Maternal Instincts: Visions of Motherhood and Sexuality in Britain, 1875-1925

Claudia Nelson and Ann Sumner Holmes (eds), 1997

London: Macmillan, viii + 171pp., £40.00

The clichéd characterisation of Victorian views of womanhood posits a dualism between chaste maternal figure and sexual woman. This volume effectively destabilises a somewhat unhelpful dichotomy: mothers, after all, did not become so by parthogenesis in a nineteenth century Protestant nation!

An excellent introduction by the editors draws out the main themes adumbrated, in particular the instability of ideologies of gender and the ways in which "visions of motherhood variously competed, cooperated, and collided with contemporaneous visions of sexuality". Some details are open to debate: was social purity an "anti-sexology", or were the discourses of sexology and purity intertwining strands of a searching critique of conventional moral assumptions taking place during the closing decades of the nineteenth, and the opening years of the twentieth, centuries? Was the literary image of the "devouring, possessive, threatening mother" as major a theme as it became in 1950s neo-Freudian North America?

Motherhood was not merely a physical condition of bearing children, but a spiritual quality. The qualities of motherhood which women were conceded to embody in the nineteenth century discourse of biological difference were argued to be as necessary in the public sphere as they were in the domestic. Annie Besant, having lost her daughter (though only temporarily), determined to be "a mother to all helpless children I could aid". Actual maternity was not a precondition for the role of "social" mother as Poor Law Guardian, member of a School Board, nurse, medical missionary or teacher.

Rather counterintuitively, it appears that motherhood actually came to increase in value as the period under discussion drew on, and that the Victorian era was not that of the ultimate exaltation of the mother-child bond. As Nancy Fix Anderson's article reveals, although the courts had granted Annie Besant custody, and she had not committed the matrimonial "crime" of adultery, her socially and sexually radical views expressed in public led to the wresting away of her daughter - "still weak from fever" - by the father. Anne Sumner Holmes's article on maternal adultery and child custody indicates that it took some time for the quality of the mother-child bond to be seen by the judiciary as transcending sexual lapses, and that its apparently almost sacrosanct importance dates from as relatively recently as 1925. While, as Susan R. Grayzel elucidates in her article on illegitimate "War Babies", 1914-18, in spite of intense wartime pronatalism, the unmarried mother continued to be a problematic and equivocal figure. Debates about her were resonant with "the problems that women posed as sexually active persons and as actual or potential mothers".

While problematising the division between maternity and sexuality, these essays do not entirely eschew creating new dichotomous divisions. Claudia Nelson's interesting piece on sex education sets up a distinction between "professionalist" and "maternalist" advocates of enlightening children about the facts of sex, which is perhaps not altogether sustainable. Age, gender, and context were important factors and the difference was perhaps between the "healthy natural" knowledge (birds, bees, and babies) to be imparted to girls, and younger boys, by their mothers, and the contrastingly "unnatural practices" against which adolescent boys were to be warned by male authorities: the "normal" versus "the pathological". George Robb makes a strong case for distinguishing a woman-centred "moral eugenics" of desexualised motherhood from "progressive eugenics" which placed a high value on female sexual vitality. However both schools of thought were somewhat tangential to the orthodox "mainstream" eugenics officially adhered to by the Eugenics Education Society, which preferred to keep questions of breeding as remote as possible from sex. Figures such as Stella Browne and Marie Stopes manifested intriguing allegiances to both "moral" and "progressive" strands, drawing on "higher thought" traditions as well as new scientific theories .

The origin of the volume in a seminar series at the University of Michigan in 1992 presumably explains the omission of any citation to some recent relevant works, notably Lucy Bland's Banishing the Beast, and the attribution of works by Ben Elmy to his wife.

This exciting collection begins an exploration of the complex tensions between maternity and sexuality during a period in which ideas about women and their actual status were undergoing rapid change, and will surely provide a stimulus to further work in this area.

LESLEY A. HALL Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine


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