The many faces of mothers in Georgian England

One of the things I’ve found interesting on joining social media is how many people’s profiles include ‘mother’ and ‘father’ as part of their personal identity, alongside their occupation, their political stance, and their hobbies. Being a parent has long been part of people’s sense of self, but perhaps what struck me most in my research on parenting in the later Georgian period was how parents could draw on lots of different types of parental identity to construct their own. Probably it was the variety open to mothers that is most striking, for I think there is an assumption that maternity was a very fixed ideal and identity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially for elite women. Having talked a lot about fathers on my blog so far, here are some of my findings about the mothers I researched.[1]


Mary Robinson, by Gainsborough, 1781. Wikimedia Commons.

One way in which women defined themselves through mothering was to use the language of ‘sensibility,’ that fashionable mode of being that influenced the period. For example, in her memoir, written at the end of her too short life, the marvellous Mary Robinson [1758-1800] described herself as a ‘parent whose heart is ennobled by sensibility’. She used the language of feeling to describe her new sense of self at the birth of her daughter. It awoke:

‘a new and tender interest in my bosom, which presented to my fondly beating heart my child, – my Maria. I cannot describe the sensations of my soul at the moment when I pressed the little darling to my bosom, my maternal bosom.’

Mary was not alone in this and like others was using a familiar cultural ideal of the ‘tender mother’. Tender was the adjective most often applied to mothers (and fathers) in the period. It conveyed depth of love, compassion, and care and other characteristics of ideal motherhood which were more abstract than material. These were feelings that were part of the culture of sensibility, including the shedding of tears, shuddering, extreme sensitivity, and movement of hearts. Crucially, Mary was able to use maternity in her memoirs as part of her construction of a more palatable public self-image at the end of her life as a female author formed by the culture of sensibility. This was obviously intended to offer a different public identity to her earlier one as high-class courtesan which centred on her scandalous relationships with a series of high-profile men. [2]

Using the language of the culture of sensibility was not restricted to the educated elite. For example women from a range of social groups used a related style of motherhood regularly depicted in fiction and genre art: the ‘distressed mother’. It emerged out of the emphasis in the culture of sensibility upon the importance of a benevolent society that acted charitably to others. Many of these women may have had no choice in using this form of identity for it was often those who were trying to secure aid, or to justify their position. For example, when her husband, a former merchant, was unable to contribute to his family’s support, one woman placed an advert in The Times, 1795, describing herself as:

‘an almost broken-hearted Mother. God knows this is not any fiction; and not any thing on earth but the dreadful misery that must attend my children, could ever have so far conquered the delicate feelings of sensibility as to lead me to make this appeal to the Public.’

It was an expression that was instrumentally deployed in pauper correspondence in the first three decades of the 19th century. The pauper Frances Soundy said she was ‘a poor disstreesed mother’ in one letter requesting relief written February 1829. Interestingly, though, it was not only women in financial need who described themselves thus. So did women who experienced what they considered setbacks in their lives as mothers.[3]

It would be a mistake to think that this fashionable and dominating image of maternity was the only one that women deployed. Mothering could be experienced as part of women’s personal identity in more pragmatic, material ways that were related to married women’s sense of self as provisioners of their families and households. For all that men are usually described as the breadwinners of the family in the past, women were just as essential in this role, and they knew it and gained a sense of pride and identity from it. The women who used this style of presentation were usually those who in their writings emphasised their labours in order to feed, clothe, and educate their children. When Hannah Robertson [1724-1800] wrote her life in 1791 she set out the main components of her personal identity: daughter of the illegitimate son of Charles II, mother, melancholic (in many ways, what we would today call depressed), and family saviour through her ability to earn a living in a range of activities, from tavern-keeping to teaching and making the visual ‘arts’. The role of motherhood in Hannah’s sense of self was multi-faceted and as much informed by hard labour and provision, and obligation to her family, as by cultural idealisations.[4]

While this was a social and economic role, there was a cultural category which also informed these women’s sense of selves. This was the ‘prudent’ mother. She was good at running the household and domestic economy and bringing up her daughters in the same way. One striking aspect of this form of maternity, both in fiction and in life-writing, is how the provisioning mother was often contrasted with the ineffectual father/husband; men who were in prison for debt, or were bankrupt, or had deserted their families. Women may therefore have called upon prudent, provisioning motherhood when presenting themselves because it was an image of agency, conveying independence, courage, and fortitude.

There was even a category of maternal self-identity which many women have today: the working mother. For some women, ideals of motherhood brought tensions as they sought to reconcile their maternal, domestic roles with other roles in their lives. This is clearly expressed by the Quaker minister Mary Dudley [1750-1823]. In her correspondence and journals, collected by her daughter to construct her life narrative, she presented herself as spiritually compelled to travel as a preacher. However, as the mother of eight children, this compulsion conflicted with mothering. Her journal entries from her travels frequently record her anxieties about her absences from her children and the comfort she received from communications that they were well. She recorded on Sunday 14 April 1786 that she,

‘felt a stop in my mind to proceeding this day to Knockballymaher … some uneasiness respecting home had been hovering about me for several days’.

She ignored her anxiety and went about her business, but on returning to her lodgings she got a message that the woman who cared for her children had taken measles and was removed from the house. She said:

‘I sensibly felt this intelligence, and the struggle was not small to endeavour after, and attain, a degree of quietude, sufficient to discover the right path. I went distressed to bed, I think honestly resigned, either to go forward or return home, as truth opened’.

Since her thoughts kept turning to Knockballymaher, however, she took that as a divine message and went there the following day. She and returned home on the 16th to find her husband and children in health. Problematically she interpreted her anxieties about leaving her children as undermining her call and demonstrating her failure to place her trust in God and submit to Him. This internal conflict attacked her sense of self. In June 1792, hearing the call to visit Quaker Friends in France, Guernsey, and the north of Britain, she confessed,

‘how much has it cost my nature, yea, almost its destruction, to be in the degree I am, loosened from my precious domestic ties’.[5]

Motherhood has never been an easy role!

[1] For more on the mothers discussed here and parental self-identity in general have a look at my book Parenting in England.

[2] Robinson, Mary Elizabeth (ed.), Memoirs of the late Mrs Robinson, Written by herself, 4 vols. (London 1801). Mellor, A., ‘Making an Exhibition of Her Self: Mary “Perdita” Robinson and Nineteenth-Century Scripts of Female Sexuality’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 22 (2000), 271-304

[4] She became melancholic after she lost her ‘darling child,’ in infancy. Her melancholic nature resurfaced and the bereavement caused her to lose her reason for two years. In this time her husband left ‘his other concerns, devoted his time, his fortune, and all his cares to me alone’. Thus his business was given over to his incompetent partner and bankruptcy ensued. Robertson, Hannah, The life of Mrs Robertson, grand-daughter of Charles II. Written by Herself (Derby 1791).

[5] Dudley E., (ed.), The Life of Mary Dudley, including an account of her religious engagements and extracts from her letters, with an appendix containing some account of the illness and death of her daughter Hannah Dudley (London, 1825).

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s