Romantic-Era Narratives of
MOTHERHOOD HAS BECOME A TRENDY TOPIC IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY and Romantic-period scholarship, although critics have tended to focus on idealizations of the mother-child bond and on writers' preoccupations with sympathetic, natural, and hence necessarily good mothers.1 While a number of scholars have considered at greater length representations of neglectful, savage, and otherwise deviant eighteenth-century mothers, they do so primarily in order to demonstrate ways in which stereotypically unnatural mothers helped establish normative codes of feminine behavior.2 The bad mother signifies within this scheme everything that the good mother is not. Toni Bowers stresses particularly the ways in which "varieties of maternal possibility "were" denied credibility in the effort to create a monolithic version of maternal excellence" during the first half of the eighteenth century. Asking us to consider "What silencings, abandonments, and abortions became necessary to bringing forth Augustan Britain's ideal mother?", she emphasizes the Augustan pursuit of a "single correct version of maternal virtue"—one that refused to admit "differences of economic privilege and historical position," despite the fact that "maternal difference "was" everywhere apparent, even in texts that den"ied" it most insistently."3
The kinds of suppressions and denials to which Bowers directs our attention become particularly glaring in mothers' tales of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Theories of deviant maternal behavior indeed proliferated after mid-century, and even as these helped naturalize (through comparison) a "single correct version" of maternal subjectivity, they frequently generated sympathy for mad, bad, and even death-dealing mothers, whose stories previously had not been widely recorded. "Humanitarian" narratives of infanticidal mothers (to invoke Thomas Laqueur's term), which
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Publication information: Book title: Writing British Infanticide: Child-Murder, Gender, and Print, 1722-1859. Contributors: Jennifer Thorn - Editor. Publisher: University of Delaware Press. Place of publication: Newark, DE. Publication year: 2003. Page number: 236.
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