In The King's Midwife
, scholar Nina Rattner Gelbart takes on a daunting task: the biography of a woman so fiercely private (or should that be public?) that she left no record at all of her personal life. "In her hundreds of letters there is never a single mention of her origins, parents, childhood, siblings, education, young adulthood, training, marriage if there was one, children if she had any, friends outside of her work," Gelbart writes, with more than a touch of frustration. What we do know about Madame du Coudray is this: in 1750, spooked by reports that the French population was in decline, King Louis XV appointed her to travel throughout the country, training young peasant women to assist at live births. For 30 years, du Coudray crisscrossed the provinces in pursuit of this goal, using a life-size obstetrical mannequin that she'd invented as a teaching aid. Gelbart relies on du Coudray's voluminous correspondence with regional authorities to construct her portrait of a driven, proud, politically savvy, and fiercely ambitious woman. To make her way as an 18th-century woman in the world of the male medical establishment--not to mention the royal court, and later, postrevolutionary France--du Coudray seems to have downplayed her interior life as much as possible. Yet Gelbart makes "a virtue of necessity" by using the very incompleteness of du Coudray's story to illuminate the larger issues at stake--the "history and mystery" encountered when writing any biography: "Historians always have to work with fragments and lacunae, with revelations and secrets. We may crave coherence and synthesis, but because much remains indecipherable we do not get it." Despite the ultimate "unknowability" of du Coudray and her motives, Gelbart does an admirable job in bringing her to life through her public works. The King's Midwife
is a "scholarly" biography--a statement that might justifiably strike fear in the heart of the stoutest reader--but Gelbart keeps the academese to blessed minimum. For the most part, this is a lively and well-written account of an exceptional life.
From Publishers Weekly
This reconstruction of the life of a woman who began teaching midwifery courses in France in 1759 makes use of an unusual method: brief, dated sections describe du Coudray's activities in the present tense. It's a gamble, but it works. In Gelbart's skilled hands, du Coudray comes alive both as a historical figure and as a woman. While there are still holes in this history (and Gelbart openly admits as much), the material that is presented is absorbing. A description of a 1744 birth with bloodletting and herbal concoctions fascinates, both because of its strangeness and its familiarity. Du Coudray is said to have been responsible for the training of an estimated 10,000 midwives (counting those she trained personally and those in turn trained by her former students) over 35 years. She was also the inventor of obstetrical "machines," anatomical models made of leather encasing real pelvic bones (though later the bones were made of wood and wicker) that made it possible for midwifery students to gain hands-on experience. In 1759 she published a textbook on midwifery that Gelbart describes as France's first how-to manual. Gelbart, a professor of history at Occidental College in L.A., convincingly depicts du Coudray as a woman who saw her teaching as a kind of patriotic duty; and through this portrayal, Gelbart reveals interesting glimpses of late-18th-century France. Jealousy and competition between midwives (who were all female) and surgeons (who were all male) are reported as early as 1743. Plus ca change.
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