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S T E P H A N I E  L I M B

The Force of the Imagination

The Imaginative Power, at the Time of Conception, which is of such force that it stamps a Character of the Thing imagined upon the Child: So that the Children of an Adultress, by the Mother’s Imaginative Power, may have the nearest Resemblance to her own Husband, though begotten by another Man. [1]
                    —Aristotle’s Compleat Masterpiece
I have a birthmark that ducks under the hairline on my neck, only visible when I was a baby. My dad has the same one and so did his dad. My brother and sister too. When we were kids my sister and I told my brother that he was a foundling. We couldn’t even be sure he was human. We told him that mum branded his neck with the steam iron to fool everyone.
The French word for birthmark is envie – meaning desire – derived from the belief that a mother could imprint her desires on a baby: strawberry, port-wine, milk or man. In 1585 Ambroise Paré wrote, ‘One more commonly sees children who resemble their father than their mother because of the mother’s great ardor and imagination during carnal copulation!’ [2]
Until the nineteenth-century most physicians agreed with Paré; equating the mother’s mind with an iron, steaming a label onto a baby’s nape. But Paré’s use of the word ‘imagination’ is misleading. Coleridge defined ‘imagination’ as the ability to extract ideas from information, to blend, to mould, to shape that information into something new. This differs from ‘fancy’, which is passive and does nothing with the raw data. Coleridge’s concept of the imagination, which he called ‘esemplastic’ (meaning ‘to shape’), was developed from Schelling’s Ineinsbildung (the interweaving of opposites). Coleridge coined a new word because he thought an artist creating couldn’t be conflated with the popular understanding of the imagination. It is ironic that he was later accused of plagiarising this idea from Schelling when he was trying to define what originality meant.
Paré’s ‘maternal imagination’ was an image forced through a woman’s eyes and squeezed out through her vagina. The woman is like my children’s plastic toys – bright coloured dough loaded in and forced out the other end. Paré’s mother is not esemplastic. She is passive and incapable of creation.
The Dumb Virgin or The Force of Imagination is a short story by Aphra Behn that explores the connection between a woman’s womb and mind, questioning whether fancy squirts poison into the womb, or whether the womb’s vapours infect the mind. Behn’s title was probably riffing on Michel de Montaigne’s 1580 essay called Of the Power of the Imagination, in which Montaigne relates the case of a girl from Pisa who was born covered in hair because her mother slept with a painting of John the Baptist by her bed. [3]
When the mother in The Dumb Virgin (known only as Rinaldo’s Lady) is captured by pirates on a sightseeing trip in the Adriatic Sea, her servant manages to paddle away with her young son strapped to a raft. The Lady is rescued and searches for her son, but only finds, washed up on the shore, the drowned body of her servant. When she gives birth to a daughter with ‘limbs distorted, its back bent’ the physicians put this down to the ‘frights and dismal apprehensions’ of the mother; the baby was conceived (by their estimates) just before the pirate attack. [4] Tears over the loss of her son and tears over the birth of her daughter plunge Rinaldo’s Lady into mute melancholia. Conceiving another child does nothing to assuage her sorrow and she dies in childbirth. The second daughter, who they call Maria, is beautiful but dumb. The physicians assign her silence to the mother’s melancholy. So far, this story endorses biological beliefs going back to Aristotle. The Lady is a vessel; the daughters are a result of female fancies – deviation from the generic male being the first manifestation of monstrosity.
The story gets darker when the sisters reach sixteen and seventeen years old. The eldest, Belvideera, is ‘indefatigably addicted to study’ and speaks every European language – she is witty and charming; Maria, the youngest, is still beautiful and dumb. A mysterious young rake called Dangerfield turns up, who wishes he could combine them to make one perfect whole, but ultimately opts for the beautiful, silent one. When Dangerfield is invited to dinner at Rinaldo’s, he arrives early, sneaks into Maria’s bedroom and hides.

He knew they were alone, in the dark, in a Bed Chamber, he knew the Lady young and melting, he knew besides she cou’d not tell, and he was conscious of his power in moving; all these wicked thoughts concurring, etablish’d him in the opinion, that this was the critical moment of his happiness, resolving therefore not to lose it. [5]

Though ‘she held out against all his assaults above two hours’ Maria doesn’t dare to struggle too much because she doesn’t want to disturb the guests below. Later, while she sobs (silently), he promises a quick marriage. But after leaving her bedroom Dangerfield steps straight into a brawl with two other men – Rinaldo splits them up and Dangerfield accidentally stabs him. Dangerfield and Rinaldo suffer mortal wounds and as they bleed to death, Dangerfield’s wig falls off and Rinaldo sees a birthmark on his head in the shape of a dagger – identical to the one belonging to the son who was lost at sea. When Dangerfield confirms that he was a foundling, washed up on an island in the Adriatic, Maria breaks her lifelong silence and shouts, ‘incest,’ before stabbing herself. Rinaldo dies. Maria dies. Dangerfield dies. Belvideera does not die.
Teratogens – the agents that cause malformations in the developing foetus – are usually discussed in drug terms: foetal alcohol syndrome or thalidomide. Behn’s story is about a teratogenic mind.

