[Essay] A Historical Fiction — Stephanie Limb

Food shopping got me hassled: strapping the child into the car seat, finding somewhere to park, transferring child from car seat to buggy, tantrums, back again with bags. It was easier for my husband to pick up dinner on his way home. One afternoon, when I couldn’t get through on his mobile, I called his desk and someone else answered, ‘I’m afraid he’s off ill today.’

I took my child and headed out. With nowhere to go and not wanting to answer the awkward questions my family would ask (questions that would make this feel like a soap opera), I drove to a ‘wacky-warehouse’ style pub and ate microwaved chilli con carne, while I waited for him to arrive home. To find my note, saying I knew he hadn’t been at work. To find I’d taken his son. Not a soap opera, but drama.

At five thirty four I declined his calls and ate my cold dessert.

Later, he said he’d just needed some time to himself. He’d been to the cinema.

‘Who the fuck do you think you are, Don Draper?’ I said.[1]

Then pathetic, ‘I wish I could have a day off.’

‘You can,’ he said. ‘Any time you want – you only have to ask.’

‘So why didn’t you?’ I said.

‘You would have made me feel guilty about it.’

‘And this? This is better?’

‘Parental singularity’ is the name Marie-Hélène Huet gives to the belief that ‘only one parent is essentially responsible for procreation.’ This preformationist concept (the human nestled fully formed inside the egg or the sperm) was popular from the middle of the seventeenth century until around the end of the eighteenth century  – ‘assigning sometimes to the father [spermism]; sometimes to the mother [ovism], sole responsibility for progeny.’[2]

In Aftermath (2012), when Rachel Cusk and her soon-to-be-ex are dividing the spoils of their marriage, he asks for half of everything, including the children. Cusk says no: ‘They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.’

In Cusk’s analysis of the Oresteia (fifth century BCE) she argues that one reason why Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon is because she’s become used to the equality of her relationship with Aegisthus. A marriage of equals can’t involve children, because children always tip the balance.[3] ‘The baby can seem like something her husband has given her as a substitute for himself, a kind of transactional object, like a doll, for her to hold so that he can return to the world,’ says Cusk.[4]

A friend once told me, ‘I’m desperate to get married so that I can divorce him – he knows and will never propose.’ She’s furious at the pension he built while she looked after their children. But rather than killing him (Clytemnestra style), in vengeance, she refuses to leave. She wants half of everything, except for the children, who belong to her.

By the nineteenth century most biologists no longer believed in parental singularity, although they found it difficult to shake off. In 1762, Charles Bonnet (an ovist) wrote:

The different orders of infinitely small nested with one another that this hypothesis allows, overwhelms the imagination without alarming reason…I could not bring myself to abandon a theory so beautiful as that of the preexisting germs just to embrace purely mechanical explanations.[5]

Bonnet couldn’t embrace the mechanics of sexual reproduction because he couldn’t bear to discard the cute Russian dolls nested in his imagination.

When my second son was born I had a dream where I forgot who the father was. I met all the sperm I’ve hosted, which appeared to me as men’s faces stuck on the heads of tadpoles, flickering into focus in the lens of a fishbowl. I was getting ready to dip a net and bag one when I kicked off from sleep.

Surfacing through the shallows I struggled to remember the faces of those men and I felt frantic.

When I rolled onto the shore of our bed and asked the real father what all this meant, he said, ‘Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t look like us.’ Everyone tells me that this second son looks like me. By ‘us’ their father means ‘me.’ Maybe he’s a closet spermist: our eldest son looks like him and he’s assumed parental singularity, unable to see that our babies might contain any trace of me.

Looking back at my dream, it could be an animated explainer video for the nineteenth century theory of telegony, which I’d never heard of back then. Telegony supposed that children inherited traits of all the mother’s previous lovers. According to Bill Bynum:

This doctrine carried scientific respectability throughout the 19th century: Claude Bernard, Charles Darwin, and many other shrewd observers accepted the observational evidence and elaborated theories to account for it. They called it “infection of the germ.”[6]

Nineteenth century scientists cited cases of foals born with strange markings, because the mother had (long, long ago) mated with a zebra. The zebra remained, like a ghost, in the womb. By the nineteenth century, epigenesis (the theory that egg plus sperm formed babies) had won the argument and embryology embraced the hybrid. But once the beauty of preformation was infected, telegony took that infection to excess; it became another way to blame abnormalities on the mother. A new variant on the maternal imagination. Everything was down to the mother.

