Monstrous Motherhood
by Marilyn Francus

Reviewed by Allen Zhang


Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012   |   269 pages

Eighteenth century Britain has long been held as the era that gave us the ideology of domesticity. By the time Samuel Richardson had published Pamela in 1740, the idealized image of the perfect domestic woman was well established. Wonder Woman in a petticoat, her domain was the private sphere; her art was mastering the thousand intricate proprieties of the conduct literature of the period; her forte the minding of virtue and home with equal aplomb, serving her husband in due deference and her nation in moral exemplarity. Covering an impressive span of literary history, Marilyn Francus argues in Monstrous Motherhood that this ideology of domesticity was, firstly, never firmly established, and secondly, a reactionary gesture of a literary tradition terrified of women and their perceived threat to print culture.

Between Errour in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Sin in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Criticism in Swift’s Battle of the Books, and Dulness in Pope’s Dunciad, literature abounds in allegorical representations of women as monsters. In Francus’s account, women are viewed by the dominant writers of the period in light of the sheer horror of their reproductive prerogative, cast as the unchecked incursion of female authorship deluging the literary landscape with inferior works. (Pope, with his characteristic swagger, impeccable meter and intractable sexism, imagines the poetry of Dulness as the “Maggots half form’d in rhyme exactly meet / And learn to crawl upon poetic feet.”)

Motherhood in the eighteenth century was, on the one hand, intimately aligned with the ideal of domesticity. The best mothers were ones that stayed out of sight in order to rear children with one hand and maintain the contradictory sensibilities of British decorum with the other. They were virtuous but ephemeral, hard-working but self-effacing. On the other hand, mothers were demonized as monsters, portrayed in the cultural narrative under the hysterics of infanticide, the heterodoxy of step-parenting, the chaos of endless reproduction, and the progenitorship of sin. Francus’s study argues that, though these two pictures may seem superficially distinct, they are nevertheless codependent in their reciprocal logic.

Being a proper eighteenth-century mother meant embodying the domestic ideal, which in turn, in its frustrating set of social delimitations, forecloses many of the actual practical functions of motherhood. Caught between impossibilities, eighteenth century mothers (and, often as a result, their children) took to the page to vent their frustrations. In two chapters of her book, Francus brings us the inside profiles of two troubled mothers in two of Britain’s most eminent literary (which is to say, well-documented) families, the notable woman-of-letters Hester Thrale (later Thrale-Piozzi) and Elizabeth Allen, the stepmother of the novelist Francis Burney (later d’Arblay). While Francus stresses that her case studies are not meant to be representative, her well-researched accounts provide a rich glimpse into just how difficult it was to be an eighteenth-century mother. Hester Thrale’s public profile as an author, combined with her audacity to remarry as a widow, meant, to the period, that she had failed as a mother, in form, long before she could be evaluated in terms of her actual parenting. While Thrale dedicated decades of her life to raising her children, her four surviving daughters showed her little but contempt and years of snubbery.

Likewise, while the ridicule held by Francis Burney, toward her stepmother, Elizabeth Allen, is well-known, Francus shows us how the “evil stepmother” narrative since popularized by stories like “Cinderella” crosses between fact and fiction to presume wrongdoing far before it occurs. The stepmother’s fictional embodiment of entrenched parental failure exposes the socioeconomic contrivance that often underlays the purportedly natural impulse of mothering. For Francus, the bad rap that stepmothers have always gotten in literature reveals a more obvious (but not more pernicious) glimpse into the fraught conditions of eighteenth-century motherhood.

One cannot speak of these conditions without broaching the subject of the terrible odds of biological motherhood during the time. The high incidence of infant mortality and the huge families that society dictated women produce meant that of Hester Thrale’s twelve children, only four survived into adulthood, causing her more than once to lament in her journals about fruitless labor that merely ushers children from womb to tomb. The mortality rates ensuing from the horrors of eighteenth-century prenatal care often met with lowered societal expectations regarding infant survival, sometimes turning poverty itself into another condition of death. In fact, as Marilyn Francus tells us, the high incidence of infanticide during the time demonstrates how socioeconomic inequality stratify motherhood between those who could afford to be mothers and those who could not, despite contemporary conduct literature’s pronouncement of an unequivocally universal ideal.

Here, Francus transitions deftly between biological survey, literary representation, and legal analysis, describing eighteenth-century motherhood in its full complexity and inner tension. In addition to examining the threat of infanticide in literature (of which there are a significant number in eighteenth-century texts), Francus examines a wide array of eighteenth-century legal cases prosecuting mothers for infanticide. In particular, she presents a compelling argument which helps account for the radically different fortunes of mothers on trial during the period, who frequently either walked free or received a death sentence. Since most of these cases involved infants born out of wedlock, thoroughly repentant mothers who were perceived to have committed the crime out of virtuous but misguided concern walked free, whereas those who did not were slapped with the crime of exercising personal autonomy were cast as uncontrollable monsters and executed.

The dual treatment of mothers, as monsters on the one hand and angels on the other, finds an uncomfortable synthesis in what Francus calls the high incidence of “spectral motherhood” by the end of the eighteenth century. Spectral motherhood, in Francus’ telling, is motherhood displaced in the text’s attempt to negotiate the ideological gap between mothers as the ideals of domesticity and mothers as icons of monstrosity. As a specter, the mother is there – but not entirely. This was, in many ways, a logical outcome of the impossible social demand that mothers, in effect, be mothers without being mothers. Francus examines in detail three specific archetypal situations: the absent mother who instructs her child from afar (such as conduct guides like Sarah Pennington’s An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to her Daughters or novels like Maria Susanna Cooper’s Exemplary Mother), the surveilling mother who cares for her child without knowing his or her identity (for instance, Defoe’s Roxana), or dead mothers whose traces still shape the destiny of her child (like the mothers in Burney’s Evelina and Mary Hay’s Victim of Prejudice).

One doesn’t need to be an expert on eighteenth-century literature to appreciate the extent of Marilyn Francus’s study. While ostensibly written for academic audiences, many of Francus’s insights reverberate in today’s discourse on motherhood. Between the sexualized monstrosity of the popular term “cougar” and former Congressman Todd Akin’s ghastly remarks on “legitimate rape,” it is clear that elements of patriarchal culture continue to police and frame women’s sexuality, particularly when it comes to the threatening reproductive potential of motherhood.

Although Francus’s book sometimes reads like several independent, albeit fascinating, chapters (a common criticism of the previously-published articles-turned-chapters format that is a hallmark of academic writing), here, the cluster of different chapters and their different methodologies form an intricate nodal analysis of a topic that is eminently hard to crack, notwithstanding its ostensible naturalness and timelessness. As Francus concludes, while motherhood may appear natural, “the actual mothering of children is an acquired skill,” and in many cases, as was for most of the eighteenth century, an unrecognized form of labor, thankless in its completion and demonized in its process.

Allen Zhang is an English PhD candidate at UCLA. His research is primarily focused on  monsters in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. He received his BA in English from Dartmouth College.

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