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For anyone with an interest in the lives of nineteenth-century British women, this excellent collection of essays is a treasure trove of new material and perspectives. "Although maternity is routinely placed at the center of constructions of femininity and domesticity," the editors assert, "it has received surprisingly little attention as a distinct conception or experience" (1). To facilitate a "reconceptualizaton" of Victorian motherhood, they have assembled an assortment of essays that go well beyond the "Angel in the House" stereotype to present a complicated picture of Victorian mothers, varied by differences of social class, life experiences, and individual personalities.
Not the least of this volume's merits is a well-written introduction that sets the essays in the context of established scholarship in the field, with an intelligent assessment of how recent work has called some of the old truisms into question. This introduction and the three pages of bibliography that follow make the book a superb resource for graduate students or anyone new to this field. Many of the essays are followed by extensive bibliographies as well.
The chapters are organized in a way that "places individual essays within the framework of current issues in Victorian studies" (13). The first of these groupings, on the maternal ideal, considers the ways in which performing the role of mother helped or harmed a number of Victorian women and their children, in real-life and fiction. Deirdre D'Albertis contrasts the mothers of Vanity Fair with the protagonist of Allison Pearson's novel I Don't Know How She Does It, a saga of the hazards of trying to enact the role of perfect mother in the year 2002. (While this is a very stimulating essay, I do want to question the fairness and the appropriateness of its rather disparaging references to Nigella Lawson.) Drawing on the much-discussed theme of maternal absence as a fixture of Victorian fiction, Laura Green notes that "maternal narrative" is also missing in places "where one might most expect to find it–in women's domestic novels and autobiographical writings" (37). Green addresses this lacuna with a fascinating analysis of the autobiography of the popular writer Margaret Oliphant, "one of the most extended representations of Victorian maternal failure that we have" (38). Did the series of domestic disasters that marred her life result from the amount of time she was forced to spend as a hack writer supporting her family, or from the fact that she did too much for them in an attempt to compensate? The emotional conflicts of today's working mother are in plain view in Oliphant's anguished account, skillfully mined by Green to illustrate "the contradictions and limitations of Victorian gender norms" (40). George Eliot makes her first appearance in Heather Milton's insightful reading of Felix Holt (1866), which appears to accept the Victorian ideal of motherhood as "ennobling and purifying" but undermines the conventional praise of maternal self-abnegation by depicting its outcome: selfish, misogynistic sons who are emotionally distant from their mothers and unable to forgive maternal transgressions. The issue of "the fallen woman" recurs in Teresa Mangum's exploration of role reversal in the "two pairs of pimping mothers and violated, vengeful daughters" in Dombey and Son (1848). In each instance the daughter must forgive maternal transgression and become the caretaker, however unwilling, of a mother who has strayed quite far from the Victorian ideal.
This leads quite naturally to a second group of essays on “bad” mothers which addresses issues of "caretaking, class, and maternal violence." Possibly because of its resonance with my own research, I found Deborah Denenholz Morse's essay on the depiction of drunken mothers particularly compelling. To feel the pulse of popular ideas, I too have found highly artistic works of fiction less useful than some lesser but truly popular creations. Morse examines the work of the prolific and dedicated Evangelical author "Hesba Stretton," writer of popular fictions like Pilgrim Street: A Manchester Tale (1867) as well as numerous publications of the Religious Tract Society. In keeping with the near obsession of Tractarians with temperance, Stretton presented "oppressive drunken mothers" inflicting terrible harm on their children (119). Morse notes that in these tales errant but sober mothers are potentially redeemable, while the working-class drunken mother is a monster incapable of reform. "The social class of the drunken mother” is, thus, Morse notes, “the most crucial aspect that divides drunken mother narratives" since erring middle-class mothers are sometimes depicted as able to use their superior character and self-control to mend their ways (119). My own research corroborates this “salvage” of the middle-class maternal ideal (121): middle-class poverty experts almost invariably assumed most poor mothers to be morally inferior, and more susceptible to the lure of drink, than their more socially fortunate counterparts.
Assumptions about class differences also surface in Dara Rossman Regaignon's exploration of advice against infant-doping by servants and Ginger Frost's stimulating review of criminal cases involving violent unwed mothers. Frost perceptively comments that assumptions about the behavior of mothers and fathers were not the only force at play in these cases: "the courts were willing to stigmatize both parents in the working-class home rather than dealing with the structural problems that beset poor families" (160). All of these factors are spectacularly showcased in Lucy Sussex's riveting examination of the notorious case of a "murdering mother," the Melbourne baby-farmer Frances Knorr. (A minor quibble: Sussex might have exercised more caution in approaching a notation of "improper feeding" in a coroner's report of this era. The most frequent causes of death for poor infants were infectious gastric diseases and malnutrition; both were often assumed to be the result of maternal ignorance and "improper feeding.") As Sussex demonstrates, most of the Australian women executed for infanticide in this period were unwed mothers (165).
The third set of essays considers matters of nation, race, and empire. Deirdre McMahon provides a satisfyingly complex picture of Mary Seacole, Jamaican heroine of the Crimean War, who attempted in The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857) to justify herself as a businesswoman and (above all) English mother. Deirdre Osborne provides a glimpse of "colonial prenatality" in two novels depicting the experience of pregnant Australian women. Cara Murray analyzes Lady Duff Gordon's Letters from Egypt (1902) and their attempt to present her quasi-familial Egyptian household to her biological family in England. Most problematic for me was Mary Jean Corbett's attempt to connect the "orphan stories" of Charlotte Brontë's African juvenilia to her themes of abandonment and kinship in Jane Eyre (1847). Perhaps because this version of her thesis is drawn from a longer work, the piece begins abruptly, lacks context, and presents an argument that is very difficult to follow. It needs clarification.
In the last section of the volume, the maternal body is considered from several perspectives. Brenda Weber examines three fictional authors who are also mothers; they have given birth both to their literary works and to their children, but at what cost? In a wonderful exploration of the meanings of fat and fasting, Lillian Craton investigates in Dickens some thin, frail middle-class mothers and the fat, nourishing, lower-class women who provide "supplemental mothering" to the latter’s children. In the final essay, Ellen Bayuk Rosenman analyzes the lifelong struggle of Edith Simcox to find fulfillment in her unrequited love for her somewhat maternal but ultimately frustrating friend, George Eliot. In the process she engages in some fruitful reflection on Freud, the Victorian era, and the relationship between the mother and lesbian desire, or for that matter any desire. Like many of the essays in this book, it raises or illuminates issues long in need of exploration.
Kathleen Callanan Martin is the author of Hard and Unreal Advice: Mothers, Social Science, and the Victorian Poverty Experts (Palgrave, 2008). She received her M.A. in Sociology at the Ohio State University and her Ph.D. in Comparative History at Brandeis University. She holds the post of Lecturer in Social Science at the College of General Studies, Boston University.