My own mind is teratogenic.
When I was pregnant with my second child, I craved the smell of furniture polish. I felt the smell in the back of my throat and my mouth watered. I wanted to eat the smell. I had to restrain myself from stuffing the cloth in my nose. I wanted to feel the fibres squeak as I absorbed it. I craved petrol too. When I filled the car, I hovered at the pumps trembling with lust. I found some internet message boards on pregnancy pica (cravings to eat the inedible) and discovered that it isn’t unusual, but there were stern words on solvent abuse. I tried to keep these cravings at bay and rationed my intake by polishing once a day, only allowing myself a short sniff of the cloth. It sent little shivers all over me. And yet this wasn’t the worst craving of my pregnancy. I craved every drug I had ever taken, mostly the ones for sleep. I craved that moment when the whites of my knuckles ebbed away and I capsized into sleep.

I found out I was pregnant very early in my second pregnancy. My breasts were so tender it made me wince to put on a bra, the familiarity of the feeling drove me to the pharmacy to buy a test. It was an automatic response – in a stunned trance. The result shook me out of that trance. How could it be positive? The vapours of hysteria blurred my vision. I flew out of the house.
In the years following my first child’s birth I’d tried various psychotropic medications for the anxiety that gripped me. Every time I hit on a blend that worked, I read studies advising against use during pregnancy. People continually asked when I’d have another. There was no ‘if’. I had no choice. I wanted to have another child but, ideally, I’d skip the first two years – two years where I suspected I’d lose grip of myself, like the two years following my first son’s birth. I wanted another child without having another child. I made an appointment with a perinatal psychiatrist in search of medicine that didn’t come with bold warnings. It took months for the appointment to come through; the closer it got, the more hope I pinned on getting permission to continue with these drugs that worked.
When the appointment came, it wasn’t with the consultant, it was with a locum who slouched in the chair, legs lolling in front of him, one ankle tossed over the other. He flicked one eyebrow at my doses, especially the sleeping pills and exhaled when I told him how long I’d been taking them. He prescribed amitriptyline and chlorpromazine.
I cross-titrated and began breeding anxiety. One afternoon I called my mum to watch T while I tried to nap and I knelt on my bedroom floor gobbling these new pills – watching for them to work. I finished the packet, spent an hour sweating and wriggling on the bed, before I gave up and staggered downstairs. Mum and T were in the garden. It was a hot day. The first dry day in a wet summer. A summer where the river Derwent swelled like a drowned corpse and we’d been stuck inside for weeks. Me and the two-year-old hoping for sunshine. Why couldn’t I enjoy this one dry day? I swayed in the doorway and caught a lurching thought: is this all T would remember about me?

Outside was the colour of childhood summers and the air rippled like a glossy photo – I could see the moisture leaving the earth. I blurred and slurred. My mum bared her teeth and I can’t remember if she said it with her eyes or mouth, but she said it, ‘They’ll take him away if you carry on like this.’ She left the garden and I watched her smoke rise over the top of the fence.
When I finally arrived back at my usual psychiatrist’s desk she tutted at my notes, seeming to measure her words to catch herself short of saying what she thought. ‘I can see why he thought they’d be safe in pregnancy – they’re as old as the hills – but they’re not therapeutic,’ she said. ‘I would never prescribe these pills for anxiety.’
The new prescription held all the familiar warnings but, as she pointed out, my recent behaviour proved that the benefits for me, would outweigh any risks to a potential foetus. That was as close as I’d get to permission.
In a chapter called ‘Of Monsters’, in his 1724 book The Female Physician, John Maubray writes:
I take the Imagination to have the most prevalent Power in CONCEPTION; which I hope may be readily granted, considering how common a Thing it is, for the MOTHER to mark her CHILD with Pears, Plum, Milk, Wine, or any thing else, upon the least trifling Accident happening to her from thence. [6]

