Virginia’s Little Problem

An article on the anti-abortion website LifeSite News considers descriptions of abortions in literature and notes, not surprisingly, that most of them are rather down beat. This is written by Jonathan Van Maren and is entitled “There are no happy songs or literary works about the tragedy of abortion”. The first literary example cited is from Evelyn Waugh’s Unconditional Surrender:

When abortion does crop up in literature, it is often presented as the hurried solution to a problematic pregnancy in sheer panic. Evelyn Waugh, a conservative Catholic, presented one such situation with his trademark dry detachment in his World War II novel Unconditional Surrender, when his character Virginia Troy discovers that her rather wanton lifestyle has resulted in a child. “Dr. Puttock, you must do something about this,” she informs her physician. Dr. Puttock, understanding her, replies icily, “I don’t think I understand you.” Fortunately for the child, the address Puttock eventually gives her of a doctor who might be willing to perform such a surgery for a steep price turns out to have been leveled by German bombs, and Virginia ends up marrying instead.

Unfortunately, to prove his point Van Maren has been forced to edit out of the story Waugh’s humour even in dealing with such a somber subject. After finding the first abortionist’s office in Brook St, Mayfair, bombed (as described in the article), Virginia acquires the address of another from Kerstie Kilbannock’s charwoman. This turns out to be a Dr Akonanga, an African immigrant who lives at 14 Blight St, W1, just off the Edgeware Rd. When she finds his address in these less salubrious surroundings, it turns out he has temporarily discontinued his practice and has moved quarters to Brook Street, a few doors down from the first address she tried. Returning to that street, she finds a large house occupied by the military. She is directed to Dr Akonanga’s room and

…was greeted by a small, smiling, nattily dressed negro, not in his first youth; there was grey in his sparse little tangle of beard; he was wrinkled and simian and what would have been the whites of his eyes were the colour of … nicotine-stained fingers; from behind him came a faint air blended of spices and putrefaction. His smile revealed many gold capped teeth.

He mistakes her for the bearer of a shipment of scorpions he had ordered from Africa. This scheme went awry as explained a few pages later (p. 139). Virginia informs him in a roundabout way that she is seeking an abortion. He then explains:

“All that has changed. I am now in government service. General Whale would not like it if I resumed my private practice. Democracy is at stake…I am giving Herr von Ribbentrop the most terrible dreams.”

Thus ends Virginia’s search for an abortionist. After returning to the Kilbannock’s flat, she fell asleep:

She dreamed she was extended on a table, pinioned, headless and covered with blood-streaked feathers, while a voice within her, from the womb itself, kept singing “You, you, you.'”

The voice is Trimmer’s (the father of the unborn child) singing the Cole Porter song “Night and Day” (Unconditional Surrender, Book 2, Chapter iv, pp. 100-04).

The LifeSite article also oversimplifies how Virginia works out her problem. She remarries Guy Crouchback (who knows she is pregnant with another’s child), has the child who Guy claims as his own, and dies in an air raid while the child is being cared for in the country. Guy returns to marry the girl who had been taking care of the child. So, while the humour surrounding the abortion may be a little dark, Waugh, as usual, finds something to laugh about.

Other writers whose works are considered include Hemingway, Hardy, Eliot and Anne Sexton.

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