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Illegitimacy — ‘a form of virtue’?

15 April 2016

A Swedish hospital chaplain, Astrid Wretmark, finds inspiration for bereaved mothers in Hardy’s heroine Tess of the D’Urbervilles


Ahead of his time: Thomas Hardy had progressive views on social issues such as illegitimacy

Ahead of his time: Thomas Hardy had progressive views on social issues such as illegitimacy

IN SWEDEN, few people these days read the novels of Thomas Hardy. But I have long been fascinated by the story of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and have even travelled to the UK to see it staged. I am particularly struck by Hardy’s ability to portray strong female characters — women who were imagined in an age of entrenched patriarchy, and yet seem strikingly modern. Of them all, Tess was, without doubt, Hardy’s darling. He is known for saying that he lost his heart to his favourite heroine, as he wrote about her fate.

I find a particular connection with the novel at the point where Tess loses her first and only child. A young and sensual girl, she is seduced and made pregnant by a man from a more exalted social background, Alec d’Urberville. She returns to her parents’ home to give birth, but the little boy does not survive long.

In one of the most moving scenes of the novel, Tess cradles her sick son, desperate and frightened that he will die without being baptised. Her father will not allow the parson to come to “pry into their affairs . . . things being as they are”; so she fills a basin with water and asks the oldest of her siblings to hold the Prayer Book open at the pages for baptism.

The child is christened Sorrow, alluding to the passage in Genesis 3.16: “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Tellingly, this section does not appear in the original edition of the novel; it was thought too offensive, and Hardy was required to edit it out.


TESS’s resolve is remarkable: indeed, it is a maternal courage that I saw often during my time as a hospital chaplain at the Karolinska University Hospital, in Stockholm, in the 1970s. I met many mothers whose babies were stillborn, or had died shortly after birth; and incorporated moving interviews with them in a theological dissertation, Perinatal Death as a Pastoral Problem.

My experience at the time was that mothers of stillborn children were not adequately supported, and certainly not enough was done to help parents to cope with the reality. It was not understood then, as it is now, that seeing the deceased child, spending time with him or her, and attending the funeral can be important parts of the healing process.

I found that staff often referred to stillborn children in belittling language, and only about half of the children included in my study were even given a name, as that was not encouraged. Thankfully, during the 1980s there was a change in attitude in Swedish hospitals.


I WITNESSED bravery and resolve in many grieving women during my time at the hospital. I remember one particular mother of premature twins, one of whom, a boy, had died soon after birth. The mother was so determined that he should be baptised that the nurse had to perform the service. I later baptised the other twin, a girl, in the incubator. I can still picture her lying there, so tiny and almost transparent that I was frightened to open the incubator in case she might die. All the staff had tears in their eyes.

Much later, I interviewed this same mother for my thesis, and, to my delight, I met her daughter, the twin girl, who was by then ten years old. She had given her mother strict instructions that I was not allowed to leave until she was back from school: “I will meet the priest who baptised me,” she had said.

Another mother comes to mind; she had a stillborn boy. I recall her saying that seeing her son was “like entering another world”. She didn’t feel able to attend the funeral, but she asked me for a photo of the coffin with the flowers on it. She said that she herself was not a firm believer, but she wanted to think that someone was there to care for human beings after death.


HISTORICALLY, the Church of Sweden — my home Church — like many State Churches, has mishandled the issues of stillbirth, and children who have died without being baptised. The Swedish Church Ordinance of 1571 stated that unbaptised infants could be buried in a churchyard, but that the minister would not have care of the burial. In 1894, a new Burial Law stated that the committal service of stillborn children should be read in special and less solemn order at the graveside, not in a church, and there should be no ringing of bells. It was not until the Burial Law of 1957 that these restrictions disappeared.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles we see the Church of England battling with the same issue, and Tess’s determination in response. The day after Sorrow dies, Tess attempts to secure a Christian burial for him. The priest refuses to do it himself, and yet he is moved by Tess (“the man and the ecclesiastic fought within him, and the victory fell to the man”), and he reassures her that her own efforts would be the same in God’s eyes.

Tess puts the child in a box, and lays him to rest “in that shabby corner of God’s allotment where he lets the nettles grow, and where all unbaptised infants, notorious drunkards, suicides, and others of the conjecturally damned are laid”.

It is not hard to hear Hardy’s critique of both State and Church in this passage. Although he was raised an Anglican, and even at one time had a “dream of ordination”, he became sceptical of faith and critical of religious hypocrisy. When, in 1905, he received his first honorary doctorate in Aberdeen, he said: “Illegitimacy — so far from being the blackest blot in a community — may be regarded in one aspect as a form of virtue.” The Fabian Society took up Hardy’s theme, arguing for greater support for single mothers. Interestingly, Hardy and his wife, Emma, never had any children.

But this did not limit Hardy’s compassion, an empathy we see in the actions of his favourite heroine, Tess, as she makes a cross for her son’s grave, binding two pieces of wood together with lace. Then she puts flowers in an old pot. “What matter was it that on the outside of the jar the eye of mere observation noted the words ‘Keelwell’s Marmalade’? The eye of maternal affection did not see them in its vision of higher things.”

These flowers tell us something important — both the flowers in Hardy’s fictional narrative, and in the true story of the brave woman who asked me for the photo of her son’s casket. A stillborn child has the same worth as any other: a person with dignity. This was Hardy’s view; it is a true view of humanity.


The Revd Astrid Andersson Wretmark is a retired hospital chaplain and psychotherapist in Sweden.

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