Boston was bustling. It was actually a short ride in an open carriage from our home in Cambridge over the West Boston Bridge to North Grove Street near the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. While only a few miles and the Charles River separated us, it seemed a world apart from the sleepy college town. Boston had been slowly creeping into Cambridge over the past decade, but not enough to squelch its own character.
The lecture hall on the ground floor of the medical school’s main building was to be the venue for this particular lecture series. Generally women were not allowed to attend, however given the subject matter and my husband’s financing of the lectures, I was granted admission. William had assented to my request to sit at the back of the room, nearest the exit, should I need an escape. I had chosen an exceptional gown of deepest blue with the requisite full skirt, high neckline, and tight bodice accented with jet buttons, black braid, and many pleats and tucks. I had ordered a new corset for the occasion, with exquisitely detailed embroidery that no one would ever see. It had cost a fortune. It gave me immense satisfaction to know that come what may, my undergarments were more costly than anything else anyone was wearing. The chemise and underpinnings all had matching embroidery and mounds of French lace. My hair was parted down the middle with two braids that swung from each side and met in the back in a simple twist that was wound into a tight knot at the base of my neck. A pair of jet earrings dangled from my earlobes and a large jet brooch held the collar at my throat. New black shoes cut into my ankles and I could feel the blisters forming. The pain would serve to keep me focused. I cursed myself for lacing the corset so tightly. I could hardly breathe with my heart beating against the stays as insistently as it was. I had pushed the maid into pulling the laces tighter, knowing that the intervening years of marriage had made me a bit thicker around the middle than I had been in Edinburgh.
William guided me around the room, introducing me to one finely dressed gentleman after another, accepting the slaps on the back, knowing glances, and veiled innuendos with genuine pride. He whispered in my ear after one particularly flattering complement, “You look ravishing darling…thank you!” It is not for you. Sadness and guilt welled up within me but it was not enough to keep me from glancing furtively around the room for that familiar sandy hair, those broad shoulders.
When I finally saw him enter across the room accompanied by the dean of the medical school, I turned away quickly, feeling my cheeks flush. I tried to appear engrossed in my husband’s conversation with an elderly fellow with a long, flowing white beard. What was this fellow’s name? I cannot remember what they were saying, as I could not focus on their words despite my valiant attempts. It was as if in slow motion that they spoke, jaws opening and closing…gaping holes of nothingness full of meaningless gibberish. In what was likely a matter of seconds but which felt instead like a half hour, I was aware of Nathaniel’s presence at the edge of my peripheral vision. His companion began motioning in our direction, leading him across the room to our little group. I resisted the urge to turn and run.
As the pair arrived, the dean, closest to me, announced, “May I present Dr. Nathanial Joseph Brierly.” The group nodded silently in his direction. “This is Mr. William Aspern, Mrs. Aspern, and Mr. Barnard Townshend.”
Dr. Brierly nodded acknowledgement to Mr. Townshend then turned to William, offering his hand. “Mr. Aspern, I must thank you for your support of my lecture.”
“It was a topic of particular importance to my wife, as you may imagine. May I present Mrs. Aspern?” William gestured to me and I turned to make eye contact with Dr. Brierly, presenting my hand. I searched his face for some recognition, but there was none. He had not seemed to have aged in the slightest.
“Ah, Mr. Aspern, what a lovely wife you have.”
He bowed as he took my gloved hand and kissed it, then stepped back. He turned to the gentlemen again.
“I must prepare, we will begin shortly.” Then he was gone.
We began gravitating to our seats. I could see him shuffling papers at the podium, locating diagrams. The lecture itself was tedious, filled with numbers and statistics on ether and chloroform safety. The Scottish brogue with which he spoke was the only thing that made it bearable. There were a few technical diagrams demonstrating proper technique for the administration of analgesic gasses via patented machines that were mildly interesting. Then, the floor was opened up for discussion and things became much more entertaining.
“James Simpson favors the use of chloroform early in labor and until the woman is rendered entirely unconscious. Is this safe? Or do you advocate these more controlled methods exclusively?” This was from a stooped, older gentleman on the front row.
“Will all due respect to Dr. Simpson, I believe I have proven that a more controlled approach, tailoring anesthesia to the needs of the patient is a much safer use of anesthesia.”
“Does the use of chloroform reduce the strength of contractions, prolonging the birth process?” asked a young fellow a few rows ahead and to the left.
“Certainly not. I have seen it actually speed delivery by allowing women to relax and allow nature to take its course rather than fighting against the agony that they are feeling.”
