.

"Despite Mabel's hopes, despite some mysterious surgery that she underwent in 1891, despite assignations with Alec when she was convinced she was ready to conceive, Mabel would never have another child."
Later in her life, Mabel would watch wistfully as Alec worked on his aeronautical projects with men young enough to be his sons. The arrival of grandchildren helped to ease her pain:

"'All the plans, the hopes and the ambitions that have lain buried in the graves of my own little sons,' she wrote, 'sprang to life with the coming of each one of my three grandsons.' The granddaughters too got lots of attention..."
(The promise of grandchildren, of course, is of no help to women like me, who were never able to have even one living child.)

If you ever visit Cape Breton Island (& I highly recommend it!), the Bell museum in Baddeck is worth a visit. Bell is commonly known as the inventor of the telephone, but his interests and inventions cover a broad spectrum. Many were not successful at the time, but formed the building blocks for conveniences we enjoy today, such as fibre optic technology. He was initially known for his work as an educator of the deaf, and is also a pioneer in the field of aviation: Bell and a team of young flight enthusiasts built the Silver Dart, which flew over Bras d'Or Lake in February 1909, the first powered heavier-than-air machine to fly in Canada. The remains of a hydrofoil he built -- which Mabel herself once piloted across Bras d'Or Lake -- is displayed at the Baddeck museum. He was a founder of the National Geographic Society and National Geographic magazine. Believe it or not, Bell even mused about what we now know as global warming, & used the term "greenhouse effect."


  1. Thanks for the fascinating review - I will put this book on my list. I'm touched by Mabel's story.

    (Btw, I've had my students read Pauline Johnson! They need to read outside The Canon- *gasp, choke*).

  2. Oh my goodness, those passages from the book just hit me like a rock. How interesting, and yet sad, that so long ago the feelings were so much the same as today.

    How alone we all feel, but, we aren't, not really.