Writing British Infanticide: Child-Murder, Gender, and Print, 1722-1859

By Jennifer Thorn | Go to book overview
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"I wou'd not murder my child":
Maternity and the Necessity of Infanticide
in Two Novels by Daniel Defoe

Toni Bowers

Typically, under patriarchy, the mother's life is exchanged for
the child's; her autonomy as a separate being seems fated to con-
flict with the infant she will bear.

Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born

NARRATIVES OF MONSTROUS MOTHERHOOD PROLIFERATED IN THE WRITing of early eighteenth-century Britain. Novels, pamphlets, broadside scandal sheets, sermons, poems, plays, romances—all dwell luridly on "unnatural" mothers, monsters of depravity who deceive, defraud, abuse, abandon, and even murder their own children. The sheer number of works in which stories about monster-mothers are told, along with the range of genres in which such stories appear and the repetitive nature of their plots, reveal a preoccupation specific to that time (the so-called "Augustan" period in British literary history). Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724), Johnson's Life of Savage (1744), and Tobias Smollett's Roderick Random (1748) provide only the best-known examples of the kind; their famously unloving mothers represent one of eighteenth-century British culture's most fascinating terrors.1

Why should murderous motherhood have constituted such an important space in Augustan discourse? An explanation may lie in the dissonance eighteenth-century culture increasingly perceived between two uneasily reconciled values: unique, coherent personal identity and sacrificial, self-effacing motherlove. In Augustan Britain, motherhood and what we might call "personhood" began to be seen, for the first time, as mutually exclusive alternatives.

This is not to say that the two really were exclusive categories for the first time during the early eighteenth century. Rather, motherhood

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