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 ...
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.