- The Politics of Motherhood: British Writing and Culture 1680–1760, and: Children, Parents, and the Rise of the Novel, and: Disciplines of Virtue: Girls’ Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Since Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex, and Marriage, 1500–1800, eighteenth-century family history has burgeoned as a field, with many of the assertions most closely [End Page 145] associated with Stone—such as the claims that the long eighteenth century saw the advent of the companionate marriage, affective individualism, sentimental motherhood, and reverence for childhood—receiving corroboration and contestation alike by historians of diverse specializations, such as Christopher Brooks, Lenore Davidoff, Jack Goody, Catherine Hall, Ralph Houlbrooke, Martin Ingram, Peter Laslett, Alan Macfarlane, Ferdinand Mount, Linda Pollock, Keith Wrightson, and E. A. Wrigley. Recent decades have also seen a boom in treatments of the metaphoric comparison of familial to state governance; here the best examples may be the work of Americanists Jay Fliegelman and Mary Beth Norton. In different ways, the three books under review here revisit and reconfigure this still unsettled historical terrain; together, they provide evidence of the vitality with which assertions of change and continuity in familial representations and practices are at present being debated.
“Augustan discourse was preoccupied with motherhood” (14): Toni Bowers’ The Politics of Motherhood admirably succeeds in demonstrating the force and range implied by this representative statement. Bowers examines in turn three thematic clusters in which representations of motherhood were central in the contestation and codification of authority: Queen Anne; “unnaturally” cruel and neglecting mothers; and emergent ideals of domesticity, epitomized for Bowers by part 2 of Pamela. In the section “Royal motherhood: Queen Anne and the politics of maternal representation,” Bowers draws upon diverse sources to argue persuasively for a telling irony: “Anne’s considerable popularity was largely due to the fact that unlike any monarch before her, she was defined in terms of what she shared with her subjects: she was a model for women insofar as she was ordinary” (44)—an ordinariness that late in her reign contributed to her devaluation as merely pious and entirely removed from the martial feats by which English national power was consolidated and maintained. Bowers tracks the history of the cultivation—by Anne herself and by political and literary writers—of an understanding of her queenly power as essentially maternal through the births and deaths of her numerous children and through the rise of Marlborough as ambiguously both supporter and rival; she considers too the cultural and political changes that differentiated Augustan England from the earlier climate in which Elizabeth had wielded so cannily her own potentially reproductive royal body.
Bowers opens the second section of Politics of Motherhood with a description of several particularly vivid examples of the many sermons, pamphlets, and fictions that dramatize “coldhearted, cruel, avaricious, cowardly, fraudulent, and lascivious” mothers, in which context she skillfully places Moll Flanders and Roxana, reading both as exposés of “the myth that mothers are fully and individually responsible for choices made in constraining and even coercive social situations, choices so overdetermined as to be inevitable” (113). Bowers juxtaposes these readings, which demonstrate the ways that material circumstances assure maternal restriction and even failure, with the vision of “successful, autonomous motherhood” that she finds in Haywood’s The Rash Resolve and The Force of Nature. It is in this section, precise in its readings and urgent in its conclusions, that Bowers most fully realizes her declared hope that her project of “historicizing motherhood” could be used “to construct future motherhood that does not necessarily entail abjection, withdrawal, or passivity” (24). The final section of the book attends closely to Pamela and Clarissa and the critical discussions that surround them. Especially interesting here are Bowers’s contextualization of the breastfeeding debate in...