Sarah has always known she is different. Her parents never missed an opportunity to remind her. They never faltered in telling her how she was one of the children being born in England who were monstrous, with claws, too many eyes, or mouths, or with fur, tales, or scales, or any number of “differences.” Sarah’s anomaly was easily removed shortly after she was born, so she has been able to “pass” for someone “normal”. But Sarah has never felt able, never been allowed, to fit in.
After the sudden and unexpected death of her husband, Sarah moved to London. She hoped that, away from those who had known her all her life and the rumors about her husband’s death, she would be able to fit into the metropolis and create a quiet life where she could simply be. She began to work as a mid-wife’s apprentice with Mrs. June and is hopeful, someday, she will be able to establish herself as a mid-wife and live a quiet, comfortable life. Until then, she works diligently under Mrs. June’s watchful eye as they deliver an increasing number of babies that truly were not meant for this world. But what is causing these births? Why are their numbers increasing? Is there anything Sarah, as an apprentice mid-wife, can do about them?
In A Season of Monstrous Conceptions, Lina Rather paints a dark, but beautiful, portrait of 17th century London where what we come to know as science is being discovered, and the city is rebuilding after the Great Fire. Rather illustrates the different strata, whether social, economic, or of other sorts, and how difficult, if not impossible, it was to breach those distinctions. She also depicts how those in the lower rungs of society could, and would, create brief moments of joy and celebration (even if they had to hide them from the watchful eyes of the upper classes).
In the novella, childbirth, which was always a hazardous proposition at this point in history, has the additional risk that the child will be “one of those” who will either not survive the birthing process or, worse, will force the parents to decide the child’s fate. Sarah, the novella’s protagonist, was born as one of the strange babies, but due to the quick thinking of her family, she has always been able to pass as normal. As a result, Sarah has lived her whole life attempting to blend in, afraid of unwanted attention, always fearful of discovery. This is clearly a metaphor for many reasons people have been made to feel like an “other” in their culture and are forced to hide, pass, or a combination of the two.
A Season of Monstrous Conceptions is also a meditation on how limited the options were, and continue to be, for women to manage their own existence. As a young, unwanted woman, Sarah has had almost no control over her life. She was told by her family she needed to marry, but was given no choice regarding her husband. Now a young widow, Sarah still has virtually no choices after the death of her husband. She could pursue another marriage, a choice fraught with peril given who she is. Her only other options are to seek one of the few occupations allowed in London society or to prostitute herself, literally, to survive. Even after choosing to pursue a profession, she must be concerned with class issues, societal expectations regarding acceptable behavior, along with working as an apprentice under a grueling task master who holds her future in her hands and can dash it on a whim if she chooses.
While A Season of Monstrous Conceptions is set nearly four centuries ago, it reminds us all of issues people are dealing with today.
Read an interview with the author here.