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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Chelsea neighbours

I have just noticed that a blue plaque to commemorate the novelist Jean Rhys is being put on Paulton's House, Paulton's Square, Chelsea, where Rhys lived 1936-38. This was the Chelsea square where Stella Browne was living with her sister Sylvia from 1936 to some time after 1941 (the sisters moved to Liverpool some time during World War II).

One wonders if these two women ever met in the 'fine tree-y garden' of the Square.

Jean Rhys was somewhat younger than Stella but pretty much of the same generation, born well before 1900, but it's hard to imagine the two women having much in common: apart that is from their common experiences of having had abortions at a time when this was illegal. Rhys used her own ordeal (which nearly killed her) in her novel Voyage in the Dark (1934). Stella, who had had three abortions, famously testified to the Birkett Committee that these had neither killed her nor damaged her health, as part of her argument that abortion should be legalised.

The number of allusions I have found in various literary and biographical sources suggests that, while the campaign for legalisation quite rightly focussed on the immense problem of backstreet abortion among working-class women, the spectre of needing to access this operation haunted women writers, bohemians and intellectuals of the interwar period. Few, however, unlike Rhys or Browne, even felt able to make public mentions at that time.

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