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Five Questions: Rebecca Davies on Written Maternal Authority and Eighteenth-Century Education in Britain

Rebecca Davies - Written Material Authority and Eighteenth-Century Education in Britain

Rebecca Davies is currently a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh.  She completed her doctorate at Aberystwyth University in 2011, where she also held lectureships in eighteenth and nineteenth-century literature.  She spent 2012 teaching at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and has also taught at Birmingham City University and Loughborough University.  Her research focuses on areas including women’s writing, epistemology, the materiality of the text, writing for children and discourses of education, concerns which are united in her first monograph, Written Maternal Authority and Eighteenth-Century Education in Britain: Educating by the Book, which was recently published by Ashgate and which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in the implications of ‘textual mothering’?

I began this project with the realisation that Samuel Richardson was unable to construct an archetype of maternity in his 1742 sequel to Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740).  I expected to observe a continuation of exemplary female behaviour, transferring the faultlessness of her chastity to her mothering, in the sequel to his popular novel.  Instead, Pamela’s behaviour is conflicted and the guidance that readers could gain from her is consequently also uncertain.  The work’s critical failure seems to be located in this flawed non-representation of what constitutes exemplary maternity as it fails as a novel of conduct and instruction.  Richardson encounters what I term a ‘maternal contradiction’ in trying to present the otherwise exemplary Pamela attempting to perform the conflicting duties of wife and mother simultaneously.  His imperfect solution was to construct her as a woman who ‘writes’ rather than performs her paradigmatic maternity, a notion which forms the central theme of this book.

2) How did discourses of written maternal authority develop as the eighteenth century progressed?

The book maps the development of written maternal authority from the problematic inception as an imperfect response to barriers against physical mothering to implicit feminine authority in the covert didacticism of a woman writer.  Richardson’s Pamela wrote her mothering because of the conflicting demands on her body made by her husband and child.  At the end of the century Wollstonecraft also explored the necessity of writing as a maternal duty when the physical duties are denied in her unfinished novel Maria.  The book demonstrates the complete separation of the written construct of maternity from physical mothering by the end of the eighteenth century.  Ann Martin Taylor’s writing could be described as theoretical maternity as she ‘mothers’ the reader through her authorial voice and essentially is the mother become text when she draws the daughter/reader’s attention to the materiality of the book written by her physical hand.  The final writer examined briefly in this study, Jane Austen, indicates the manner in which the feminine authority of educational discourse examined in the rest of the book, can be seen to have imbued the distinctly feminine didactic narrator’s voice with implicit authority.

3) How did you choose your major case studies (Samuel Richardson, Sarah Fielding, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth, Ann Martin Taylor and Jane Austen), and were there other figures or works which you considered but rejected?

There are many writers whose works I would have liked to explore in relation to the empowering nature of women’s written educative authority – Anna Letitia Barbauld, Barbara Hofland and Hannah More were all writers I considered – but the theory I put forward here of a distinct written discipline of maternal education that is intended to be an empowering rhetorical device for women writers is not limited to the writers I have examined in this project.  These texts were chosen to demonstrate the chronological development of the paradigm of the maternal educator from its problematic incarnation in the mid-eighteenth century to the understanding of ideal maternity as a written construct in the early nineteenth century, and to do so through examination of a variety of literary genres.  The construction of maternity in conduct literature and the novel differs for many of the writers, demonstrating the difficulty of absorbing the paradigm of authoritative maternity into the familial plot, Mary Wollstonecraft’s encounters with the contradictions of the empowering aspects of maternity and the limitations placed on women by gendered social roles are still being played out today.  Maria Edgeworth’s influence in this area was established by the ground-breaking work of Mitzi Myers in the 1980s and 90s, which made her presence indispensable, although I did not have space to include a discussion of her bildungsromans Belinda and Ormond as I had intended.  Ann Martin Taylor is not really read today, but her works, particularly Maternal Solicitude (1814), have been represented by Davidoff and Hall (1987) as typical of the sort of moral ‘maternal advice’ that had become popular by the end of the eighteenth century.  In addition, the way in which her authorial authority was channelled through her Dissenting faith, and the role of women in the Congregationalist Church, made her work an interesting case study.  Jane Austen’s authoritative narrative voice in her didactic novels illustrates the empowering alternative to the negative characterisation of female education within a heterosexual courtship that is made available by implicit didactic female authority.

4) How effective was the discourse of maternal educational authority as a tool for allowing women effectively to intervene in political and philosophical debates?

While discussions about education allowed women to intervene in politically-infused debates regarding cognitive development and epistemology, particularly around the French Revolution of 1789, it was usually covertly achieved.  For example, I suggest that Maria Edgeworth employs a Burkean lexis in her discussion of natural ability in children, in order to signal her concerns regarding broader cultural epistemological breaks.  In spite of the acknowledged empowering effects of female control of educational writing, the authority gained by individual women through a maternal role is limited to the literary realm.  Mothering is a social function and therefore a self-negating process, defined in terms of what mothers can do for other actors in society.  A ‘good’ mother could create both great future statesmen and ideal future mothers, but she will not receive public acknowledgement of the performance of her role, even if her publicly admired son is the product of her excellent parenting.  Motherhood also becomes homogenised in its paradigmatic form, and therefore does not imbue individual women with unquestionable authority.  On the contrary, individual mothers are the subject of critical public expectations and appraisals in relation to their performance of this duty.  Whereas female authority in public discourse is heightened through symbolic maternity, individual mothers are increasingly examined and constrained in their conduct by the imposition of yet more restrictive written rules that can be applied to female behaviour.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am currently looking at representations of ‘genius’ in educational writing of the long eighteenth century.  This project aims to explore how those writing about education negotiated a conception of genius, both natural and learned, in relation to cognitive development in children and working-class adults.

The objectives of the project are threefold: to re-assess the development of a modern concept of genius in the light of neglected eighteenth-century educational writing by women; to overturn the truism that eighteenth-century epistemology acknowledged genius only as it related to masculine creative originality; and to expand our cultural understanding of how childhood was constructed in this period.  The study will reassess the gendered nature of the debate surrounding the nature of genius, which is traditionally associated with the Romantic poets’ concern with masculine imagination.