WRITTEN MATERNAL AUTHORITY AND EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY EDUCATION IN BRITAIN-EDUCATING BY THE BOOK by Rebecca Davies, Reviewed by Laura Kirkley
 

WRITTEN MATERNAL AUTHORITY AND EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY EDUCATION IN BRITAIN-EDUCATING BY THE BOOK
By Rebecca Davies
(Ashgate, 2014) x + 171 pp.
Reviewed by Laura Kirkley on 2015-05-03.

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In recent decades, scholars of women's writing have increasingly focussed on eighteenth-century and Romantic motherhood. At first, they trained their critical lenses chiefly on maternal practices such as breastfeeding and the use of the maternal body in political iconography, but latterly the focus has shifted towards the educational role played by mother-figures in the period. In turn, this line of inquiry has shown how much women's authorship of pedagogical and conduct literature could enable them to exert social, political, or even subtly feminist agency.

Building on this research, the present book charts the process by which--from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century--English literature increasingly manifests the cultural acceptance of maternal authority. Davies consolidates existing claims that many women covertly used educational works-- including narrative fiction--to express political or moral convictions. She thus brings a distinctive perspective to the study of biological and surrogate mothers in the long eighteenth century, but her book also has broader implications for both the history of literature and contemporary feminist debate. Drawing on feminist theory, modern journalism, and well-known internet resources such as Mumsnet, Davies considers the far-reaching effects of this early modern conceptualization of maternity as an authoritative discourse. Has the enhanced status of the mother-educator, she asks, ever reached beyond literature to empower maternal readers?

In light of this question, each of Davies's six chapters analyzes the work of a different writer, progressing chronologically from Enlightenment novelists (Samuel Richardson and Sarah Fielding) through Revolutionary and proto-Romantic writers (Mary Wollstonecraft and Maria Edgeworth) to Ann Martin Taylor--the nineteenth-century Dissenting moralist--and Jane Austen. Although this list represents a diverse range of ideological convictions and writing projects, the theme of maternal authority illuminates previously overlooked connections between them. Besides persuasively linking canonical authors to comparatively obscure figures such as Taylor, Davies also argues for closer scrutiny of neglected texts such as Pamela II (1741), Richardson's sequel to his bestselling novel.

Pamela II helps Davies launch her argument. While tracing fascinating patterns and developments in literary portrayals of motherhood, Davies connects them, in turn, with the broader movement in women's fiction that Nancy Armstrong has identified: the movement away from heroines with sexual agency towards paragons of domesticity. Ironically, Davies observes, this idealization of desexualized women depends on depicting marital sex and subsequent maternity as their biological destiny. Pamela II, which Davies examines in Chapter one, foregrounds the tensions between irreconcilable models of womanhood: the rational maternal educator, the mother as nurturing body, and the wife as sexual object. The tensions between these models have far-reaching implications for feminist analyses of motherhood and its place in the literature of the long eighteenth century.

The" ‘relative fictional neglect of harmonious educational projects undertaken by both parents," Davies argues, ". . . indicates that writers were unable to synthesize the many opposing cultural expectations of maternity and conjugal relations" (40). Also, she plausibly suggests, these incompatibilities explain why female-authored educational works seldom feature male figures. Further highlighting the challenges faced by women novelists seeking to innovate within the limitations of their chosen genre, Davies shows that familial plots rarely incorporate maternal authority.

By thus weighing maternity against other aspects of women's private experience, Davies also invites further research into early modern maternal sentiments and the genres that enable their expression. Apart from a handful of excellent studies such as Joanne Bailey's Parenting in England 1760-1830 (2012), Julie Kipp's Romanticism, Maternity, and the Body Politic (2003), and Marilyn Francus's Monstrous Motherhood (2012), this is an underexplored area of scholarship. Although Davies's work focuses largely on issues of maternal education and written authority, it raises important questions about the emotional impact of maternity that are still relevant today and would undoubtedly merit further investigation by scholars of early modern literature, women's writing, and the history of the emotions.

