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In Which I Discuss Birth Control and Family Planning from a Historical (Victorian) Perspective (and Historical/Fictional Dissonance)

by Kellyn Roth |
September 7, 2022

Yeah, this is gonna be a heavy post, but hopefully y’all will forgive me. I WILL be briefly discussing forms of birth control, but I will be careful not to include details.

But I’m a married woman AND an expert in historical birth control (despite the fact that I have never and probably never will use birth control myself for various reasons), so this post will be mature in that way. However, I would advise unmarried innocents (e.g. those who don’t have a purely information-based interest in this and who may be sensitive) to NOT read this post.

Please, please police yourself. If this will offend you, please avoid it. (And if you truly feel I shouldn’t have posted this, please let me know. I’ve prayed about it, and I still believe it’s something that I want to publish. However, I’m willing to consider y’all to be the voice of SOMETHING – whether that is a push to pray further or even the voice of God in my life. So don’t be shy.)

I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time in a clean, godly way because I feel this information is interesting and important, and yet, I wouldn’t encourage you to Google it. There’s too much misinformation AND too much dirty stuff out there. I want to provide an alternative.

This is going to use vague terms understanding that my audience may not be terribly interested and further will have no real need to use specifics in their novels, so if you write the kind of books where this would be … uh, deeply discussed … go ahead and find another post to read. This is a vague overview.

First myth I want to discuss:

Victorian women did have methods of birth control available to them.

Were they commonly discussed? No. Were they supported by the Church? Quite the opposite. (For instance, I read a book where a small town in Ireland was dealing with the clergy specifically giving a hush-up order to midwives on Natural Family Planning.)

In case you’re skeptical because you think you know everything about the Victorian era, did you know that Victorian women got piercings, often in private places? Did you know that over half of Victorian women were pregnant on their wedding day? Did you know how common tattoos were?

This was NOT an era of societal purity. It was an era of feigned purity and strict morality in the upper class. Some parts of society were restrictive, but not all circles – and certainly not all regions. Specifically, in England, there was a huge push from highly-religious Queen Victoria to APPEAR moral … but, um, well, a lot of high society wasn’t.

And a lot of Victorian literature doesn’t portray the era with accuracy OR doesn’t get read by modern readers (or was written by a specific sect of society). Would you like to base your understanding of today’s contemporary society in the future on, say, modern Love Inspired books? Because that’s basically what a lot of you are doing. And it doesn’t hold up.

For context, consider that L.M. Montgomery hated writing the Anne of Green Gables books because they were sickly sweet, she was deeply depressed and even (probably) committed suicide, and her relationship with her husband was duty-based and torturous (by her own description). Plus she had several affairs before marriage that were undoubtedly physical (again, based on letters).

Uh … kill your darlings?

That said, society was much more proper and private than we are today!

That said, a lot of the Victorian era was AS pure as you think. So birth control would not have EVER been a subject of parlor discussion.

Mixed company would never have discussed it. Never.

Husbands and wives might not have discussed it unless they have a particularly open relationship (which in general I try to portray my couples as having because I just can’t stand anything else).

Men might’ve discussed it amongst themselves and women with very, very, very close friends or family members, again with a hush-hush attitude.

But in some circles, it wouldn’t have ever come up. Upper class circles, where unwed pregnancy was much rarer, are a good example of this. It wouldn’t have been a necessary discussion, and they probably would’ve considered the only acceptable form of birth control to be abstinence.

That said, by the end of the 1880s, the birth rate in upper class Victorian households dropped by several children. Like, from seven to five to THREE. Literally only THREE children. Further, upper class late Victorian women were unlikely to have children past thirty-five.

So something definitely went on. And it was likely partially related to abstinence, I’m afraid to say. Husbands and wives probably shared rooms less often and were intimate less often, probably due to the rise of woman’s suffrage in England among other things. Men no longer considered women to be merely property, and women no longer considered themselves to be such. (Remember, the suffrage movement was alive in kicking in America by the early 1800s and spreading to England by the 1850s, so by the 1880s, it had finally started to take actual effect.)

However, it probably wasn’t ALL abstinence. And with the rise of various products being advertised (YES ADVERTISED in vague ways – as were, sadly, abortion-related products that probably didn’t work) it was likely women were able to order various devices to aid in contraception.

