Excerpt from The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Serpent's Tale

by Ariana Franklin

The Serpent's Tale
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 384 pages
    Feb 2009, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kathy Pierson

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Print Excerpt

Outside, on the grass, watched by Adelia's dog, Mansur was singing nursery rhymes from his homeland to amuse the other children—all of whom had been delivered easily with the aid of a neighbor and a bread knife—and it was a measure of Adelia's desperation that at this moment she relished neither his voice nor the strangeness of hearing a castrato's angelic soprano wafting minor-key Arabic over an English fenland. She could only wonder at the endurance of the suffering woman on the bed, who managed to gasp, "Tha's pretty."

The woman's husband remained uncharmed. He was hiding himself and his concern for his wife in the hut's undercroft with his cow. His voice came up the wooden flight of stairs to the stage— part hayloft, part living quarters—where the women battled. "Her never had this to-do when Goody Baines delivered 'em."

Good for Goody Baines, Adelia thought. But those babies had come without trouble, and there had been too many of them. Later, she would have to point out that Mistress Reed had given birth to nine in twelve years; another would probably kill her, even if this one did not.

However, now was not the moment. It was necessary to keep up confidence, especially that of the laboring mother, so she called brightly, "You be thankful you got me now, bor, so you just keep that old water bilin.' "

Me, she thought, an anatomist, and a foreigner to boot. My speciality is corpses. You have a right to be worried. If you were aware of how little experience I have with any parturition other than my own, you'd be frantic.

The unknown Goody Baines might have known what to do; so might Gyltha, Adelia's companion and nursemaid to her child, but both women were independently paying a visit to Cambridge Fair and would not be back for a day or two, their departure having coincided with the onset of Mistress Reed's labor. Only Adelia in this isolated part of fenland was known to have medical knowledge and had, therefore, been called to the emergency.

And if the woman in the bed had broken her bones or contracted any form of disease, Adelia could indeed have helped her, for Adelia was a doctor—not just wise in the use of herbs and the pragmatism handed down from woman to woman through generations, and not, like so many men parading as physicians, a charlatan who bamboozled his patients with disgusting medicines for high prices. No, Adelia was a graduate of the great and liberal, forward-thinking, internationally admired School of Medicine in Salerno, which defied the Church by enrolling women into its studies if they were clever enough.

Finding Adelia's brain on a par with, even excelling, that of the cleverest male student, her professors had given her a masculine education, which, later, she had completed by joining her Jewish foster father in his department of autopsy.

A unique education, then, but of no use to her now, because in its wisdom—and it was wisdom—Salerno's School of Medicine had seen that midwifery was better left to midwives. Adelia could have cured Mistress Reed's baby, she could have performed a postmortem on it were it dead and revealed what it died of—but she couldn't birth it.

She handed over a basin of water and cloth to the woman's daughter, crossed the room, and picked up her own baby from its wicker basket, sat down on a hay bale, undid her laces, and began to feed it.

She had a theory about breast-feeding, as she had for practically everything: It should be accompanied by calm, happy thoughts. Usually, when she nursed the child, she sat in the doorway of her own little reed-thatched house at Waterbeach and allowed her eyes and mind to wander over the Cam fenland. At first its flat greenness had fared badly against the remembered Mediterranean panorama of her birth, with its jagged drama set against a turquoise sea. But flatness, too, has its beauty, and gradually she had come to appreciate the immense skies over infinite shades of willow and alder that the natives called carr, and the richness of fish and wildlife teeming in the hidden rivers.

Reproduced with permission of Putnam Publishing. Copyright © 2008 by Ariana Franklin All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.

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