*

I went to hear Rachel Cusk talk, and I remember her saying that all historical fiction is pornography; manipulating itself for the reader. She spoke about a particular historical novel she’d read and questioned the ethics of writing about that trauma. I’d read the same book and agreed that it was gratuitously gruesome. ‘What’s the point? He’s not bearing witness,’ she said. Yep, pornographic. But all historical fiction?

It was soon after my husband’s day off that I met Giordano Bruno. We met in a series of novels that played loose with the events in his life. The books embellished two years Bruno spent living with the French ambassador in London (and spurious claims that Bruno worked as a spy for Francis Walsingham) to create Elizabethan espionage plots.[7]

I saw a way out and began to forget the present tense. My fantasies with Bruno took up a lot of time. If I was a serious writer I would have been writing these fantasies instead of going to bed early to spend longer thinking about Bruno. My husband noticed that I was distant and buying books by a sixteenth century philosopher; that I’d forget dinner and leave T watching CBeebies while I stood at the kitchen worktop reading Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591) – so that when I went to bed to meet Bruno I’d have something interesting to say, before he took me from behind – the rushes on the stone flags sticking to my knees and hands.

Writing about pornography and Histoire d’O (1954) by Pauline Réage, Lisa Robertson describes O’s consent to her own abolishment as ‘nilling as agency.’[8] Robertson associates this active nilling with the pleasure she feels when reading Réage: ‘As I read, my self-consciousness is not only suspended, but temporarily abolished by the vertigo of another’s language. I am simply its conduit, its gutter. This is a pleasure.’[9]

I feel a pleasure similar to Robertson’s when I read historical fiction. Maybe Cusk is right. Maybe it is pornography; maybe that’s why I like it.

Giordano Bruno was a monk who went on the run from a monastery in Naples after he was caught reading a copy of a banned book by Erasmus, in the latrine. He threw off his habit to reveal his small frame, let the dark hair resprout through his tonsure and hit the road. He ended up in London in 1583, which is where we met.

Bruno believed in the infinite universe, that in the cosmos ‘the centre was everywhere and the circumference nowhere’.

I have no way of knowing where my husband went on his day off. My friend asked if I thought he was having an affair. Unlikely, I said, but what did I know? Nothing, except he knew exactly where I was all of the time – somewhere in the orbit of a child.

I’ve read that our solar system is fairly stable and that it’s unlikely that any planets will uncouple from their orbits and escape. I imagine a game of swing ball, where I’m the tennis ball tethered to a pole and whacked about.

I was there for Bruno’s trial – he was imprisoned for nine years – and this part needs serious effort to remain interesting (I go with bribing gaolers, more rushes stuck to my knees. I need a strong stomach for the prison smells, but I’ve been told I have a weak gag reflex). There were twenty-nine accusations made against Bruno in his trial for heresy. ‘Of these twenty-nine accusations, Bruno openly admitted to four: he had read forbidden books, eaten meat on fast days, travelled to Protestant lands and heard Protestant sermons, and denied that the “sin of the flesh” was a mortal sin,’ writes his biographer Ingrid D. Rowland.[10] And there I was!— in that last admission.

In reality Bruno didn’t seem to be a big fan of women. In his preface to The Heroic Frenzies (1585) he writes:

that window-widow, that eclipsed sun, that scourge, that disgust, that stink, that tomb, that latrine, that menstruum, that carrion, that quartan ague, that excessive injury and distortion of nature, with which surface appearance, a shadow, a phantasm, a dream, a Circean enchantment put to the service of generation deceives us as a species of beauty.[11]

When I reread this it reminds me of Jean Palfyn or King Lear and I’m shocked I loved Bruno like I did. Jesus. He always thought I smelled like rancid meat, even after everything we did. I try to make excuses; the preface was dedicated to Sidney (clearly Bruno didn’t approve of Astrophel).

Before I met the man who fathered my children I had a type. He was small, dark, bookish and effeminate. He looked like Bruno, or Bruno looked like him. Friends could predict who I’d zone in on as soon as we entered a room. Somehow, the man who fathered my children does not fit.

Bruno left me shortly after we conceived my second son. There isn’t very much more you can do beyond 1600 – our affair fizzled out after he was stripped naked and burned for heresy.

*

Telegony tells me my thoughts are never hidden. Unlike Bluebeard’s ‘bloody chamber’,[12] my bloody chamber will always leak the secrets of my life. Scrutiny of my children makes me feel under surveillance, which isn’t a new feeling to me, I’ve felt it my whole life. Telegony tells me the children belong to me and will reveal every secret, every desire, every love affair (real or imagined). But in my telegonous dream I imagine those tadpoles bashing themselves against my core, until there’s nothing left except them (my desires).

