Academic journal article PSYART

Wordsworth's Prescient Baby: Conceptions of the Mother-Infant Relationship in the Development of the Self 1790s-1890s

Academic journal article PSYART

Wordsworth's Prescient Baby: Conceptions of the Mother-Infant Relationship in the Development of the Self 1790s-1890s

Article excerpt


This article will explore late eighteenth and nineteenth century views of the mother-infant[1] relationship and how they reveal conceptions of the self. I will investigate historical changes in the understanding of infantile development, primarily through British baby diaries and childcare advice literature. In two cases I will look at French authors whose work was translated into English and widely read by an Anglophone audience.[2] First I will consider William Wordsworth's model of infantile development in his 1799 poem The Prelude and briefly look at Locke and David Hartley's theories of the intellectual development of the mind. I will then consider the prevailing ideas from childcare literature and baby diaries from the late eighteenth century until the 1820s. Next I will explore the changing conceptions of the mother-infant relationship in the childcare advice boom of the 1830s. Finally, I will survey the Child Study Movement's different approach towards infantile development at the end of the 1800s.

My central argument will be that by the 1830s the mother-infant relationship was considered emotionally formative, with most people considering the love of the mother as vital to the development and formation of the self. However this self was a moral self, whereas Wordsworth and two lesser known thinkers in the 1830s were unusually prescient in their understanding of the importance of very early emotional experiences in the growth of intellect and imaginative life.

I have chosen to focus on the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for the following reasons. In 1799, the Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) finished his first version of The Two-Part Prelude, eventually published in 1850 as The Prelude or, Growth of a Poet's Mind; An Autobiographical Poem. In Book Two of the poem Wordsworth describes a baby's early encounters with his mother and the natural world, producing a highly original and sophisticated model of an infant's mind and its mental development. As I will elaborate further in the next chapter, Wordsworth took a conjectural leap into the twentieth century with regards to his understanding of the mother-infant relationship and its influence on the development of the emergent self. For this reason I want to investigate Wordsworth's foresight in relation to his contemporaries and later generations.

It is therefore important to provide an overview of the historical conceptions of the mind and self that influenced Wordsworth's generation and those to follow. Many ideas of childhood and selfhood in the seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries continued to provide a foundation for the writers of baby diaries and childcare books in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The intellectual legacy of Locke and Hartley

John Locke (1631-1704) was hugely influential in his conception of the self and its development from the seventeenth century onwards. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) Locke proposed the new-borns mind to be like 'white paper, void of all characters, without ideas.' (Side, 2006) By rejecting the existence of innate ideas, man's mind was therefore 'furnished' through experience. (Coveney, 1957) The idea that we entered the world as 'Tabula Rasa' or 'blank slates' meant that the infant was shaped by external conditions alone.(Seigel 2005) The rejection of ideas such as original sin or any inherent moral qualities meant the experiences of the infant were of primary importance to the formation of the self. Early childhood came to be recognised as an important period for the creation of the later adult.

Another philosopher, David Hartley (1705-1757) expanded on Locke's theories of 'tabula rasa' and assimilation of experience in his doctrine of associations. According to Associationism experience is accumulated through sensual perception of external objects. This meant all ideas, feelings and passions have their origins in experience of the external world. …

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