Abortion in Literature: Margaret Millar’s Do Evil in Return and Colette’s “Gribiche”

There are advantages to menopause.

We no longer bleed on our skirts, we secretly like the new crepey texture of our skin, and, finally, we are no longer defined by our sex.  And we are all waiting for the organic yam “lube” concocted by Frankie (Lily Tomlin) on Grace and Frankie.  (Alas, it seems to be fictional, but there are others.)

But as menopausal women become more powerful, menstruating women must still worry about the future of reproductive rights.  When even Planned Parenthood is under attack, we are all shocked.  It looks as if the pro-choice button will never go out of style.

Coincidentally, I recently read two fascinating works of fiction on the perils of illegal abortion, Margaret Millar’s suspense novel, Do Evil in Return,  and Colette’s  “Gribiche” from The Collected Stories of Colette.

Syndicate Books has recently reissued Margaret Millar’s classic crime fiction, and I am racing through  Collected Millar:  Dawn of Domestic Suspense. The addictive fourth novel in this volume, Do Evil in Return (1950), is an eerie exploration of the consequences of illegal abortion.

What happens when a young woman dies, not because she has an abortion but because she cannot find a doctor to perform one?

A wan young woman, Mrs. Violet O’Gorman,  shows up at Dr. Charotte Keating’s office.  Violet desperately wants an abortion: she was impregnated during a one-night stand, not by her husband.   Charlotte gently explains that she cannot perform an illegal  abortion.

This decision sets in motion an unstoppable Greek-style tragedy.  The Eumenides (the Furies) are milling and thronging.

In Millar’s taut, short novels, the dialogue is spare and snappy.  In addition to writing novels,  Millar wrote screenplays for Warner Brothers–and it shows.   This would make a brilliant noir film, but perhaps it is too radical these days.

The girl let out a cry of despair.  “I thought–I thought being you was a woman like me–being you…”
“I’m sorry,” Charlotte said again.
“What can I do?  What can I do with this–this thing growing inside me, growing and growing, and me with no money and no job and no husband.  Oh, God, I wish I was dead!”  She struck her thighs with both fists.  “I’ll kill myself!”

Charlotte is not heartless.  She believes she may have made a mistake in denying Violet the abortion, as she tells her married boyfriend Lewis Ballard (the two met because his “nervous” wife Gwen is Charlotte’s patient). But Lewis points out that Charlotte was not obligated to break the law to help a strange woman.

“You’ve had cases like this before.  Why does this one worry you?”
“Because of us, Lewis.  Don’t you see…?”
“No.”
“If we go on together, if we become lovers, I might accidentally end up in the same boat she’s in.”

In a fit of conscience, Charlotte attempts to find Violet at her uncle’s rooming house in a  bad neighborhood.  Violet is out, and the visit ends in violence. Charlotte is attacked in front of her garage and robbed of her purse.

When Violet is found drowned, it looks like suicide.  Detective Easter does not buy it.  Easter likes Charlotte, but unfortunately she is linked to the death when a card with her name typed on it is found in Violet’s purse.

As Millar turns upside down our ideas of powerful and powerlessness–is the well-educated doctor the most powerful woman in the book, or not?– Charlotte investigates on her own.  She falls into a trap of blackmail, betrayal, and violence. No line is wasted, every word matters, and Charlotte is a champ.  But the noir tragedy that unfolds makes Aeschylus look like Aristophanes.

Colette’s short story “Gribiche” (1937), in The Collected Stories of Colette,  is lyrical, poignant, and heartbreaking. The narrator is Colette herself: her fictional counterpart is working as a music-hall artist in a revue, as Colette did after she left her husband Willi.

In the witty opening scene, she describes a typical night in “the women’s quarters” at the theater. The steps of the iron staircase clang like a xylophone, the fifty pairs of high heels are “clattering up and down like hail,” and the basement dressing rooms smell of powder, makeup, and different perfumes.

But that very night a young actress in a chorus of soldiers faints, falls down the stairs, and is bleeding heavily.   When Carmen, “a little green-eyed Basque,” says that things are going “pretty badly,” Colette asks what she means.

Carmen looked slightly embarrassed.
“Oh! Colettewilli, don’t be nasty, dear. Gribiche, of course. Not allowed to get up. Chemist, medicine, dressings, and all that…”
“Not to mention food,” added Lise Damoiseau….
“But where’s she been hurt, then?”
“It’s her..back,” said Lise.
“It’s her stomach,” said Carmen, at the same time.

And then Colette realizes Gribiche had an abortion.

The women at the theater are sympathetic, and every one of them believes in the right to abortion.  But this dark, un-preachy story realistically describes the danger of backstreet abortions.

Colette writes beautifully, and I highly recommend this story.

6 thoughts on “Abortion in Literature: Margaret Millar’s Do Evil in Return and Colette’s “Gribiche”

  1. Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark ends on a very gloomy note with an abortion, and an abortion also figures at the centre of Elizabeth Robbins’s The Convert, but not many novels broach this topic.

    Millar’s Do Evil in Return sounds like quite the thriller. I hadn’t heard of her, so thanks for the post.

    In relation to menopause, I have sometimes thought of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in this context. I believe Woolf was at that age when she wrote it, so Orlando’s sex change may have had something to do with it. After all, isn’t menopause a kind of gendered transformation since “women” can no longer reproduce?

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    • I’ve never heard of Elizabeth Robbins and will look for him.

      Yes, I believe Doris Lessing once referred to the days “when she was still a woman,” according to another writer, so it may or may not be true. But there is certainly a transformation!

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  2. I thought of Germane Greer’s book on The Change (menopause — her publisher would not allow her to use that word for the title): it’s superb, not only as a polemic on how older women are disvalued, but for older women useful advice, comfort and strength.

    I haven’t read many books where the heroine has an abortion: it’s a verboten subject. One great one is Rosamund Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets. Our heroine’s enormously relieved after the abortion (around which time we are told she’s reading Pride and Prejudice, and finds irrelevant to women’s real realities), but there’s half a book to go, and by its end th abortion seems not to have mattered much the way having a child would have.

    In the Sunday Times Kristoff (I think it is) shows that being a mother is the most dangerous state, status for women in the US. People in the US pretend they value motherhood, but they underfund and defund clinics and doctors for pregnant women so an alarming number of women in the US die from pregnancy, childbirth and the aftermath far more than any other “developed” country. There is no longer effective alimony; the male has as much right to custody. Send them to school and you find they imbibe school norms. To me it seems Wollstonecraft’s Rights of women where she shows how in fact motherhood is dangerous and given no help (this has been misunderstood) also nowadays shows how little things hae changed. Individuals can be good people but the system allows for, encourages very bad behavior.

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    • I always love Germaine Greer!

      I know more friends ‘ stories about abortion than literary stories, but there is a fascinating scene in Elizabeth Evans’ latest novel, As Good As Dead.

      Women’s lot is hard and I can’t imagine why motherhood should be encouraged among those who don’ want it. You’re right, there’s no funding for motherhood.

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