Although telegony was radical epigenesis (that infected germ!) it disproportionately assigns me with responsibility for my babies – my ‘type’ was always a version of me: small, dark, bookish – and turns me into an ovist. I’m no spermist or ovist. Their father might be onto something in his interpretation of my dream. In my panic, I’m searching for the parts that aren’t their father, or me (or Bruno), or anyone else; the parts that I can’t place. The parts that make them entirely new – the parts that mean they belong to no one. These are the parts that scare me, when rationally, I should feel liberated.

‘Motherhood means that a woman gives her body over to her child, her children; they’re on her as they might be on a hill, in a garden; they devour her, hit her, sleep on her; and she lets herself be devoured, and sometimes she sleeps because they are on her body,’ writes Marguerite Duras.[13]

‘You would have made me feel guilty about it,’ my husband said. And he’s right: I would have made him feel guilty. He was less bunking off work, more bunking off me. If I’d asked for a day off, he would have said yes. But I would never ask, partly because I didn’t want to have to ask (I’m as stubborn as Bruno, who eventually stopped answering his inquisitor’s questions and led himself to the pyre); but partly because I thought, ‘Let them hit me, sleep on me, devour me – pile it on.’ How could my husband and I ever navigate my furious silence?

When I gave up my place in the world and became a mother, I was complicit in my own nilling. There was satisfaction in throwing myself on this pyre. Martyrdom gave me power (‘nilling as agency’) – a closeness to my babies that I could easily abuse by claiming they belonged to me, alone. The temptation was sometimes too great.

My fear is: if I’m liberated from my nilling, what’s left? In Histoire d’O, O is stripped from her previous life (her whole identity packed in a bag and taken); her lover’s initials are branded on her arse; and when abandoned by that lover she prefers to die than return to the world without him. O also chooses martyrdom.

After Bruno, I attempted a brief fling with Johannes Kepler but it wouldn’t stick and we didn’t conceive any children. I remain fond of  him because of what he wrote to Galileo about Bruno:

Certainly those who can conceive the causes of phenomena in their minds before the phenomena themselves have been revealed are more like Architects than the rest of us, who consider causes only after they have seen the phenomena. Do not, therefore Galileo, begrudge our predecessors their proper credit … you refine a doctrine borrowed from Bruno.[14]

I like the implication that Galileo was inferior because he had a telescope. Bruno was almost as confined as me – he only had books and his brain, but reached the same conclusion: that those stars were other galaxies.

Outside our solar system there is no centre, there is no circumference. There are infinite worlds. We’re gummed together with gravity but each in their own private cosmos: at the cinema, watching CBeebies, in the sixteenth-century.

*

Stephanie Limb is an essayist from Derbyshire. She’s currently working on an AHRC PhD, which is a creative/critical hybrid project called ‘The Monstrous Mother’. Her work has appeared in LitroThe MothStand, Blackbox Manifold and other journals. Her book: My Coleridge – a collection of essays about Sara Coleridge and motherhood – was published by Broken Sleep Books in October 2020.

Notes

[1] In Mad Men, Don Draper was pictured skiving from work at the movie theatre almost as often as he was seen skiving from work to have sex with women who weren’t his wife. See particularly: Weiner, Matthew, Mad men, Season two (United States: Lion Gate Films Home Entertainment, 2008).

[2] Marie-Hélène Huet, Monstrous Imagination (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), 41.

[3] Rachel Cusk, Aftermath (London: Faber, 2019), 54.

[4] Cusk, Aftermath, 56.

[5] Quoted in Helmut Müller-Sievers, Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy and Literature around 1800 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 27-28.

[6] Bill Bynum, ‘Telegony,’ The Lancet, Volume 359, Issue 9313, 2002, 1256.

[7] S.J. Parris, Heresy (London: Harper Collins, 2010).

[8] Lisa Robertson, Nilling (Toronto: Bookthug, 2012), 30 [emphasis Robertson’s].

[9] Robertson, Nilling, 26.

[10] Ingrid D. Rowland, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009), 257.

[11] Giordano Bruno, The Heroic Frenzies, trans. Paul Eugene Memmo, JR (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1964), 62.

[12] See Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (London: Vintage, 2006).

[13] Margeurite Duras, The Lover, Wartime Notebooks, Practicalities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 385.

[14] Quoted in Rowland, Giordano Bruno, 281.