The House of Fiction

By Phyllis Richardson

A cultural exploration of British houses in fiction from Shandy Hall to Manderley

Monday, 21 July 2014

Unwanted pregnancy in 18thc Scotland

Scholars of Walter Scott will have long known what I'm just discovering, that the author of galloping adventure and romance was sympathetic to the plight of women. LIke Jane Austen, he called attention to the state of genteel young women who were prevented from inheriting due to laws of entail, like Rose Bradwardine of Waverley and Lucy Bertram of Guy Mannering. With poor Effie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian Scott yanks on the heartstrings like some lunatic churchbell-ringer. It's mad melodrama of course, but the novel highlights the impact of a law (The Act Anent Child Murder of 1690) that stipulated a death sentence for any woman who had concealed her pregnancy, had not asked for help and whose baby had died or could not be found. The sentence could be handed down without any need for proof of a woman's guilt, or even of a child being killed. The mere knowledge that a woman, usually a poor unwed woman, had been known to be pregnant, had tried to hide it, but then did not produce a live infant was enough to drag her to the gallows. The law was supposed to combat perceived increase in the deaths of unwanted children. That a decrease in poverty might have had a better outcome is something Scott seems to be suggesting. There's an interesting true story here.

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