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Love In The Time Of Listeria

By Amy D’Orazio, author of The Happiest Couple in the World


They were a family of the name of Martin, whom Emma well knew by character, as renting a large farm of Mr. Knightley, and residing in the parish of Donwell—very creditably, she believed—she knew Mr. Knightley thought highly of them— Jane Austen’s Emma, Chapter III


In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, England was inarguably one of the world’s agricultural superpowers. King George III was, prior to his illness, devoted to agriculture and in improving the farming practices of his kingdom, so much so that he earned the nickname ‘Farmer George’. During his reign, there were a number of advances—both in technology and in understanding—that aided in reducing hunger and food insecurity throughout the country. But advancement always has the positive and negative side and the regency era, that tumultuous time between a mostly agrarian and industrial society, was no different.


Before the reign of George III, most farming was done in a traditional way: tenant farmers had small plots of land that they farmed in three phases throughout the year. Two of those phases were devoted to food crop production but in the third phase, the field lay fallow to replenish its nutrients. Many of these small farmers kept livestock that could feed their families—cows, goats, poultry—but these were often slaughtered with the harvest as keeping them fed over the winter was difficult.


During King George’s reign however, the practice of four-field crop rotation was popularized. In this system, each field was planted with a series of crops, grown sequentially across several growing seasons. One of those crops would be fodder for livestock (turnips, corn, or rye grass ,for example). A practice arose whereby fodder might be kept in a silo over the winter; this produced what was called silage, a sort of fermented food (think sauerkraut for cows!) that is nutritionally dense, easy and inexpensive to make, and would sustain grazing animals throughout winter months where grazing would not be sufficient to keep large herds alive.

These things all contributed to the ability of farmers to keep their livestock year round, and made milk and cheese more widely available among even the lower classes. It might have been particularly valuable in counties like Derbyshire where winters were longer and snow was more likely than in the more southern, more temperate counties.


So what could be the negative side about such improvements?


In The Happiest Couple in the World, Mrs Elizabeth Darcy has gone five years without being able to provide her husband an heir. Part of the inspiration for her dilemma was Mr Darcy’s mother, Lady Anne Darcy who did produce the heir (although how quickly into her marriage we do not know) but then did not (we assume) have another child until twelve years later. So what might the farming techniques of Derbyshire have to do with that?


Farmers back then knew that when you began to see your sheep giving birth to a lot of stillborn lambs, it was best to get rid of the herd and start anew. What they did not know, was why, or how a similar affliction might have been affecting their wives. What causes lambs to be stillborn (or miscarried, or born with deformities) is a little bacteria we know today as listeria monocytogenes.

Listeria is a bacteria that was identified in the early 1900s. It is the reason that pregnant women today are advised to avoid eating certain foods such as soft cheeses and deli meats. For the most part, a healthy individual who gets infected with listeria will be perfectly fine. A mild flu-like illness is generally the worst of it. However, for a pregnant woman, listeria infection can have devastating effects including miscarriage, stillbirth, or possible deformity in the child. Unlike most types of disease, listeria can be passed from animals to humans, making it particularly problematic.


The silage containers of the early 1800s were literally breeding grounds for listeria. The process of creating silage also creates an environment where listeria will thrive and will ultimately contaminate almost anything the silage touches. It will end up in the milk and cheese and can cause miscarriages and stillbirths both in sheep and in humans.


There is a brief mention, in The Happiest Couple in the World, of how Elizabeth Darcy had a vigilant maid who encouraged her to drink more milk to fortify herself. Little did she know how she may have been hampering her mistress’s efforts to bear her husband a child!


It is hard to gauge the miscarriage rates of yesteryear with those of the modern era. Back then, a woman was never really sure she was pregnant until the baby quickened, at about 16 to 18 weeks gestation, which we know today is mostly past the ‘danger zone’ of early miscarriage. In modern days, many of us know of a conception within the very first weeks; this might make it seem like more miscarriages occur today but in truth, you can’t really compare them.


What you can compare is stillbirth rates. A child is considered stillborn if he or she is carried to term and either never breathes or dies within a day of his or her birth. In the early 19th century, 35% to 40% of children born were stillbirths in England; today that number is 1:250 or 0.4%.

Such was the plight of Elizabeth in The Happiest Couple in the World! I won’t give away what she thought to do about her problem but the real solution—unheralded as it was—was getting her away from Pemberley! Then again, a romantic holiday in Italy never hurt anyone!


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