Plus they were marrying later and later, but yeah. These factors all added to the diminishing birth rate in upper class women of the late Victorian era.

However, in lower class society:

In lower class communities, midwives reigned. And midwives are women. And they’re more traditional. In places like Scotland, as I end up mentioning in After Our Castle, midwives tended to have more belief in pre-Christian practices.

For Celtic-inspired cultures, a culture already heavily guided by cycles (especially related to the moon which is traditionally associated with female fertility), this includes a strong understanding of how women’s natural cycles work, including the fact that women are only fertile a few days out of the month.

This was understood and taught to young women, and so natural family planning (avoiding certain dates, which is almost as effective as today’s modern birth control if in tune with your body, which these women definitely were) was a pretty big deal.

That said, why WOULDN’T you want children? There are a range of reasons, mostly health-related (I could write a whole post about frail and/or insane Victorian women who probably just had hormonal issues because there was lead in the paint or whatever), but most women desired large families or were pressured into having families anyways. After all, especially in lower class situations, large families were valuable (and until the end of the 1800s, it was the same in upper class families, especially in an era when most children didn’t make it to adulthood).

That said, there were a number of pseudo-natural ways of preventing children, from treatments (which I won’t go into detail about) that took place after intimacy, to superstitions that didn’t really work, to taking certain herbs, to condoms made of various materials (including leather – horrible, horrible idea – but also animal intestines, cloth which would be horribly ineffective but whatever Victorians, and eventually rubber) which could be home-made or purchased (toward the end of the Victorian era, anyway) and which were made for men OR women.

Kinda TMI, but I already told you this would get TMI, and that’s about the worst of it.


Abstinence is, of course, the best form of birth control

According to a lot of Victorians, and to me, it’s not a very MORAL form of birth control for a married couple (it’s a VERY moral form of birth control for unmarried couples, obviously, but I digress).

This is why, in A Prayer Unanswered, Riley clarifies that they won’t be doing “anything unbiblical” after he tells Peter he and Maddie don’t want more children for a while. (How are Riley and Maddie going to do this? Really, none of your business. If Peter didn’t ask, you know you shouldn’t. But between us, Maddie is a doctor’s daughter with Lilli Strauss who can’t shut up to save her life for an aunt and Riley has a past, so I’m pretty sure they’re just avoiding dates.)

Further, in Catholic circles (as now!) – and in most or all churches at the time – there was a huge stigma about birth control or any kind of child-prevention. So again, no discussion happened, if it did it was private, and most people were scandalized by it.

(The thing is, some of my characters are smart enough to understand the difference between the church’s overbearing nature, especially in that era, and personal conviction, and so here we are. Having this conversation.)

But …

This is just my opinion, since I can’t find a resource that either doesn’t discuss or discusses it like it was super common, but I doubt this was super common. I think in general, Victorians WERE like we assume. There were just, as in any society, a large group of outliers that didn’t get frequent discussion.

However, to assume that all Victorians acted as they do in Victorian literature (often, but not always) is inherently factual. There was outliers, and often, I find myself writing books about the outliers.

Why? I don’t know. My characters seem to have a penchant for “scandal.” However, I don’t believe the outliers are often as “outliery” as you think. Here’s the problem with our general understanding of historical eras:

Literature does not accurately portray reality 80% of the time.

A lot of what we used to form our opinions on historical eras these days seems to come from one of the following sources.

  • Satire about the era.

    • Example: Jane Austen, Mark Twain.
    • Not necessarily accurate because it often exaggerates certain elements of the era (or all elements). Since you didn’t live through the era, it can be difficult to discern, without historical record, what is and is not satire.
  • “Love Inspired” (idealistic, sweet, light) fiction.

    • Example: Lucy Maud Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, Maud Hart Lovelace.
    • Often gives an idealistic, sweet, or otherwise light-hearted take on the era, ignoring bigger problems or things that are “hard” (much like Christian fiction sometimes does today).
  • Children’s fiction.

    • Example: Martha Finley, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
    • Well, you wouldn’t expect children’s fiction to discuss big, adult life issues, would you? At least, not most of them. Also, there was a tendency in Victorian children’s fiction to moralize and focus on presenting perfect role models. Nothing more unrealistic than that.
  • Heavily-prejudiced fiction.