A rather dour, dark haired man near the front stood. “Are we defying God by removing his curse over Eve?”
“Do men not use machines for cultivation? Does doing so damn us for removal of our curse to toil upon the land?” he replied calmly.
“Why should we rob women of this essential part of womanhood?”
“Well, why don’t we ask a woman?” He gestured toward me. “Mrs. Aspern, do you believe that the pain of childbirth is an essential part of your experience of womanhood?”
There was that noise, that rumble that signaled that now every man in the room had shifted in their seats to stare at me. “Stand up, my dear.” William whispered into my ear. I stood slowly and hesitated. I looked down at William, sitting beside me to my left. He gave my hand an encouraging squeeze and winked. I directed my comments to the two hundred or so men in the room.
“I…I would say…” I struggled to find something to say. Here I was, about to appear the fool. Then the answer struck me like a lightning bolt between the eyes. However undignified it would be for me to speak of such things, it was my only recourse. “Some cultures have young men circumcised as their rite of passage into adulthood rather than performing it in infancy.” I could hear a shocked intake of air resonate from the lips of the men in the room. “I would pose that when men consider experiencing the pain of circumcision to be an essential part of their experience of manhood, then they can speak to me of the pain in childbirth as an essential experience of womanhood. My only regret would be that there is only one potential foreskin to be removed from each male, and yet perhaps half a dozen children or more to be had for each woman. I believe that the theologian Thomas Chalmers stated before his death that there was no theological part to the debate about the use of analgesia during childbirth. To echo his sentiments, if we are to debate anesthesia in childbirth, let us keep it limited to questions of safety and efficacy.” I was met with stunned silence from the crowd.
“Well said, Mrs. Aspern, well said.” There was a hint of admiration in his voice as there was a round of “Here, here!” that echoed from a few members of the audience as I returned to my seat.
I do not recall how the rest of the questions and answers went as I was feeling rather lightheaded, like the buzz one gets after a couple of glasses of good red wine. Or scotch. I do remember William leaning over to whisper, “Well done.”
After the presentation, William dragged me up to the front and we hung around until everyone had finally finished with the questions they were too embarrassed to ask Dr. Brierly in public.
I stood there alone as William was dragged a short distance away by the dean. I could not hear what they were discussing. I felt a light tap on my shoulder and a quietly whispered, “Excellent response, Evelyn.”
Nathanial was there as I turned.
“So you do remember me, after all?” I whispered back.
“Ah, yes. I have been unable to forget.” There was some sadness there. Good.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Well. And you?” He paused. “I see that you are married after all.” He had a look upon his face that seemed to say I told you so.
“He adores you,” he said simply.
“Yes, he does.”
“And you? Are you married?” I needed his answer to be yes but I wanted it to be no.
“I see,” I said softly.
William rejoined us as Nathaniel was about to say something else and put his hand on my shoulder. He was eager to discuss medicine and Edinburgh. “Would you honor us by joining us at our home, Dr. Brierly? In fact, I would be pleased if you would consider relinquishing your hotel room to stay with us in Cambridge.” Oh, no! I must have gasped because Nathanial’s eyes darted over to meet mine. I could see hope and fear dwelling behind his eyes.
“I…I am…not sure…,” he stammered. He seemed a bit taken aback by the offer.
“Nonsense! You will come! Where are you staying? We will send the carriage straightaway for your things.” William said this rather forcefully, a tone I had not heard in his voice before. I wondered how often he used it when I was not around? Perhaps often in the course of business?
“…I am at the…”
I could not make out what he said, but William nodded and assured him that the bags would be sent for immediately. “You must accompany us! Come!”
William let the way to the carriage waiting outside, his hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder. As William chatted about Boston history, Nathaniel looked back at me, walking cautiously behind them and mouthed the words, “I am sorry.” I scowled at him. Why did you agree to come? I could not meet his gaze for long, instead opting to look more closely at empty reflections from the windows of the nearby hospital until I was ushered into the carriage sitting across from Dr. Brierly and my husband. William continued his dialogue about local history until we passed over the Charles River again and arrived at our home. I sat silently in the corner watching the face of my husband and my former lover as they conversed. The sun was fading behind the trees with the most spectacular reds and oranges I had ever seen. I was not at peace. Not at all.
What had begun as a voyeuristic adventure, intending only to peek into the life I might have had, now ended here with my two worlds colliding. God help me. The devil would be sitting in my drawing room.