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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Infertile Readings: Research and Writing about Mary Ann Severn Newton

UCL Press will be publishing Life Writing in the History of Archaeology: Critical Perspectives edited by Gabriel Moshenska and Claire Lewis on July 10. I have a chapter in it on a 19thC artist called 'The Ghosts of Mary Ann Severn Newton: Grief, an imagined life and (auto)biography and have just proofed it. The chapter concentrates mainly on archaeological work and explores how I approached tracing her life through auto/biography. I first wrote a version of this chapter in 2018 and it's been through a fair number of revisions. I have written and reflected more on the difficulties of my own infertility, understanding Mary Severn and reproductive justice.

This is the first of three blogs I'm sharing to accompany the publication that concentrate more on my personal story with more detail on the history of reproduction and the impact of involuntary childlessness for women.

1. Trying to Conceive

A print of a baby sat up.
Princess Beatrice of Battenberg (1857-1944) After (Ann) Mary Severn Newton (1832-1866) Lithographer: Richard James Lane (1800-1872) Printed by M & N Hanhart (active 1839-1882) 1858 © National Portrai

In April 2005, I fell in love with a baby who was almost one hundred and fifty years old. It happened in the archives of the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. I had climbed up the winding back stairs to look at a tiny selection of Queen Victoria’s letters and watercolours. I stared at a portrait of a dimpled ten-month-old baby wearing a frilly bonnet and necklace and holding what looked like a teether. She had adorably chubby arms and vivid blue eyes. The portrait was of Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest child, who was born in April 1857 and drawn in early 1858 by a young artist called Mary Severn. Beatrice lived to be 87 and had been dead sixty years when I examined that portrait. Yet that portrait of her as a baby struck me with palpable, tangible life. There was another watercolour in the collection, also by Mary Severn, with baby Beatrice more clearly defined, with a smile and clasped hands, but almost wriggling out of her formal attire. That movement, that energy, matched what I’d learned about the baby Beatrice.

Before I went to Windsor, I gathered as much information about Mary and her sitters as possible, trying to ensure that I wouldn’t miss any detail or connection as I worked through the archive material. What we bring to an archive can shape and colour our interpretation. Part of my response to the portraits of baby

a middle aged white woman dressed in black looking down at a young girl.
Princess Beatrice of Battenberg; Queen Victoria by Unknown artist oil on canvas, late 1860s-early 1870s, Primary Collection NPG 5828

Beatrice was that I already knew something of her character. Six months after the sitting, the same baby was described by her father Prince Albert as, ‘impetuous, wild, comical and merry, her head broadens and she is full of pantomime action’.[1] Queen Victoria noted that when Beatrice was brought to Albert, ‘the lines of worry’ left his face; always ‘the baby’ of the family, even as she grew up, Beatrice was allowed greater freedom than her brothers and sisters.[2] Yet, as both the youngest child and the most obviously beloved by her father, Beatrice became a focus of her mother’s grief when she was just four and her father Albert died in 1861. In childhood, she was photographed and painted as the solace to the widow. What’s more, being the youngest imposed traditional obligations; even after her marriage, Beatrice lived with her mother, acting as both secretary and carer.

Of course, the portraits of baby Beatrice show none of this coming loss and duty, though we might feel a pang looking at the pictures and knowing what was to come. The portraits are cheerful, celebratory and meant for a wider public. Mary Severn’s portraits of Beatrice, and of her sisters the Princesses Helena and Louise, were copied and sold to the public as black and white lithograph prints by the prolific Richard Lane. I had already seen these copies in the National Portrait Gallery, which holds over 800 lithographs of various society and artistic figures by Lane. But Lane’s engravings lack the colour and startling blue eyes of the original watercolours. When I looked for the first time at that chubby, laughing baby, I felt I could almost reach back in time to touch and tickle her. In that back room in a royal palace, I realised how desperately I wanted to hold my own baby.

a drawing of white woman holding a white child.
Ann Mary Severn (1832 - 1866), oval watercolour - portrait of a mother and child, Henrietta and Ella Chester, signed and dated 1859

I was 29 at the time. Earlier in the year, I had been awarded my PhD and I'd recently started working in the National Portrait Gallery. For years, I’d been combining work in learning or public-facing roles in museums with my own academic research. With Mary Severn, employment and research overlapped, as I was following the trail of an artist whose main body of work was portraiture. Mary Severn’s husband, the archaeologist Charles Newton, had featured extensively in my PhD but I’d not had the time or the scope there to learn more about her and her fascinating life. Then, at the Portrait Gallery, I encountered more material by her, including prints of her sketches of Queen Victoria’s children. Mary worked in grand houses and her specialism appeared to be drawing pictures of children and young women, such as this picture which sold at auction in 2018. It was Mary, the artist, who interested me.