In the period considered by this book, the authority of the maternal educator could empower women. But maternity was still inevitably bound to a domestic realm that was based on patriarchal principles and that stereotyped the mother as instinctively self-abnegating, the "angel in the house." One of Davies's central arguments is that even though assertive maternal voices are increasingly audible in the period, their authority is confined to literature. While Pamela, for instance, writes with maternal authority, she must accede to Mr B's wishes in their domestic life as she retreats from the nursery to the marital bed. Narratives such as Pamela II, then, complicate claims made by scholars of children's literature. While these scholars find eighteenth-century commentators worrying that books may become substitutes for maternal care, Davies stresses the conflict between maternal and conjugal duties as well as the very real risk -- especially given the hazards of childbirth -- that children may lose their biological mothers before reaching adulthood. By illuminating the various pressures and anxieties of early modern motherhood, she demonstrates why maternal authority was displaced into fiction. Also, while recognizing the advantages--in our own time -- of a textual body that might stand in for the mother, she shows how women were often disempowered by the gap between textual authority and real-life maternal authority.

For this reader, Davies is at her most compelling when she connects the fictional portrayal of maternal authority in the eighteenth century with its counterpart in the twenty-first, not least because her work provides an instructive historical background for debates surrounding modern motherhood. In our own parenting manuals, newspaper articles, and internet forums, she rightly observes, advice to mothers still vests authority in the maternal writer rather than the reader. Davies's research thus opens the door for historically-informed feminist analyses of the role that advice to mothers plays in modern attitudes to mothering. Her chapter on Wollstonecraft, which she terms an " essential centre-point" in the book, mines a rich seam in Wollstonecraft's oeuvre on the feminist challenges posed by motherhood. Davies stresses these challenges. While Wollstonecraft, she notes, exploited the empowering potential of written maternal authority in her construction of various narrative personae, her works also testify to the real-world limitations placed on this empowerment. How much authority, Wollstonecraft implicitly asks, can be exercised by anyone whose biologically determined role threatens to define her by her relationship to her children? Emphasising the physical demands and privileges of motherhood, Wollstonecraft also seeks to liberate women from restrictive models of biological destiny. To situate her works in their French Revolutionary context, Davies persuasively shows the connection between maternal feeling and innate benevolence in Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman (1798). Since the fertile mother had become a symbol of the French Republic, which (ironically, given the bloodletting of the Terror) was partly inspired by Rousseauvian theories of innate human benevolence, the political implications of this connection deserve further investigation.

Likewise alert to political implications is Davies's chapter on Edgeworth, whose educational writing is said to explore the role of female citizens. Davies finds Edgeworth a more conservative writer than the influential work of Marilyn Butler would suggest. By insisting on the value of familial power structures, Davies argues, Edgeworth's maternal discourse recalls Burke rather than Wollstonecraft. Yet within this relatively conservative political framework, Davies's impressively nuanced analysis shows how Edgeworth forges subtly feminist innovations.

In certain chapters, however, Davies leans too heavily on a rather outdated critical framework. Though her scholarship is otherwise up to date, her conclusions to the Wollstonecraft chapter rest on assumptions derived from Mary Poovey's The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (1984), which, although undoubtedly seminal, has generated much commentary and critique since the 1980s. Despite some sophisticated analysis of Wollstonecraft's primary texts, therefore, Davies ultimately reiterates the well-worn idea that Wollstonecraft was unable to reconcile her belief in the sexlessly rational mind with the biological realities of being female. Drawing on Ruth Perry, she also claims that Wollstonecraft depicts maternity as incompatible with heterosexual companionship. In both cases, she overlooks evidence that Wollstonecraft's works strive to resolve these tensions. In fact Wollstonecraft's Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1795), which Davies does not discuss, draw connections between maternal love and sexual desire for the father of the child. Similarly, the feminist maternal utopia outlined at the end of Maria is, in many respects, a rational rejection of patriarchal society that owes its inception to bonds of sentiment forged by an experience of heterosexual love. Davies elides these complexities for the sake of a rather too sweeping argument.

In the final chapter, Davies's analysis of Austen also treads some well-worn critical ground. As evidence for feminist critics' discomfort with Austen's marriage plots, she cites Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), and then contests their position by demonstrating the emancipative possibilities inherent in Austen's narrative style. But since more recent work by scholars such as Margaret Kirkham and Claudia L.Johnson has identified feminist undercurrents in Austen's novels, Davies might better have built on this work.

Notwithstanding these reservations, this book is a largely well-researched and thought-provoking contribution to research on literary representations of motherhood in the long eighteenth century. It also has striking contemporary relevance. Davies's conclusion -- that the discourse of maternity gives women's writing an authority that is both connected with and separate from biological femininity -- will intrigue scholars of the long eighteenth century, but could also stimulate and inform debates among modern feminist commentators.

Laura Kirkley is a Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature at Newcastle University.


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