Motherhood in the Victorian Era

The State of A Mother Affects Her Child

Victorian mothers like Elizabeth Gaskell were held to a high standard. In her 1831 Mother's Book, Lydia Maria Child wrote that "The first and most important thing... is, that the mother should keep her own spirit in tranquility and purity; for it is beyond all doubt that the state of a mother affects her child." Victorian women were considered the "angel[s] in the house", a term deriving from Coventry Patmore's famed poem, and were expected to mirror the perfection of heavenly beings while engaging in the practical day-to-day tasks of raising children and running a household. Victorian ideology prescribed careful management to women not only of children, but also of the home, and ultimately, of the family's social status: "The domestic sanctuary overseen by its attending angel can be decoded as a theater for the staging of a family's social position, a staging that depends on prescribed practices". Victorian mothers, particularly of the middle class, had many models to turn to for such practices.

Victorian Motherhood Experts

Two of the most popular writers of prescriptive texts for women were Isabella Beeton and Sarah Ellis. Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management began appearing in installments in her husband's periodical, before being published in full in 1861. Mrs. Beeton became the Victorian Era's favorite homemaker; in spite of her death following childbirth four years later, her book, Household Management continued to be a bestseller into the following century. Women also looked to Sarah Stickney Ellis for education about their domestic roles. Her books included Wives of England, Daughters of England, and of course, Mothers of England. In each, Ellis emphasized the intense moral responsibility of Victorian women to ensure their children's development, health, and morality. Ellis wrote: "what is done by a mother is of infinite importance to her children, because a single fault indulged on her part, may impart its character to their whole lives, and spread through circle after circle of influence, widening on, and still extending, long after she herself has been gathered to her last earthly home". Ellis's words emphasize that motherhood was viewed as a life-long responsibility for women, and a far-reaching one.

In addition to raising their children and managing their households, Victoirian women were encouraged to form individual relationships with their children, to provide them individualized attention and care. One such manual, read by Gaskell in the original French but soon after published in English, was Madame Albertine Necker DeSaussure's L'Education Progressive. In her text, DeSaussure suggests that mothers are in the best position not only to raise their children, but to perform careful scientific study of them which may lead to better mothering: "the study of every single child must begin from its very birth, and on that account a mother only can carry it on successfully." For this purpose, Mme de Saussure also advocated a journal: "in order that this task may be properly fulfilled, I would earnestly exhort all young mothers to keep a journal in which the general progress and unfolding of their children's minds may be regularly noted down." The responsibility and level of attention required for such a "regular" study marks a challenge for mothers of different classes, for whom time to care for children was at a premium.

Motherhood: The Full Time Victorian Career

From the monarchy to the working-class, motherhood in the Victorian age was ubiquitous and the subject of much social attention. In Family Fortunes, Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Huff record that for most mothers:

"The combination of late marriage and large families gave an average age of 27.3 at the birth of the first child and 40.6 at the birth of the last, that is thirteen years of continuous physical mothering. Queen Victoria herself was occupied for long periods of time with the physical acts of mothering: she gave birth to nine children between 1840 and 1857. Images of the royal family often depicted a scene of happy domesticity, and the Queen was known as the "mother of the nation."

Amongst the middle class, motherhood, guided by such high standards, became a full-time pursuit for many women.Women in the working-class, however, found balancing the care of their large households difficult to balance with an increasing need to supplement the family income by working.

Elizabeth Gaskell's journal indicates that she viewed motherhood as a high calling, undoubtedly due to the fact that she raised four daughters, who, as future women, would also be subject to the same discursive practices of homemaking and mothering. Sarah Ellis prescribed the role of daughters as well as mothers: "Society is to the daughters of a family, what business is to the son." In much the same way that men studied business, in the Victorian age, motherhood and homekeeping became subjects to be learned. Texts by Beeton and Ellis, and in the U.S., by Mrs. Child and others, emphasized the long-lasting impact of even the most minute mothering decisions. Mrs. Child begins her text by underscoring the impact motherhood can have from the first moments of life: "Few people think the management of very young babes has anything to do with their future dispositions and characters; yet I believe it has more influence than can be easily calculated". This emphasis on "influence" and impact was a core factor in many maternal decisions, particularly related to childrens' education.

Mothers and Education

Gaskell's journal notes, like many mothers, anxiety centered around her daughters' education. In the nineteenth century, the "main aim of education was to acquire virtue". John Locke had argued that domestic education was the best way to gain virtue, and the debate regarding educating girls in the home vs. at school continued throughout the early nineteenth century. During this period, home instruction was thought to be more moral, whereas the things taught in school — dancing, drawing, etc., at best were inconsequential accomplishments that lent nothing to moral virtue, and at worst were outright frivolous. Adding to the difficulty was the lack of regulation over educational systems. Anyone could open a school, and it was often the first thought of women who needed to support themselves; the lack of oversight, however, meant that there was little assurance about the quality of any given school. Schools were thought to be potentially more injurious to girls than boys, although sending a girl to school was generally acceptable when a mother had died or had to be absent for a length of time.

Perhaps most seriously, mothers were also responsible for the lives of their children, and "a further strain was imposed by the inevitable and realistic fear about a child's death". Davidoff and Huff note that the "cause of scientific medicine flourished" in the period, in part because "as with childbirth, the medical man was becoming an adviser to the wife and mother in the business of health". Always an avid reader, Gaskell herself read Andrew Combe's widely read Physiology (1834), for advice on motherhood, and paid careful attention to her daughters' physical development, noting: "every change of temper might be deduced from some corresponding change in the body" (Journal, October 4, 1835). The journal includes no less than four instances of sending for a "medical man" to treat Marianne's symptoms. The maternal role's many responsibilities undoubtedly produced accompanying anxieites about adequately fulfilling the role, particularly given the notion of mothers being "angels" within the domestic sphere.

Gaskell's Motherhood Journal

Gaskell's journal is written from a position of encountering these expectations and anxieties of motherhood for the first time. As a new mother in 1835, even before Ellis and Beeton had popularized their particular texts of expertise, Gaskell was combing the texts of the day for advice, which she weighed and evaluated in the pages of her journal. "I must not forget" she wrote "that on me lies the heaviest responsibility". Gaskell also saw motherhood as a boon, calling her daughters "blessings" and cherishing her ability to get to know them individually. Yet even in her lifetime, the "domestic" nature of motherhood began to see a shift, led by herself and other authors who were able to create professional careers together with their motherhood. Gaskell also expanded her maternal "responsibility", taking on the task not only of raising four young women, but also of seeking to make a lasting change in her own community through her work. Gaskell wrote first for her daughters, but her observant, descriptive wit later became recognizable as that of "Mrs. Gaskell" — a domestic moniker that created her own sphere of influence over the nation, from which she sought to address the injustices she saw on her doorstep in Manchester, and beyond.