Happy Mother’s Day

Lady Middleton was equally pleased with Mrs. Dashwood. There was a kind of cold-hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them; and they sympathised with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanor, and a general want of understanding.–Austen, Sense and Sensibility, ch. 34


Hope everyone is having a good mother’s day.  In honor of the occasion, I wanted to post one of my favorite moments from S&S, surely one of JA’s best on the moral ambiguities of the mother-child relation.  A keyword search on “mother” brings up some interesting episodes, to be sure.  And I wanted to observe that, unlike the generally positive 19c and 20c images of domesticity, which we take for granted, it’s always seemed to me that the few images we have of motherhood or maternity in 18c British writing are usually quite attenuated: mothers are rarely idealized, or even particularly sympathetic, in both men and women’s writing.  Any ideas about this?



8 responses to “Happy Mother’s Day

  1. Pingback: Early Modern Notes » Weekend reading

  2. Laura Rosenthal

    One of my favorite mothers in eighteenth-century literature is Bridget Allworthy. What was she thinking when she listened through the keyhole and heard her brother trash women who give birth to illegitimate children? It could not have been much fun either to be financially dependent on Allworthy and to live in the house with your beautiful son and not be able to acknowledge him. One of the most amazing things about *Tom Jones* is the recognition at the end that you know nothing about Bridget (or Jenny), and that there was a whole different story going on at the same time as the one you were reading.

  3. David Mazella

    Bridget always seemed like such a sad character to me. Not much rollicking going on in her tale. It’s one of the interesting thing about this great great comic novel, that it can contain a subplot of such poignance, and leave it at that level, where it just adds that dissonance to the novel’s “inevitable” happy ending. The gears grind on, but not for her.

    Jenny is another interesting character, who feels to me like she belongs in a novelistic spinoff of her own, maybe written by Haywood, who would’ve appreciated her, maybe better than Fielding did.

    My favorite just-barely-there mother in 18c lit is Mrs. Shandy, who brings a lot of stoicism to her really thankless role. Again, to have developed her story would have meant an entirely different tone for that book overall.

    But this is partly what novelists do with minor or secondary characters, to present readers with alternatives to the business going on in the main action. But it is interesting, how much they are pushed to one side of the main action of the plot, even if their real contributions are revealed later. Part of the strategy of attenuation.


  4. Kirstin Wilcox

    There seem to be some sound structural reasons for the absence of positive portrayals of mothers in C18 novels. It’s hard to get a good narrative of seduction or courtship going if there’s a vigilant and virtuous mother hovering nearby to guide the heroine.

    Things look a little different though if you look at woman-authored poetry from the C18. Writing poems about their own experience of motherhood (usually the pangs of motherhood and the woes of parting with children) gave many women a creative outlet.

    That said, a brief shuffle through Joyce Fullard’s anthology last night yielded little in the way of women writing about their own mothers. The only poem along those lines that immediately comes to mind is William Cowper’s “On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture out of Norfolk.”
    Are there others out there?

    It’s a fascinating question, Dave, and one I’ll be thinking more about as the dust settles from the past semester.

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    One great example of a literary mother in the eighteenth century is Eliza Haywood’s Emmanuella in *The Rash Resolve*. Emmanuella gets tricked into breaking off her engagement and taking refuge in a convent, where she discovers she is pregnant. The fascinating thing about this novel is that the second half is devoted to her working not as a thief or prostitute (cf Defoe’s famous mothers, Moll and Roxana) but as essentially a cleaning lady in a convent. While she had started life as an heiress, she is willing to engage in this labor out of her devotation to her son. Of course, Fantomina and lots of other heroines become mothers in Haywood, but The Rash Resolve is particularly interesting for its exploration of the practical and emotional conditions of single motherhood in the early eighteenth century.

  6. Dave Mazella


    The number of abandoned or effectively orphaned children in 18c novel plots seems extraordinarily high, but who knows what the affective life of families was like pre-1800? I do think that focusing on the mother is one of the ways that we can also focus on the “formative” influences on characters as children. These seem rather isolated or discontinuous in earlier fiction, but someone like Austen really begins to put these to work as part of her backstory. The absent mother in Emma, for example, helps to explain the dramatic contrast betw. Emma and her father’s intelligence and self-sufficiency, as Mrs. Weston realizes. Can anyone cite an earlier instance of this kind of maternal influence on personality in an 18c novel?


    Don’t know the Rash Resolve, but I expected Haywood to turn up. How much interest does EH take in the emotional ups and downs of motherhood. In other words, not the mother as an obstacle to the younger woman, but as someone with views of her own? Lady Delvile in Cecilia is the one who comes to my mind, but there is obviously a lot of ambivalence in that characterization.


  7. Laura Rosenthal

    I think the emotional ups and downs part in general comes later with realism. In Defoe and Haywood, though (Roxana, Moll, Fantomina, Emmauella), the mother is not a blocking figure but rather the central character and the narrative’s subject with a lot of views of her own. It’s the children who are relatively insignificant.

  8. Dave Mazella

    Aha, you’ve put your finger on it, Laura.

    In 18c fiction, we often get mothers without children or children without mothers, but rarelydo we see them interact in any kind of continuous, narrative fashion. The focus on the long-term relation between the two seems to belong to the realist fiction of the next century, no?

    And it’s that sense of the psychic centrality of the mother’s presence or absence that we take for granted, and find puzzling if 18c writers do not share it.

    My Swift classes are always puzzled by the story of Swift’s nursemaid “running off” with him for a few years in his early childhood, only to have him reunited with his mother after some inordinate amount of time. They feel that this indicates some kind of traumatic episode in his life, but it’s hard for me to distinguish this incident from all the other forms of dislocation that took place during this period.