The Midwife by Tricia Cresswell
What the judges said
‘This novel really stood out: a brilliantly executed double narrative with something serious to say about women in society’ Louise Doughty, novelist
‘The characters are so well portrayed, from the poorest servant to the richest titled woman. The plot twists kept me guessing throughout’ Nicola Holloway, BBC radio producer
‘I loved it, it’s so clever, and I really believed in all of the characters. There’s so much heart in this book’ Charlotte Robertson, literary agent
Excerpt from the winning manuscript
It was first time Dr Borthwick had been to Belgrave Square; the first time a footman in a periwig and satin breeches had opened a front door for him and shown him soundlessly past tall double doors and marquetry side tables and gas lamps on the walls, all alight. Dr Borthwick inhaled with pleasure as the smell of polish and lavender displaced the acrid smokiness of the fog outside.
He had received the elegantly written card requesting him to call on Sir Jeremy Gasgoine with surprise: he had no patients in this part of London and did not think any of his current ones moved in the same elevated circles as Sir Jeremy and his wife. He was intrigued, though, by the opportunity to see inside a recently built house already renowned for its extravagant decoration and paintings and its conservatory reportedly filled with fruits and flowers, even in the winter.
The morning room was warm and well-lit against the gloom at the windows, a side lamp illuminating the bleached face of a heavily pregnant woman lying on a day bed. As she turned to nod at Dr Borthwick’s greeting and bow, her pale lips stretched in a memory of a lovely smile.
Sir Jeremy was polite but brisk. ‘Lady Gasgoine is carrying twins according to Dr Preston and Dr James,’ he said, naming two eminent physicians who provided advice on childbirth to the very rich. ‘There is some disagreement as to how best she can be helped. My wife wishes for a further opinion.’
He sat down by the fire, gesturing Dr Borthwick towards his wife, but Dr Borthwick knew he was being carefully observed.
‘Lady Gasgoine, would you be kind enough to tell me how you are feeling and perhaps respond to my questions?’ Dr Borthwick said, pulling a chair beside the bed so he could sit and face her.
‘Yes. But I tell you now, I will not be bled again.’ The voice was quiet but each word was clear and decisive.
Leaning forward he felt her pulse and then turned over her arms, gently pushing back the loose silk sleeves of her robe. The skin was translucent white, patterned with the livid marks of multiple lancet wounds.
‘How often have you been bled?’
‘Every day for weeks,’ she said.
He looked up and hesitated, then: ‘For my own part, I would not recommend any further blood-letting at this late stage, but perhaps there are other ways I could help.’
He was crossing a line: he knew of Dr Preston’s reputation for vicious professional jealousy; he had heard of Dr Preston’s ridiculing of the work of the accoucheur.
How I did it
‘The novel grew out of the 15,000 word dissertation manuscript for my MA – and from my lifelong involvement in women’s health. I found it difficult not to get lost in the historical research; I kept having to remind myself that I could make things up!
‘The idea for the book came to me as I was walking down Fenkle Street in Alnwick, hearing the clicky noise my new boots made on the wet cobbles. And an image came to me: of a Victorian woman in her best skirt, with her boots newly mended, clip-clopping down the same street. That woman became the midwife in the book.
‘I’ve always been interested in history, especially in the specificities of particular places. So it was important to me that the settings in the story existed, and the events I described could have happened there.
‘The most difficult part of the writing was getting the structure right. There are several twists and reveals in the story that needed careful timing, so the reader is kept guessing.
‘It’s written from two points of view: a doctor in Victorian London and a midwife in rural Northumberland. The stories are interleaved in the book, and I wrote them separately so I could maintain a connection with the characters.
‘I really struggled with the structure, but once I’d created a proper a-b-c story arc in each strand, it started to write itself.'
Tricia Cresswell is a public health expert recently tasked with planning the roll-out of COVID vaccination in the North of England. She recently achieved a distinction in her Creative Writing MA at Newcastle University and is currently working with other writers at Alnwick Playhouse creating responses to the climate emergency.
The other 2020 finalists
- Jacquie Bloese, The Watcher of Hauteville House
- Wei Ting Jen, When You Turn Away
- Lucie Brownlee, The Mother
- Vandana Sehrawat, Becoming A Brave Girl in Gajpur of Delhi