Encouraged by social norms the female has long identified herself through her ability to reproduce. Social and economic conditions have sanctioned a woman’s selfhood on the basis of her production of offspring. The role of mother as a place of reproduction also serves to provide literature with a common thread that binds the reader to the text much like the child forms an inseparable bond with its mother. With an emphasis on the individual that arises in Romantic literature and ideology, mothers are depicted as naturally good mothers or unnaturally bad mothers subject to gothic distortions of the monstrous mother, all of whom have been treated as expressions of motherhood in Romantic texts. Fluctuations in maternal care along with new medical theories and a rising pressure on the legal system to ensure the rights of the mother-child relationship evidence the growing desire for women to legitimize their identities or selves in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century society. Julie Kipp’s undertaking of the idealization of motherhood during this period is both appropriate and timely as she examines the trials mothers experienced in fiction and life in her attempt to show that the mother figure was a national interest.
In her recent publication Romanticism, Maternity, and the Body Politic, Kipp reveals the complexities of motherhood as well as the complicated process of locating an extraordinarily universal and timeless theme in a particular historical moment. Linking the Romantic history of motherhood to political interests and crises along with period theories on breastfeeding and educating children would itself require substantial textual space; however, Kipp’s explorations on these subjects weave in and out of feminist theories as well as eighteenth-century topics on economics, education, philosophy, politics, and literature primarily concerned with Romantic mothers. Unfortunately, her attempt to enrich the scholarship on maternal nature and body serves to confuse the reader as her overly ambitious approach compresses too many ideological facets into a confining textual space. Her broad approach emphasizes the sweeping influences on motherhood but also obscures her central concern to locate and historicize maternity within the politics and literature of the period. Kipp more successfully illustrates the necessity to re-evaluate the nature of the maternal as it transforms and is transformed by the changing principles that accentuate Enlightenment values.
Enlightenment and Romantic themes and discourses extend into each other with the apparent intention of the writer to blur lines of distinction previously established among literary critics. Kipp invokes David Simpson’s explanation that as the genre of literature was becoming “non-theoretical and immethodical. . . in its imprecisions,” it was also becoming “increasingly assimilated to a feminized identity” (19). This perspective on feminizing literary works explains Kipp’s attempt to rely on a body of theoretical ideologies that support the tensions produced during this period rather than seek to identify the literature she examines as submissions of established values distinguished by ardent reason and excessive emotion. Kipp argues, “Maternity hence proves a particularly useful category through which to examine the intersections, rather than the sharp distinctions between Enlightenment and Romantic themes and discourses” (18-19). As she accomplishes her task “to muddy these distinctions,” Kipp falls prey to a somewhat faulty premise of analysis that appears to break down pertinent dialogue that she could have used instead as a springboard for new interpretations of the maternal nature.
Other attempts to historicize the role of mother are accomplished through an analysis of gender and social values of good and bad mothering, physical spaces of the maternal body, socio-political and economic conditions shaping and envisioning “the mother” through views of “self” as mother, and through texts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries. Kipp creates multiple threads of thought speaking to the reader as anxieties of the period are marked by the dominant educational theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the moral and economic theories of Adam Smith, the philosophical reflections of David Hume and Immanuel Kant as well as the political theories of Edmund Burke. Her textual analysis spans the following selections of fictional work by two female authors, Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria, and Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui, and two male authors, Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s dramatic text, The Cenci, along with the influence of his wife Mary Shelley, which are supplemented by a variety of references to any literary genre that deals with the mother-child relationship and maternal sympathy.
As Kipp narrows her maternal interests to Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui in chapter three of her text, she effectively portrays the theoretical contradictions drawn out in her earlier chapter on the “Revolutions in mothering: theory and practice.” The figure of the Irish wet nurse is historically and socially established as the revolutionary mother, privately and publicly, personally and nationally. Kipp weaves this description of ‘mothering’ into an image of the worst kind of mother whose “dangerous sympathies” invoke national conflict in Britain and a rebellious working class in Ireland. She then holds up the female writings of Edgeworth as a mirror to this complexity of ideologies concerned with the economic, political, social, historical, and individual oppositional tendencies both within the narrative text and the life of Maria Edgeworth. This analytical style furthers a propensity to historicize the social and economic conditions surrounding the mother-child bond, thereby presenting a broader context for an extremely intimate but powerful relationship. Kipp’s inclination supports her argument to link numerous perspectives and theoretical approaches to her analysis of this aspect of cultural materialism. The mothering body does become an ardent witness to and instrument for the social and political ambiguities Kipp identifies through Rousseau’s writings, specifically in his educational text Émile. Kipp comments, “Rousseau represents the state’s developing interest in the child as identical to the mother’s own interests: not only does the home become a center for the cultivation of natural affections, the mother-child bond provides a model for the relationship between any legitimate governing body and its citizenry” (24).
Although Kipp attacks the topic of maternal sympathy arduously and in great detail in the Shelleyan drama The Cenci, her feminist ideology, ironically, becomes obscured by an overbearing effort to theorize the maternal influence apparent in the dramatic interpretation of the play. There are, however, several points of interest that Kipp addresses as problematic to the ideal of maternal sympathy such as the issue of narcissism evidenced in the play, the role of reproduction and creative authority in the plot and playwright, the embodiment of the maternal emblem to the national crisis, and the emergence of sympathy as a non-gender occurrence. These vital perspectives act as clear reminders of the Romantic dilemmas of the natural and the unnatural, of sympathy and cold rationality, and of the individual self and national identity, in recognition of the emergent political changes paralleling the growth of public feminine influence. Kipp’s contribution here is to bind the importance of the passions and maternal sympathies to the public opinion of Enlightenment values.
Moreover, Kipp’s focus on maternal placement within the Romantic body of literature and the political crises of this period contributes to the growing body of feminist literature attempting to locate feminine concerns beyond cultural barriers dominated by masculinist traditions. Her work would additionally be enhanced by Judith Pascoe’s efforts “to complicate the dialectic between public sphere and private sphere, especially in feminist articulations of the rise of the novel” (Romantic Theatricality 4) rather than foster a continued reliance on the theories of Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Burke, and Smith as the foundation for established Enlightenment values, muddied by a Romantic discourse. For another comprehensive view of the dialectic between negation and production, Marjorie Levinson offers her criticism in an essay on “Romantic Criticism: The State of the Art” where she attempts to explain the Romantic critique of the Enlightenment as a dialectic of negations arising from the integrations or fusions identified by the Romantic poets. Levinson states, “The negations to which I refer are part of the general, recent rethinking of social and aesthetic production in terms of large-scale processes, working through and upon human and linguistic sites, regarded as epiphenomenal subjects of those workings” (At the Limits 271). The human and linguistic sites of motherhood have been deeply explored in Kipp’s text and so advance the exploration of an essential nurturing of tensions surrounding the maternal nature and body in the political and social arena of Romantic thinking to arouse and invite further heuristic interpretation.
- Levinson, Marjorie. “Romantic Criticism: The State of the Art.” At the Limits of Romanticism: Essays in Cultural, Feminist, and Materialist Criticism. Eds. Mary A. Favret and Nicola J. Watson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. 269-81.
- Pascoe, Judith. Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997.