A portrait framed in dark wood and gilded gold adorns the Ferguson Mansion’s grand entry hall. It depicts a bearded man, his arm encircling a dark-eyed woman. By all accounts, Joshua and Fanny Speed were deeply in love (despite some initial doubts on Joshua’s part, overcome with the help of his friend Abraham Lincoln!). In this portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy, there seems to be a sparkle in Joshua’s eyes and the hint of a smile on the corners of his lips. Fanny, in contrast, looks off to the side, her gaze fixed on eternity. I think she looks rather sad, although of course no one smiled in portraits at the time. Healy painted the Speeds in 1864, following over twenty years of marriage. Fanny was in her mid-40s at the time, Joshua nearly 50. It would have been all too apparent at this point that despite their love for each other, they would have no children.
How did Joshua and Fanny feel about being childless? How did Fanny in particular feel, living at a time when society deemed motherhood a woman’s highest calling? I searched but found nothing recorded of their thoughts. Similarly, a search of the Filson’s manuscript collections revealed nothing about the feelings of other childless couples. I found only silence, echoing down through the generations.
It’s a silence I’ve felt eating away at the edges of my own life, growing louder and more insistent with each passing month. It fills the corners of a house that seems slightly too large for only two people. Sometimes I lie awake in the middle of the night, disturbed not by the sounds of a crying child, but by the lack of them. Was Fanny mystified by the children parading through the lives of her relatives and friends? Did she feel less confident in her own sexuality -- an incompleteness, a feeling of being less than whole?
Perhaps she also felt relief. In the antebellum era pregnancy was fraught with danger, both for the expectant mother and the infant child. Many women survived the hazards of childbirth only to watch their newborn sicken and die. Maybe Fanny sometimes felt thankful to be spared such suffering. I’ve felt that relief too, in a different way. I’ve felt anxious about the changes being a parent will bring, and each month the responsibility has been postponed. Now I wonder if it will ever happen at all. Did Fanny Speed endure that agony of conflicting emotions as well, longing for change but fearing it too?