Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

'Speak on, Desolate Mother!': Elizabeth Gaskell's Isolated (M)others

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

'Speak on, Desolate Mother!': Elizabeth Gaskell's Isolated (M)others

Article excerpt

'No one else can possibly have the influence which a mother may possess, or the facilities which she enjoys.' Rev. John S.C. Abbott, The Mother at Home1

'A mother's love exceeds all others.' Elizabeth Gaskell, 'Diary'2

Elizabeth Gaskell, constant mother to four daughters, was preoccupied, perhaps even obsessed, with motherhood. Mothers and mothering - present or absent - play a prominent role in Gaskell's life and work, from her own mother's early death to her controversial novel Ruth, in which she presents an unwed mother in a sympathetic light. Scholarship in recent decades has questioned Gaskell's once purported social conservatism, shedding new light on her portrayals of the 'othered' mothers in her novels. Rather than adhering to traditional social mores regarding motherhood (considered Victorian women's highest calling), Gaskell illuminated their flaws, pointing out that Victorian mothers were often powerless, involuntarily idle, and eventually put out to pasture once her duties were fulfilled. From scorned Ruth to the unfortunate Mrs Hale, Gaskell's mothers often suffer and exist in isolation. This essay will examine the isolation of mothers and mother figures in Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848), Ruth (1853), North and South (1854-55), and Wives and Daughters (1865), exploring the potential reasons why 'Mrs Gaskell', devoted mother of four, wrote multilayered, politically-charged novels in which the mothers are (m)others.

In order to understand Gaskell's mothers, we must first consider the societal influences under which they were crafted. The mother was considered a crucial element of the Victorian home and, indeed, Victorian society at large, hovering in the centre - an appropriately immobile and enclosed location - of the model bourgeois Victorian family.3 Women were expected to be mothers, and mothers were expected to be naturally nurturing, sacrificing, and, in the domestic realm (but only the domestic realm), all-knowing. Critics have described this ideal as the 'paragon of virtuous and instinctive motherhood',4 the 'ideal, ever-present, ever-loving, all-responsible mother',5 and 'the Victorian image of the ideal selfless mother'.6 Victorian motherhood was a complex system of guidelines that, though praising womanhood and motherhood, mostly served to set up women for failure. Despite motherhood's appearance of importance (and the fact that the monarch was herself a conspicuous mother), the reality for many women was one of striving towards impossible goals dictated by a society that simultaneously lauded and devalued mothers, with unbridled potential for blame should there be any hiccup. The mother's illustrious role of domestic saviour ultimately justified patriarchal confinement, which was enforced throughout society from the drawing room to the courtroom.7 Victorians insistently put forth the notion that women were supremely responsible for their children's development in all areas - intellectual, physical, moral, spiritual - thus implying endless accountability and authority. This authority, however, was chimerical, consistently undermined by custom and legislation that made women equally, or less, autonomous within Victorian households than the children they bore. The expectation for women to be bastions of the home was ideologically discordant, if not downright impossible. Women were thus essentially invisible, experiencing alienation from financial independence, physical agency, intellectual development, sexuality, personal autonomy, and even from their children. Ultimately, Victorian mothers were assigned tasks of immense importance while being denied representation in society. Natalie McKnight's pithy summation of the plight of Victorian mothers is fitting: 'She is all-important, Victorian ideology asserted, but she better not try to be too important'.8

Ostensibly providing guidance to women in their Sisyphean pursuit of becoming an ideal mother were widely-read conduct manuals. These books, designed to encourage good mothering, more probably engendered a deep sense of failure and helplessness in their readers. …

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