    • Example: Margaret Mitchell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck.
    • A LOT of writers fall into this category. They portray one side of an issue to make a point, and oftentimes, they use their powerful writing to sway their reader one way or another.
  • “Think” fiction.

    • Example: Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Nathanael Hawthorne.
    • More focused on some kind of particular thought process, point, etc., than anything else. Often don’t have time to perspectives they aren’t willing to explore and/or do nothing but explore perspectives. These are probably the more accurate to the time pieces of the bunch; however, they still lack actual reality.
  • Fiction written ABOUT the era

    • I won’t even both giving examples, but there are a lot of these. Especially in the mid-1900s, as communication spread, historical eras became more talked about … and often the way the Victorian era in particular was talked about was based on inaccurate stories from grandmothers and from suffragettes and … well, don’t get even get me started on corsets.

Then of course there’s science fiction, comedies, and such, but we won’t even discuss that. We all get that those aren’t necessarily reliable historical resources.

Basically, we need to do better. We need to dig deeper. We need to expect fiction to be just that … fiction. Not our own personal little guidebooks.

However …

Just because something exists doesn’t mean you have to talk about it.

I probably won’t discuss this much more than this post and a few instances in my latest novels. However, it’s good background information for me – and may be for you, too.

Also, I wish there was more vintage Love Inspired fiction. I didn’t at all mean that in a negative way. If you could write a book half as good as those old novels, I would love to read it! We need stories like that. Unlike a lot of modern fiction that is mostly fairly light, those old books actually had impact.

So keep writing, however you write. But just know that the world has never had a “good old days.” Only hindsight makes it so.




Well. Let me have it. Should I have discussed this? Also, what are your thoughts? Do you agree with me or do you think I’m misinformed? I will not I largely didn’t give sources because a: I get those things off my search history ASAP and b: I didn’t want to link out to articles that might have readers going down a sometimes graphic, sometimes just inappropriate rabbit hole.

What do you think of my thoughts?

27 Responses

  1. I thought this was really good, well-written, and highly informative (and with the motive to be informative, you obviously did not share things just to be shocking or graphic). So well done. Perhaps, as someone living in a century of highly inappropriate society, I am merely desensitized to such historically private information (in which case I’ll just wallow in self-pity for being born in the wrong era), but as I genealogist I necessarily think about things relating to gaps between children’s births, births less than nine months after a marriage, and etc. So this post was helpful to me in that way, although it’s not particularly surprising. I mean, human nature does not change from its sinful ways, so that unbiblical birth control existed back then is entirely believable. It’s only a question of “how common?” — which I think modern leftists answer with a “very common” mindset, in order to normalize such behavior. Whereas in reality, there was at least a facade of propriety in this culture, so if one had a mind to follow biblical practices, it would have been easier to do so.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your enlarged statement “Just because something exists doesn’t mean you have to talk about it.” I think our modern society has completely forgotten this …

    As for vintage “Love Inspired” fiction, I’d say Grace Livingston Hill is a great representation. I don’t know if you’ve read her? It takes a while to run out of everything she wrote.


    1. I’m with you there! I think there are a lot of things that weren’t super common but were known in certain circles … that said, not in others AT ALL. So I’m not entirely sure we’ll ever know (or need to know) how widespread this was. But people are always going to do things – like have immoral relationships and kill babies – at least sometimes, because sinners will exist. So we at least have to be aware of how big and real sin is, even as we turn our faces from it toward God, because who needs to focus on that stuff for long?

      I agree that the culture makes a huge difference.

      The sad truth is, a lot of secular authors will also exaggerate how LITTLE access to information about simple anatomical information there was in the name of “women were so oppressed!!” Sure, they were, but not to the degree of “a woman wouldn’t even know the purpose of her monthly cycles.” That’s ridiculous. To a degree, there might have been ignorance … but not to the point where men were the only one with access to such information. That’s just silly.

      I haven’t actually read anything by her, though I’m always getting her recommended to me. I’d probably enjoy her!

  2. This is a great post! This is honestly something I’ve wondered about; the historical side of birth control fascinates me. This definitely wasn’t written for the shock factor, and you’ve done a great job of telling us what went on in a factual way.