My response to the portrait was coloured by more than the research I’d done into Mary and her sitter’s lives. There was my own life, as well. At the time, I had been married for a year and with my husband S were busy flat hunting as first-time buyers. We had also stopped using contraception and I had got myself tested to check that I was still immune to rubella. The popular expression is ‘trying to conceive’ or even ‘TTC’, a horrible term implying that ‘trying’ is all that’s required. I was approaching 30 and did not want to be an ‘old mum’. So that portrait of baby Beatrice struck a deep chord with feelings I’d only begun to acknowledge consciously. The vibrant, lively portrait haunted me over the following five years as, despite all the trying, I failed to have a baby of my own.

About two years later, about the time I realised that there was a serious problem, someone told me at a party that, ‘Of course, you have a career so you don’t want children.’ The remark came completely out of the blue and was made by an older woman whom I had only just met. She had asked me what I ‘did’ and I talked about the freelance work I’d been doing since leaving the National Portrait Gallery, and my new part-time job at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Maybe I came across too strong, too boastfully, but she cut me dead with her response. I was literally speechless, which doesn’t happen a lot. It astonished me that anyone would think that a woman in 2007 could not choose to be a mother as well as have a successful career. Later, it occurred to me that maybe that this older woman hadn’t had that choice. I also cried about it; the first time I remember crying over the fact that I could not conceive. It would not be the last, and this was also just the first of many remarks over the next few years that assumed I chose to be childless. My astonishment faded to resignation, then to a bubbling undercurrent of anger at the regressive attitudes around female reproduction and fertility. The irony was that I’d become desperate to conceive.

By the time of that party, my husband S and I had stepped up our efforts. Each morning, as soon as I woke up, I would check my temperature and record the result on the slip of graph paper supplied with the special kit I’d bought. At around day 21 of a woman’s cycle, just after ovulation, there’s usually a slight rise in temperature for roughly 48 to 72 hours, and this is the best time to conceive. This method of following basal body temperature (known as BBT) has been understood since 1904 but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the raised temperature was connected to the production of the hormone progesterone, the ‘pregnancy hormone’.[12] BBT was scientifically verified in the early 1940s by Mary Barton and her husband Bertold P. Wiesner when they oversaw the fertility clinic at the Royal Free Hospital, London.[13] With a sizeable mass of data – from months of these BBT readings from hundreds of women at their clinic – Barton and Wiesner showed the constant cycle of changes in a fertile woman. When plotted on a graph, these temperature changes made a distinctive, wave-formed pattern over 28 days.

However, my temperature readings did not change more than half a degree and my graph was always a morbid flat line. Trying to conceive meant an increasing obsession with my body and its functions. While recording my temperature, I noted my menstrual cycle, inspected my cervical mucus and felt both anxious and excited when my period was late, as it often was. I tried to fix my flat BBT line by cutting out alcohol between days 18 and 23 of my cycle, then altogether. I ate berries, made smoothies with odd ingredients, took zinc supplements and made S do so. I read far too much advice on the internet, at first concentrating on the more scientifically reputable sites and then, when their guidance didn’t change anything, looking further afield. Around day 18 of my cycle, I even started to concentrate on Mary’s portrait of baby Beatrice, as part of a psychic effort to ovulate. But whatever I tried, that temperature line would not shift.

