The power of the breast and cane – how literary mother-figures challenged social constructions of femininity 1787-1825

Macklin, Victoria Ursula (2013) The power of the breast and cane – how literary mother-figures challenged social constructions of femininity 1787-1825. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This study seeks to explore how social constructions of femininity during the Romantic Period were challenged in literature by proto-feminists in such a way as to form a revised feminine ideal of which both radical and conservative women could approve. It is an exploration of both nurturing (the figurative breast) and punitive maternal power (the figurative cane) as portrayed in Mary Wollstonecraft’s novellas, Mary and Maria, Amelia Opie’s Adeline Mowbray, and Charlotte Smith’s Celestina. As these three authors’ social circles overlapped, they shared many of the same convictions, facilitating the analysis of the style and method of expressing these ideals.
It is indisputable that women of the period were allotted some authority over their own children. However, the avenues of self-empowerment open to childless women have hitherto been overlooked. According to novels of the time, did women have any power over their own destinies? Did they have any socially acceptable power over men? This study’s aim is to discover if maternal authority was posed as an empowering tool for all women by tracing how it is being defined by Wollstonecraft in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters through an evolution from the overtly didactic style of works written for teachers and children (such as her Original Stories from Real Life) to the slightly more covert style of her two novellas, Mary and Maria. The similarity between the treatments of these two very different readers is carried forward through the examination of the other two authors (Opie’s Tales of the Pemberton Family and Adeline Mowbray; and Smith’s Rural Walks and Celestina).
This study has found that all three authors commend the wielding of maternal power to their readers. The maternal voice of these authors and the portrayal of more traditional maternal roles in their didactic works for children and teachers draw parallels between this persuasive style and the style of the works written for adults seeking entertainment (rather than enlightenment). The authors’ treatment of these two categories of readers traces the use of maternal power as a tool for influencing the perception of the social status quo and indeed suggests a reification of maternal authority in order to empower the contemporary reader. Through copious examples in all of the texts, maternal power (even punitive power) is shown to be innocuous enough to challenge social constructions of femininity within the confines of prescribed socially acceptable behaviour detailed by the novelists themselves. These novelists therefore offer the reader an alternative interpretation of maternity by liberating the act of mothering from the biological state, in order to examine social maternity and its implications for proto-feminism.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Thoughts on the education of daughters, Mary Wollstonecraft, original stories from real life, Mary: a fiction, Maria or the wrongs of woman, tales of the Pemberton family, Amelia Opie, Adeline Mowbray or the mother and daughter, Charlotte Smith, rural walks, Celestina, social constructions of femininity, romantic period, early feminism, children's literature, novels
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
L Education > LA History of education
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
P Language and Literature > PZ Childrens literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Shuttleton, Dr. David
Date of Award: 2013
Depositing User: Mrs Victoria Macklin
Unique ID: glathesis:2013-4221
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 24 May 2013 11:15
Last Modified: 24 May 2013 11:15

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