    I do agree that there are some things we just don’t always have to talk about, even though it definitely happens. At the same time, though, I would say this is a topic that’s not talked about enough–not in the proper context, anyway. Women need to understand what birth control actually is and why in many cases it can become unbiblical. I’m not necessarily against birth control (except for those methods that are morally wrong), but as with anything, there’s a time when it’s just not appropriate. And our society has definitely crossed the line of appropriate use.

    1. Yup, no shock factor here. I did have fun with it, I admit, but that’s just because I’m an absolute nerd about this.

      I’m with you there. I do think there are some methods of birth control that are logical, and some circumstances in which it just makes sense, but in general, it has been misused, and I’d even go as far as to say at least hormonal forms of birth control have caused a lot of harm. It would be nice if people could talk about it just enough to, you know, make it more known about?

  3. ?

    I think it’s totally fine for you to write about this! Also, you were spot on with how literature isn’t accurate 80% of the time! That’s why I’m going to put more weight on actual diaries and letters and documents written during an era to construct a character’s dialogue, beliefs, opinions, etc, and a little less weight on the fiction of that time. Because like you said, they tended to exaggerate.

    1. Yup, I’m totally with you there! Diaries and letters are such a better source. (Though sometimes you do have to be careful about those because you’ll be reading along and suddenly you’re like, “Victoria, I wish you hadn’t said that to me” and then you’re like, “Well, I guess she can say whatever she wants in her private journal which I am reading …”)

      1. I found a sentence in a compilation of Civil War records that literally reads “It was just as funny as it could be” and if that doesn’t sound like it could be said today, then I don’t know what does. xD

  4. Not sure why someone would be upset that you wrote about this. It was super good and helpful to know! I loved and agree with your point about just because it wasn’t talked about doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. There was so much immorality in previous eras that we tend to romanticize when in reality mankind everywhere and in every era are sinful creatures without the grace of God.

  5. Girl with that warning I didn’t know what I was getting into ? But seriously, thank you for this post! So well handled and researched! Makes my historian heart proud ? you enlightened me on a few things I had been able to dig up, so thank you for adding ammo to my arsenal! (And on a separate note, thank you for calling Harriet Beacher Stowe’s righting exactly what it is! Her books were banned, not because of her abolition, but because of her vicious attacks on reality, which actually lead to the death of several people unjustly. Not her fault persay, I don’t think words equal violence, but some would use her as justification. {I’m obviously against slavery, but theres a difference between abolishing and anti-slavery, but I digress ?} Any who, many aren’t brave enough to call her prejudiced and I thank you ?)

    I will be sharing this post in an upcoming round up! Thank you so much!

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

      Well, I’m not against Harriet Beacher Stowe or abolitionism, as I am unfortunately one of those people who would have probably been an abolitionist myself if not to quite the same extreme of say John Brown, but I do acknowledge that there is a great deal of dissonance between reality and some of what she wrote and discussed, as with any other movement, including ones that are very dear to my heart in modern day life but that … well, that get some … interesting perspectives tossed in there. Much as with any other author who has a Big Thing they want to share – Margaret Mitchell, and just … every American author in the early 1900s … and so on. But I do agree that she didn’t provide a balanced view of the situation at all and was entirely black/white about every subject she discussed.

  6. I really like your analysis of the types of Victorian literature which have survived long enough to be labelled “classics,” and why those aren’t representative of the full scope of life during that era. Excellent job!

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–fiction is not real life, and fiction can never fully represent the past. It can help us understand the past, sure… but as you very astutely point out, Jeeves, you can’t just read Lucy Maud Montgomery and then go “Now I know everything about Victorian love, sex, and romance!!!”

    Avoiding sex during fertile periods is known in Catholic circles as “natural family planning” or NFP, and it’s hugely popular. Parishes hold classes about it and advertise them in the church bulletin like “come learn about how to control your family size.” It’s hilarious. XD

    Great post, Kell!

    1. Thank you! I’m a huge fan of Victorian lit, obviously, and classical books in general, but to say that they are reality, or at the only reality, is just silly.

      Like, when even the author of Anne of Green Gables is bitter about her own novels … something is up.

      Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about that! I didn’t really reference that here because I was talking more about historical stuff, and my understanding is that that was more of a 20th century on thing, though I could of course be wrong. But I see a lot of that in different Protestant circles, too. I find it really funny, but I guess I appreciate that at least the information is being provided. There’s so much myths out there about fertility!

      1. Not to mention Louisa May Alcott being at least somewhat bitter about her own novels–I know there’s some debate about her “true” attitude toward Little Women et al, but it seems she was at least SOMEWHAT uncomfortable with some of the creative restrictions placed upon her and how those books turned out as a result. So that’s fun too.

        Oh for sure, yeah, NFP only got started in Catholic circles in the 20th century. As you say, the rough knowledge was “out there” before that, at least in some social circles, but not openly encouraged by the Church.

        There really are, man *shakes head* It’s not rocket science, y’all!

        1. Yup, I’d heard that, too, though I don’t know much about it because that’s never been much of my type of read! I think that tended to happen a lot in that era.

          Gotcha. Yup, that makes sense!

  7. Great article! Thanks for talking about this topic! You shouldn’t apologize! I love Victorian lit but have to remind myself not to romanticize the period too much ? Learning how people in the past viewed sex and birth control is fascinating. This can also open up conversations for Christians to have about modern issues. We are inundated with information (often skewed) from a secular perspective about birth control/abortion/sex/fertility. Doctors are not always up front with people about long term side effects of the most common birth controls today. Christians avoid talking about it. This is crazy to me because of how “open” and TMI our society is about too many things (just not the important things.) I appreciate the information I have learned from Catholic sources about the various natural (non abortifacient) family planning methods. I know its kinda funny to see classes sponsored by a church for natural birth control ? but it’s helpful and at least consistent with the Catholic pro life stance. Unfortunately, many Protestants say they agree with life at conception while promoting abortifacient birth controls, unethical fertility treatments, and making fun of people who have large families. ( Just my personal experience as the oldest of 7!) As Christians, we need to be open to talking about these touchy issues so we can articulate a wholistic Biblical worldview.

  8. I think you handled this very tactfully, Kell. Such things can be very important to understanding a culture and I think it’s good that you wrote a resource that gives information without giving *too* much information. And yeah, I totally agree that there’s no such thing as “the good old days.” We have to look at each era and be able to acknowledge both the good and the bad to truly understand them.

  9. I’m going to put this kindly, but you really didn’t discuss anything here that isn’t widely known and understood. You handled it so delicately, as if you’re afraid of backlash, and so sterilized the entire conversation, that it’s all too vague and hesitant to be even remotely helpful to someone trying to research the period. Also, you’re rather flat out wrong in saying we really can’t understand this particular period because all we have are fictional books. We have thousands of extant letters, diaries, journals, magazines, medical and psychiatric articles, and newspapers that give accurate details of the times. We have Jack London’s personal recounts (as well as accounts he gathered from others) of the Klondike to accurately base Alaskan wilderness fiction on. I happen to own several of these. While yes we can’t FULLY ever know the period, we can absolutely get an accurate idea of what it was like. There is also a magazine — created in the middle 1980s through the early 2000s — called “Reminisce” which features memories and reflections and home remedies along with letters and pictures from periods of the 1880s through to the 1960s. These are also immensely helpful in comprehending the middle, lower, working, and upper class society circles of the times. You write very well, but seem far too pressured about what nebulous “others” will think of you to be able to write frankly about your research. I think you should continue to talk about this subject, especially seeing as you’ve studied it for so long and at such detail, but be much more open and precise in your language. Don’t shy away because you’re afraid of backlash (usually just from small-minded individuals, unfortunately *le sigh*). When it’s all said and done I think this article has merit, but needs work.

    1. Hi! Nice to meet you. Yeah, I write for a very different audience than most – this information is actually not known in that audience (I know because I wrote this article after conversation after conversation featuring misinformation or no information about it). And yes, I didn’t write that in the article because I was specifically talking about FICTION, but of course there’s tons of stuff saved. (That’s actually where a lot of my research has been based!) I prefer firsthand accounts to fiction, though I think sometimes fiction can say a lot of about the attitudes of the time. So I wasn’t dismissing these types of works. I simply didn’t feel that was meant to be the subject of the post – especially when speaking to my largely fiction-reading audience! 🙂

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