ANN MARY NEWTON (1832-66) Princess Beatrice drawn 1858 16.6 cm (diameter) | RCIN 913952

I am used to achieving what I want by hard work and determination. That had got me through A-Levels, my PhD, landing museum job after museum job, and the publication of my first book. Recently, in her autobiography, Michelle Obama expressed the same frustration at being unable to conceive and the awful unfairness because ‘there was no straight line between effort and reward’.[14] I might have been less stressed by it all if I’d stuck to the official websites for advice and information, rather than attempting zinc-based smoothies and dreaming about Victorian babies. But I was increasingly desperate, and I also thought that if I only worked harder and did more research, I would find the solution.

Eventually I realised that I couldn’t solve this without help. Late in 2007, my GP sent me for blood and urine tests. They affirmed what I had already guessed, that I was not ovulating regularly. He told me, bluntly, that his practice would not fund the drugs for assisted fertility treatment if I needed them. In the meantime, he referred me to the fertility clinic at our nearest hospital for further tests and treatment. As this went on, I felt increasingly haunted by that portrait of Princess Beatrice. This vivacious baby, sparkling with life, came to represent the babies I longed for. It did not help that I knew that Mary, who had probably drawn hundreds of children, may have been involuntarily childless herself.

References [1] The portraits of Princess Beatrice (RCIN 913951 and RCIN 913952) are referenced online in the Royal Collection Trust catalogue: Information is paraphrased from my notes made at the Royal Collection Archives at Windsor Castle and from Delia Millar (1995), The Victorian Watercolours and Drawings in the Collection of her Majesty the Queen, Volume Two, London: Philip Wilson. [2] David Duff (1958), The Shy Princess: The Life of Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice. The youngest daughter and constant companion of Queen Victoria, London: Evans Brothers Limited, 24. [3] Rowena Fowler (2004), ‘Newton [Severn], (Ann) Mary (1832 – 1866)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press. [4] For example, Mary appears in Tim Hilton (1985), John Ruskin. The Early Years 1819 – 1859, London, Derek Hudson (1974), Munby. A Man of Two Worlds. The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby 1828 – 1910, London: Abacus, Francis Jekyll (1934), Gertrude Jekyll. A Memoir and Sally Festing (1991), Gertrude Jekyll, London: Penguin. [5] Alicia Foster (2004), Tate Women Artists, London: Tate Publishing, 52. [6] Letters from Joseph Severn in Grant Scott (2005) Joseph Severn. Letters and Memoirs, Aldershot: Ashgate: Joseph Severn, Letter to Elizabeth Severn, 10-12 January 1842, in Scott (2005), 402, no. 100; Joseph Severn, Letter to Elizabeth Severn, 22 October 1853, in Scott (2005), 454, no. 126. Also, Severn Family Manuscripts, Keats’ House Collection, London Metropolitan Archives, K/MS/02/076 1821-1879. [7] Sheila Birkenhead (1965), Illustrious Friends. The Story of Joseph Severn and his Son Arthur, London: Hamish Hamilton, 117-8. [8] Pamela Gerrish Nunn (1987), Victorian Women Artists. London: The Women's Press, 45. [9] Deborah Cherry (1993), Painting Women. Victorian Women Artists, London: Routledge, 21 & 103. [10] Queen Victoria, Thursday 5 November 1857, Website: Queen Victoria’s Journals:[accessed 6 January 2020]. [11] Millar (1995), 797-8. [12] Naomi Pferrer (1993), The Stork and the Syringe. A Political History of Reproductive Medicine, Cambridge: Polity Press, 131. [13] Robin E. Jensen (2016), Infertility. Tracing the History of a Transformative Term, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 139. [14] Michelle Obama (2018), Becoming, London & New York, Penguin Random House, 187. [15] Birkenhead (1965), xiii. [16] Sheila Birkenhead (1902-1992) was married to Frederick Winston Furneaux Smith (1907-75), who was the great-grandson of Joseph Severn and the grandson of Mary’s younger sister Eleanor Severn Furneaux (1842-1912). Eleanor kept her correspondence with her sister Mary as well as her diary and passed these on to her own daughter Margaret Furneaux (1881-1968), who married Frederick Edwin Smith, the first Earl of Birkenhead and were the parents of Sheila’s husband. [17] Birkenhead (1965), 103. [18] ‘Exhibition of the Royal Academy’, The Times, 09 April 1863 (25467), 12, Col. E.


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