The Circus

The Circus


18th C

At the time Margaret arrived to take charge of No. 17 The Circus in 1766 when the walls smelled of new paint and the wooden shutters had just been fitted at the windows, she was thirty-eight years old. When Gainsborough decided to uproot the family and take them all to live in London for the rest of his life his wife was forty-six, often a difficult time for a woman facing the menopause and the fluctuations of emotional and physical change frequently experienced. Having established a life for herself in Bath over the past fifteen years it appears that Margaret might not have welcomed the move as enthusiastically as her husband.

Margaret was unusual in that she bore only three children (losing one in infancy) while the average Georgian mother produced six or seven children who survived to adulthood. The high mortality rate affecting women in childbirth meant that it was not unusual for a young expectant mother to leave a letter addressed to the newborn child in case of her death.

Childbirth was anticipated with undisguised fear by women facing their first experience, and with resigned acceptance by the experienced mother. They had no pain relief to help them through the ordeal and prior to the birth they were socially isolated for the final three months when they were confined to the home.

In one horrifying incident described by Amanda Vickery an English woman was in labour for forty-nine and a half hours and then had the ordeal of having her dead baby tgorn apart to be removed in pieces from her body.

The redoubtable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote from Constantinople in 1718 that women there were free of the annoying habit adopted by the English to withdraw from society when noticeably pregnant and then remain at home for a month after the birth. In Turkey, she wrote, there was no shame in becoming pregnant prior to marriage, proof of fertility being regarded as a bonus. After only ten years of marriage families of twelve or thirteen children were common, with older Turkish mothers boasting of broods of twenty five or thirty, so gaining immense respect. When Lady Mary asked how these mothers expected to provide for so many, she was told that the plague was expected to kill off half of them, and usually did so.

As her family increased, so the time available for the Georgian mother to see friends and enjoy a social life decreased. Travel while pregnant and/or nursing a child was difficult, making long journeys unlikely. Methods of contraception were few and far between, consequently most fertile women spent a considerable part of their time pregnant during marriage . Margaret Gainsborough was a rare exception. Bearing ten or twelve children was not unusual, and losing some of them an ever-present fear and a common occurrence. Mothers and fathers were only too aware of the constant threat of disease which ravaged Georgian towns throughout the century. The most frightening were epidemics of typhoid, dysentery, enteric fever and smallpox prevalent in late summer until the first frosts of winter drove them away.

Gainsborough was one of these fathers who was constantly concerned for the health of his beloved daughters when faced with accounts like the following, cited by Amanda Vickery: Anne Gossip had eleven children. Four died in her arms before they were two years old. One son was stillborn, one died aged eleven and two sons died before they were twenty years old. Only one of the eleven outlived the poor mother. This unhappy story was not at all unusual and both mothers and fathers clearly suffered deeply at the loss of infants through the plethora of diseases which threatened their lives.

Even so, each newborn child meant extra expense and responsibility. One clergyman, anticipating the latest addition to his own large family joked with a friend saying he wished he could deal with superflouous children as he did with unwanted kittens: drown those he could not afford.

Gainsborough was not unusual in demonstrating his care and concern for his daughters. Georgian diaries and journals reveal the perhaps surprising fact that fathers often played an active part in childcare, taking charge when wives were away on visits, and taking their turn in the sickroom when necessary.

Many women's lives became so centered on their homes and families after marriage that they lost touch with their girl friends - something that still happens today, especially when babies arrive and the childless feel they have little in common with their former companions.