Longing for fruit was as bad as eating it. It’s impossible to restrain an imagination.
The Force of the Imagination presents us with several examples of monstrosity: the three offspring – Belvideera (the prodigy with the bent spine), Maria (the mute), Dangerfield (the rapist and killer) – and also Rinado’s Lady (whose imagination gave birth to all three). It’s been suggested that the story is a variation on Oedipus but Dangerfield isn’t the protagonist. The story centres on the sisters and is narrated by an unnamed woman who claims to have seen the events unfold. The story feels more like a variation on Pasiphaë and her children: the Minotaur, Ariadne and Phaedre. It’s unclear which child best represents the Minotaur – the monstrous offspring that has to be hidden away and feeds on human flesh – Dangerfield is hidden in a closet waiting for Maria to return to her bedroom, but Belvideera and Maria argue about who should remain hidden upstairs – who is the more deformed. Maria could be read as the Minotaur and the sacrificed virgin, but she is also Phaedre (the beloved
sister) – Belvideera could be the Minotaur and Ariadne. Because all of these children are monstrosities, Behn questions eighteenth-century medicine, why didn’t the doctors diagnose Dangerfield’s fatal flaw? He was, after all, as marked as his sisters, at birth.
As babies, my sons were rarely blemish free. I felt like it was a reflection of me. Baby acne wasn’t an image I wanted pasted into their pastel books so I turned down the photographers who touted the maternity ward. When my firstborn was a few weeks old I took him to A&E with a bad rash. I’d been watching it all night – pressing it with a glass – I could no longer tell if it was on his skin or my retina. The doctor pressed it and pronounced it benign. But could it be something I’d done? I was taking all these pills for my nerves. This nervous communication passed from my stomach to his skin. Were all my hidden monstrosities passing through my milk and becoming flashing red dots all over him? Does the maternal imagination work even after birth?
If a person doesn’t consume enough calcium during pregnancy, the body steals it from the bones for the developing foetus. The foetus takes what it needs. It seems to me that the placenta is slightly faulty – someone should engineer a proper filter and then we could go on without worrying about adulterating the pure product in our womb, assuming there ever such a thing as a pure product. Coleridge’s ‘esemplastic’ imagination may have derived from Schelling, but was Ineinsbildung ever a pure product? We’re constantly interweaving information, data, chemicals to create.
After I gave birth I tried to go crazy on furniture polish. I stashed the baby in another room and took a can from under the sink. When I and emptied it into the yellow cloth, the spray collected like sea foam. I folded the wetness inside and pressed the cloth to my face, but when I inhaled the smell seemed far away, like I was breathing through a heavy cold, like my sense of smell had been muted.

Fifty years after The Force of the Imagination, David Hartley claimed that pica in pregnancy was caused by the ‘nervous communication between the Uterus and the Stomach.’ [7] Mind to uterus to stomach and back. In The Force of the Imagination, the pirate attack isn’t the only trauma Rinaldo’s Lady experiences – it’s only after childbirth that Rinaldo’s Lady becomes mute. The narrator gives the doctor’s diagnoses but seems to leave this question dangling: did the imagination cause birth defects or did births cause imagination defects?
Aristotle’s Compleat Masterpiece: Displaying the secrets of Nature in the Generation of Man, (London [publisher not identified],1780), p. 35.
Ambroise Paré, Toutes les oeuvres (1585), book 24, ch. 1, pp.925-926, quoted in Marie-Helene Huet, Monstrous Imagination, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993) p.15.
Michel de Montaigne, ‘Of the Power of the Imagination’ in The Complete Works, translated by Donald M. Frame (London: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) p.90.
Behn, Aphra, Histories, Novels, and Translations, Written by the Most Ingenious Mrs. Behn; the Second Volume, the Greatest Part Never before Published (London: W.O. for S.B. and sold by M. Brown, 1700), p.69.
Aphra Behn p.90.
Maubray, John, The Female Physician, Containing All the Diseases Incident to That Sex, in Virgins, Wives, and Widows : Together with Their Causes and Symptoms, Their Degrees of Danger, and Respective Methods of Prevention and Cure : To Which Is Added, the Whole Art of New Improv’d Midwifery, Comprehending the Necessary Qualifications of a Midwife, and Particular Directions for Laying Women, in Cases of Difficult and Preternatural Births, Together with the Diet and Regimen of Both the Mother and Child, (London: James Holland, 1724), p. 368.
Quoted in George S. Rousseau, Nervous Acts: Essays on Literature, Culture and Sensibility, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), p. 134

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Stephanie Limb is an essayist from Derbyshire. She's currently working on an AHRC funded PhD, which is a creative/critical hybrid project called 'The Monstrous Mother'. Her work has appeared in LitroThe MothStand, Blackbox Manifold and other journals. Her book My Coleridge – a collection of essays about Sara Coleridge and motherhood – was published by Broken Sleep Books in October 2020. 

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