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80Victorian Review Natalie J. McKnight. Suffering Mothers in Mid-Victorian Novels. New York: St. Martin's P, 1997. xi + 162. $39.95 US (cloth). In recent years many critical works have appeared which deal with Victorian womanhood or female characters in Victorian fiction. Some of what is contained in Natalie McKnight's book Suffering Mothers in Mid-Victorian Novels will, as a result, necessarily strike us as familiar. Her specific focus on motherhood, however, is interesting and intelligently presented. This is also a timely book since it appears at a time when motherhood is being reassessed. Victorian ideals of motherhood, as McKnight points out, are still much with us and readers who are or who have considered becoming mothers will find the study carries added resonance. The book's focus is upon the figure of the mother in mid-Victorian fiction, a figure whose importance McKnight rightly states has not been adequately considered. Through discussion of motherhood in novels by Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, William Thackeray and George Eliot, this book demonstrates that mother characters are made into angels or monsters, longed for or feared, absent or punished but are "always powerfully present even in their absence" (33). Mothers are shown to be characters who in a variety of ways — emotionally, physically, economically or socially — suffer or are suffered by those around them particularly their children. The focus is more on reactions to motherhood by authors and characters rather than on mothers' own views of motherhood. McKnight argues that all four writers she discusses demonstrate, in different ways, the influences both of society's views of motherhood and of personal psychological tensions. She uses a dual historicist and psychoanalytical approach in which the psychoanalytical strand is predominant. The historicist aspects of the argument fall by the wayside in analysis of the novels which is a pity because the first chapter which sets up the historical background contains much that is of interest and worthy of further discussion. McKnight examines the image of motherhood created in the midVictorian period by the flourishing of conduct manuals for women, medical books, periodical literature on the subject and Queen Victoria's fecund image. She demonstrates that sociocultural expectations of mothers were unrealistic, contradictory and induced frustration in mothers and in those whose mothers did not live up to the ideal of almost deified selflessness. We might quibble with the ease with which some conclusions are drawn in the historical chapter and find odd that there is only slight reference to the role of religion in determining standards of motherhood, particularly suffering motherhood. There is, Reviews81 however, much that is fascinating here. McKnight shows, for example, that Queen Victoria, mother of nine and widely perceived as an ideal mother, in fact had a horror of sex, pregnancy, childbirth and babies and suffered from post-partum depression. Victoria's real and quite realistic feelings about motherhood, so far from the ideal, would McKnight suggests, "place her in the ranks of the villains in the novelistic world" (16). The second chapter discusses psychoanalytical mothering theories which become central in the examination of novels in the succeeding chapters. The discussion of the implications of mothers being the dominant caregiver is a useful one. Complete power by a mother over a child in infancy, it is argued, leads to resistance to female authority in both men and women because it reminds them of childhood frustrations. McKnight focuses on the various tensions motherhood creates in children. She draws particularly on Melanie Klein's model of hostility to the mother followed by a need for repair or reparation. Creativity in Klein's view is often motivated by guilt towards the mother and the need to make reparation. Writers' own expectations of motherhood are a key element of the chapters that follow, one chapter devoted to each of the four novelists considered. McKnight's examination is not entirely biographical but she draws psychoanalytically on each writer's relationship or lack of relationship with his or her mother. Authors, she argues, can provide missing mothers or replace unsatisfactory ones by creating mother characters. She demonstrates that Dickens and Thackeray show clearly in their novels the angel/monster extremes of motherhood and contain more...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 80-82
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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