- Written Maternal Authority and Eighteenth-Century Education in Britain: Educating by the Book by Rebecca Davies
In her new book, Rebecca Davies successfully offers “an alternative perspective that locates women as gatekeepers of national knowledge and morality,” finding a means through this perspective to suggest that, even though women’s lives had become more situated within the private sphere during the latter eighteenth century, women still retained an authority “that is both defined by and detached from the authors’ biological femininity” (150). Through her study, Davies articulates the ways in which the written text (often authored by women, sometimes by men) grants textual and, more indirectly, social authority through instructions about the raising of children to be ethical citizens. [End Page 392]
Davies’s readings build on deconstructive paradigms without expressly stating them in her analysis. She recognizes the power of texts by mothers to self-style agency above and beyond what women actually possessed. Through the authors she chooses—including Samuel Richardson, Sarah Fielding, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth, Ann Martin Taylor, and Jane Austen—Davies offers close, detailed considerations of many familiar and unfamiliar texts (even when working within the canon of familiar authors) and how they elucidate the textual and social power that purportedly private women could exercise. Although Davies covers a limited number of authors, she does so in a manner that creates paradigms for reading authors not included but who could easily be figured in this manner, most notably Charlotte Smith and Mary Hays.
Some of Davies’s most enlightening readings refer to texts of canonical authors that have been ignored or misjudged. Her reading of the continuation of Richardson’s Pamela (referred to as Pamela II) moves this sequel novel from its usual place as a disparaged text to that of an important text containing fissures that can be utilized to figure the separation between ideal wifehood and written motherhood. By examining Pamela B’s acts of maternity, which include writing and also mothering a motherless child of Mr B’s, Davies argues that Pamela becomes “more physically and emotionally realistic” in this sequel, offering a different kind of success in this text than the completed, verisimilar novel-text celebrated by Ian Watt and other theorists of the beginnings of British novel. Although Davies contends that Pamela II is “lacking” a “radical feminist” edge, it nonetheless “ends up in a confused position which attempts … to follow the models for women: the maternal educator displaying rationality and self-awareness, and a biologically determined woman as mother and sexualized wife” (21). Thus Pamela II’s power is its ability to elucidate the contradictions that are emerging in mid-eighteenth-century society as women become more associated with the private realm at the same time that they are considered the moral and spiritual centre of their household and charged with the rearing of obedient and moral members of British society.
Mary Wollstonecraft is central to Davies’s argument, but not primarily through her standardly read feminist icon, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). While acknowledging the feminist critique that Wollstonecraft does indeed locate women’s power in the domestic sphere, Davies demonstrates that Wollstonecraft’s “arguments for sexual equality … are largely based on women’s position as maternal educators of future citizens of the country” (67). Davies offers convincing readings of the earlier radicalism of Wollstonecraft’s thought in her Some [End Page 393] Thoughts Concerning the Education of Daughters (1787) and Original Stories from Real Life (1788), finding in these works elements that are “increasingly problematic” to be read, as they standardly are, as “relatively conservative and established representations of maternal educators” (66) for their times and in light of the later, more conservative formulations of motherhood in the famous Vindication.
When Davies turns to Maria Edgeworth’s novels and her educational tracts, she manages to walk an important and complex line between the views that erroneously ascribe to Edgeworth Jacobin sympathies or those that see her in her...