Mothers in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History

Alison Conway
University of Western Ontario

The publication of Toni Bowers’s 1996 study, The Politics of Motherhood: British Writing and Culture, 1680–1760, represented a high-water mark for eighteenth-century cultural and literary history. Blending feminist acumen and historicist precision, Bowers’s book documents the rise of modern understandings of maternity in relation to Restoration and eighteenth-century debates over agency and authority in both private and public spheres. Bowers identifies how, over the course of the century, norms that continue to govern understandings of motherhood today first came into being, and how, in particular, the facts of maternal difference were elided from cultural discourse.

The readings of maternity provided by Marilyn Francus’s recent publication, Monstrous Motherhood: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Ideology of Domesticity (Johns Hopkins, 2012) complement those advanced by Bowers. Following the lead taken by Amanda Vickery and others in challenging the authority of Nancy Armstrong’s thesis regarding the hegemony of domestic ideology, Francus uses maternity to expose the fault lines running through its scripts. Where Armstrong was able to make an argument for female authority by attending to courtship narratives, Francus argues that stories about mothers complicate that vision of authority. The need for mothers to act in a purposeful manner and to move back and forth between private and public spheres rendered them threatening figures in need of containment, rather than domestic heroines.

Monstrous Motherhood groups the eighteenth century’s cultural representations of maternity into four categories: maternal dominance, infanticide, stepmotherhood, and maternal absence (18). The cultural stories that emerged from the different maternal epistemologies governing these categories, Francus claims, alleviated social anxieties about motherhood while establishing the script of modern maternity. Francus begins her study with the prehistory of maternal monstrosity as it appears in the works of Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift. Early modern configurations of monstrous maternity take on a new dimension in the work of the Augustan poets who fear the reproductive power of an exploding print culture. In The Battle of the Books (1704) and The Dunciad (1728, 1742), Swift and Pope wage war against the incursions of a feminized literary beau monde and the emasculation of the author; their “womb envy” incites them to uphold a model of artistic creation premised on order and reason, rather than the imagination (36–37). A real-life equivalent of Pope’s and Swift’s monstrous mother appears in the figure of Hester Thrale, the subject of chapter 2, a fecund woman who never lost sight of her intellectual ambition as her twelve children were born (four survived to adulthood). Determined to marry for love after enduring a thankless union with her first husband, Thrale married Gabriel Piozzi at forty-three, a union that led to an estrangement from her children and friends alike. Her Bluestocking peers mourned her betrayal of their commitment to raising women above desire to intellectual greatness.

Chapters 3 and 4 turn to infanticide, differentiating between those narratives that tend to elide acts of violence in favor of infanticidal thinking (in an attempt to deny the realities of, and conditions that contributed to, maternal violence), and the court cases that oversaw the discipline and punishment of actual child murderers. A close reading of Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818) reveals the range of motives and desires governing the plot of infanticide, which, according to Francus, displaces action to thought in an attempt to shift the focus away from biological maternity, and to avoid the representation of the dead child and the public execution of the mother (81). The study of the eighteenth-century legal system in the chapter that follows documents the move toward establishing two clearly demarcated categories: penitent sinners who were eligible for social rehabilitation and demonized murderers whose willingness to defend themselves or interrogate their accusers guaranteed a guilty verdict. For Francus, the move toward clemency in cases of infanticide signals a hardening of ideas about female powerlessness and an increasingly rigorous “prescription and containment of female behavior” (120).

Chapters 5 and 6 take up the figure of the stepmother, an actor whose usurpation of the maternal role directly confronted normative values concerning women’s disavowal of their maternal agency. Looking first at the stereotypes of monstrous stepmotherhood perpetuated by narratives such as Sarah Fielding’s The Adventures of David Simple (1744), Francus then attends to those that try to present stepmotherhood in a more sympathetic light. Despite the best efforts such as Helen Wells Whitford’s The Stepmother: A Domestic Tale (1799), the good stepmother raises more questions than she answers. In chapter 6, Francus turns to Elizabeth Allen Burney and her unsuccessful bid to integrate herself into the Burney clan as Charles Burney’s second wife. Drawing on the writings of the Burney children, Francus assembles a portrait of a blended family that did not work; Charles Burney’s children from his first marriage maintained a steady disregard for Elizabeth Allen throughout their lives, drawing on various weapons from the cultural arsenal available to them to ensure she remained on an uncertain footing in the family.

Chapter 7 delineates the cultural construct of “spectral motherhood” (170), the figure of the absent mother who represents the natural endpoint of a culture trying to reconcile theory and practice around the value of self-effacement: “As an absent presence the spectral mother seemingly achieves the internalization of maternal policing: in her physical absence the anxieties attendant upon the maternal body and sexuality evaporate” (170–71). Three narratives manifest the spectral mother’s absent presence: that of the absent mother who may or may not return; of the child living, unknowingly, under the surveillance of his or her mother; and of the dead mother who haunts her child. Each of these narratives exposes a longing for a good mother while acknowledging the impossibility of bringing her into being within the confines of domestic ideology. The study concludes with a reading of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749), which unites all three. In drawing together these disparate strands, Francus suggests, Fielding instructs her young readers in the arts of self-abnegation even as she exposes the contradictions governing the ideological imperatives her novel advances.

Monstrous Motherhood effectively identifies the discursive impasse that made it impossible for the eighteenth century to tell coherent stories about good mothers. The inclusion of chapters on historical figures such as Thrale and Elizabeth Allen Burney takes us beyond the world of representation into the lives of women who inhabited these contradictions. At times Francus tends to elide the difference between literary characters and historical figures: “Like the wicked stepmothers of fairy tales and fiction …, Elizabeth Burney enabled the Burney children to question authority” (158). While I take Francus’s point—that the lives of real women were shaped by cultural scripts—there are dangers in flattening the distinction between representation and the real. In the absence of historical evidence in the form of letters or journal entries, can we say of Elizabeth Allen Burney that “it is likely she had a psychic investment in providing [Charles Burney] with a domestic oasis” (151)? How would we know? To fill in the psychological profiles of historical subjects is to restore agency to them, but this critical tendency may, inadvertently, also rob them of any meaning other than those supplied by the cultural historian. So, for instance, Mary Cook, who claimed that she was neglected by her husband and family before murdering her young daughter, becomes a martyr to the demands of domesticity: “Whether those needs and desires were unreasonable is unclear, but her insistent demands for attention speak to the erasure of self that the roles of subservient wife and nurturing mother required in Restoration and eighteenth-century England” (106). Maybe—or maybe they speak to the psychopathology of a violent narcissist. For this reader, what is unknown about the past is worth leaving unknown, its alterity a useful reminder of the limits of our own epistemologies.

Francus claims that psychoanalytic theory holds no sway over her examination of the eighteenth century, but her readings of the minds of those whose thoughts she cannot know suggest that certain assumptions about maternity’s psychological “reality” do, in fact, undergird this study. Francus closes her chapter on Thrale, for instance, with a number of truth claims about parenting: “Motherhood generates anxiety because maternal power never disappears …. Parents and children define each other; each needs autonomy, while both are bound by obligation” (72–73). This tendency toward universalizing the experience of maternity undercuts the specific historical claims that Francus wants to advance about the place—or rather, non-place—of mothers within the domestic field of eighteenth-century narratives about family relations. As for the social realities governing the practice of maternity: it turns out, then as now, that our culture’s dreams of ideal motherhood will remain, always already, aspirational in the absence of resources and support for mothers (195).