Reaping the Rich Inheritance of Love: Motherhood in Georgian England

Article excerpt

In his Life of Johnson, Boswell recalls Johnson arguing with a "pertinacious gentleman," who, after talking "in a very puzzling manner," turned to the old sage and said, "I don't understand you, Sir," whereupon Johnson threw up his hands and replied "Sir, I have found you an argument... I am not obliged to find you an understanding."1

Anyone who has ever endeavored to convince a hardened pro-abortionist of the inviolability of unborn life will know the exasperation Johnson felt. The reasoning necessary to recognize that destroying unborn life is indefensible is not abstruse. Grasping the golden rule is sufficient: We must not do unto others what we would not have others do unto us. When Ronald Reagan said, "I've noticed that everybody that is for abortion has already been born," he was refuting the case for abortion with the same appeal to common sense that Johnson used to refute Bishop Berkeley's theory of the non-existence of matter, when, kicking a large stone, he declared: "I refute it thus." Yet to many pro-abortionists common sense makes no appeal. For them, the child in the womb, like that stone, is simply unreal.

This refusal to accept the testimony of common sense is characteristic of certain feminist history. In her highly acclaimed book, The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England (1998), Amanda Vickery depicts her upper-class female subjects not as individuals but as noble victims. Thus, the women in her pages are described as resigned to "the symbolic authority of fathers and husbands, the self-sacrifices of motherhood and the burdensome responsibility for domestic servants, house-keeping and family consumption. The fact that these elements were so abiding perhaps accounts for the extent of acquiescence-rebelling against roles that appeared both prehistoric and preordained would profit nothing."2 In other words, if common sense suggests that her subjects became mothers and managed households out of love and a concomitant sense of duty, well, common sense is mistaken. They assumed such roles because they had no choice but to assume them.

Implicit in Vickery's analysis is the contention that if 18th-century women had had their way they would have rebelled against these "prehistoric and preordained" roles. Like their feminist successors, they would have revolted against the authority of fathers and husbands, refused the self-sacrifices of motherhood and let others manage the servants and the household accounts. Vickery's book abounds in scholarly evidence. She has pored over county record offices and immersed herself in journals and miscellanies. But rather than let the evidence speak for itself she often misrepresents it to support prejudices that would have been unfathomable to her subjects.

One can see this in the way she treats the subject of childbirth. For Vickery and other feminist historians, the question of how past women viewed childbirth must necessarily present embarrassing challenges to feminist orthodoxy, particularly as this relates to abortion. Of course, there were no pro-abortion women in the 18th century or in any other century prior to the late 20th century: They were all categorically (the feminist historian might say "benightedly") pro-life. Yet what is remarkable is how this never seems to disconcert feminist historians. It certainly never deters Vickery from saddling her philoprogenitive subjects with attitudes hostile to the very idea of childbirth.

If the evidence shows that women assumed the responsibilities of motherhood bravely and, on the whole, uncomplainingly, despite the considerable perils of childbirth in an era without the benefit of obstetrics, Vickery must always insist that this is a sign of "acquiescence," never of choice, never of preference, and certainly never of self-sacrificial love. If one objects that motherhood was an inalienable part of female identity in the 18th as in any other century, Vickery has her answer ready:

Linked to the celebration of marriage was the growing sentimentalisation of motherhood. …