- Motherly Concern
Crying has been a great difficulty with me. Books doso differ. One says, “Do not let them have anythingthey cry for”; another (Mme. Necker de Saussure, “SurL’Education Progressive,” the nicest book I have read onthe subject) says: “Les larmes des enfans sont si amères,la calme parfaite de l’ame leur est si nécessaire qu’ilfaut surtout épargner des larmes.” So I had to make arule for myself, and though I am afraid I have not keptto it quite as I ought, I still think it a good one.—Elizabeth Gaskell, “My Diary”: The Early Years of My Daughter Marianne (1923)1
Writing in the mid-1830s, when her first child was six months old, Elizabeth Gaskell reveals that she regularly turns to books for advice. But perhaps surprisingly, she also reveals herself a less docile reader than we might expect, considering a variety of recommendations in order to “make a rule for [her]self.” Gaskell is responding to the genre of medically authored child-rearing advice books that began to flood the market in the late 1830s and 1840s. This genre combined two earlier genres—the curative, which offered medical recipes, and the longevity manual, which offered advice on the prevention of disease—but initiated a new focus on children’s health; it also explicitly identified women as its intended audience. It promises authoritative, expert medical knowledge—written by physicians, surgeons, or apothecaries—and it addresses women like Gaskell: young mothers with their first child, wanting to learn how best to care for their children. This mindset [End Page 32] seems to have resulted from the symbolic importance of motherhood in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This new focus on motherhood derived from myriad factors: the Romantic cult of the child, new concern about maternal death rates during childbirth (possibly catalyzed by Princess Charlotte’s death in 1817), and—perhaps most broadly—the re-organization of households, the various meanings of family, and the recalibration of many beliefs and practices surrounding both. “Maternal influence” described the power of those without authority, legal standing, or guardianship over their children but whose influence was imagined to be all-powerful, determining the moral compass and habits of the adult to come.
Patricia Branca has argued that this culpability without authority generated new kinds of anxiety on the part of Victorian women, creating a demand for guides giving detailed instructions about how to mother (76). Apparently reinforcing this argument is John Tosh’s observation that while childrearing guidebooks for mothers abounded, fathers received little to no textual advice (79; Nelson 59–60). But it is equally plausible that the rhetoric of child-rearing advice literature interpellated anxiety as a constitutive feature of middle-class motherhood.
The genre of the child-rearing advice manual creates rhetorical exigency by imagining readers who have enough knowledge to understand the stakes of good mothering but not enough to empower them to actually know what is best for children. The genre frames infancy as a time when life was deeply precarious—as indeed it was. Thomas Barrett’s Advice on the Management of Children in Early Infancy (1851), for example, announces solemnly, “there cannot be a doubt that the mortality peculiar to Children at the early period of Infancy draws its source from errors in diet and nursing” (v–vi). Mothers are thus not simply ignorant of what to do but prone to deadly mistakes. Writing in 1839, Pye Henry Chavasse underscores this, explaining that he has “witness[ed] the prejudices and mistakes, and consequent dangers, which mothers, especially young ones, fall into, from the want of some little work to guide them” (Advice to Mothers iii).
The books offer portable medical expertise to counteract deadly maternal errors. In Maternal Management (1840), for example, Thomas Bull promises “that information which the experience and observation of some years convince the author young mothers, almost without any exception, do not possess” (iii). These texts thus position maternal readers as being in desperate need of expert child-rearing advice, developing what Jacques Donzelot calls a “privileged alliance” between bourgeois mothers and male...