Accountable Motherhood and the Rise of the Child in Amelia Opie's Revolutionary Family


Even just by the very act of putting pen to paper with the intention of publishing, Amelia Opie spoke out, performing a revolutionary act. Although through the decades during and just after the French Revolution, women in England were reading in higher numbers than they ever had before and there were, for the first time in English literary history, large numbers of established professional women writers, women and fiction were, at best, a problematic combination. The eighteenth-century concern with female respectability required that women be domestic, or private, creatures. But by publishing, women thrust themselves into the public sphere, thereby calling into question their own respectability. And so developed a genre of woman's domestic fiction, usually didactic, whereby women writers were able to satisfy their urges for public involvement and expression and still preserve their respectability.

Even reading fiction was considered threatening to female respectability. M. Peddle, writing under the pseudonym "Cornelia," in her conduct book Rudiments of Taste (1790), provides a representative caution to women:

Some girls have I known profess so violent an attachment to literary pursuits, that they are content to remain ignorant of common attainments. This shews a pitiable weakness — elevated minds are attentive to every thing; and, believe me, it is very possible to possess a competent knowledge of polite literature, and be well versed in the methods of well governing a house at the same time — the latter qualifications have of themselves constituted many a useful character in female life, which is more than can be said of the former (26 emphasis added).

The literature considered suitable for women's perusal was Peddle's so-called "polite" literature, which would propagate female respectability and domestic "usefulness." The most suspect reading materials were the novel and the romance, while perhaps ultra-appropriate were conduct books. 9

Richard Allestree's The Ladies Calling (1673) best represents the conduct book genre.10 He lays out woman's domestic duty throughout the three phases of her life — Virgin, Wife, Widow — stressing the "respectable" qualities of Meekness, Modesty, Affability, Compassion, and Piety. He also advises young women of "another very requisite quality, . . . Obedience [to parents]" (14), which "is to extend itself to all things that are either good or indifferent, and has no clause of exception." Reminding them of the "general imbecillity of their age" and their "foolishness" (15), he calls the right of the parent "undoubted" and, in fact, sanctioned by God (18). Allestree then advises older women in their role as mothers "to live a perpetual Lecture to their Children, so to exemplifie to them all Virtu and Piety," cautioning the mother that negligence on this point causes her to "loose not only her Authority, but her confidence to admonish or reprove" (60).

Indeed, following Allestree's example, conduct books written in the eighteenth century locate familial authority unconditionally with the parents,11 encouraging young women to be blindly obedient and scarcely allowing the possibility of unfit parents. In these conduct books daughters are expected to do everything in their power to "please" (Wilkes) and "delight" (Fordyce) their parents, and are advised to approach them with gratitude (Wilkes, Chapone), fear and awe (Gisborne), and submission (Fenelon). The Whole Duty of Woman (1737) even suggests that a mother ought to have "as strict a Guard upon herself amongst her Children as if she was amongst her Enemies. They are apt . . . either to lessen their duty, or to extend their Liberty farther than is convenient" (138). In his Sermons to Young Women (1766), James Fordyce does however reservedly acknowledge the possibility of parents in "want of principle," but continues to suggest that a daughter ought to "promote their reformation" (187). Fordyce even recommends a kind of martyrdom, writing that "she is a heroine indeed, whose regard for her parents no unkindness of theirs can conquer" (189).

Later conduct books, from the last two decades of the eighteenth century and throughout the early nineteenth century, reveal a subtle shift in the family hierarchy. While Francois de Salignac de la Mothe-Fenelon in his Treatise on the Education of Daughters (1806) writes to mothers that "your daughters should be subject to you, and not you to your daughters" and that a child's "submission . . . will ever be found indispensable" (13), he also advises mothers that "whatever you are, is but a faint description of what nature meant your daughters should be" (26), warning that "you never saw a . . . girl, who did not owe the worst disposition that can be imputed to her, to those under whose care she spent her earliest years" (15). In Correspondence Between a Mother and her Daughter (1817), Ann Martin Taylor suggests to her daughter that the mother is to blame for a young woman with "mistaken notions" (27). And Jane West, in her Letters to a Young Lady (1806), writes that while women are employed in raising children, they "must remember to watch [themselves] with a special care" (79). The Female Aegis (1798)12 introduces the new concept in child-rearing that "the principle of fear as well as that of love is to be employed" (147 emphasis added). In the late eighteenth century, affection replaces fear and awe as the primary motivation in parent-child relations.

This shift in conduct books from the early to the late eighteenth century signals the emergence of a sort of new family, which Lawrence Stone describes as "maternal, child-oriented, affectionate and permissive" (405). In the early part of the eighteenth century it was believed, according to Beatrice Gottlieb, that "what babies needed most of all, after food and warmth, was control and restraint" (144). Lloyd deMause refers to this mode of parenting in the eighteenth century as "intrusive," wherein parents "attempted to conquer [the child's] mind, in order to control its very will" (52). Beginning in the nineteenth century, parenting came to involve what he calls "socialization," wherein "the raising of a child became less a process of conquering its will than of training it, guiding it into proper paths, teaching it to conform, socializing it" (52). Parents, and mothers in particular, gained a new sort of responsibility in the lives of their children. Indeed, according to Judith Schneid Lewis, the new interest in maternal responsibility was based upon "the belief in each child's uniqueness. Each child was to be carefully nurtured so that his or her capacities could be most fully developed" (63).

This new respect for the individuality of the child is an aspect of the revolutionism of the time. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Emile (1762) and Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1790) address themselves to issues of filial and parental duty, responding to the highly conservative opinions of the conduct book writers. In his preface to Emile, Rousseau criticizes the prevailing educational practice for its lack of attention to the individual, advising educators to reform "by studying [their] pupils better" (34). And Wollstonecraft, in Vindication, likens the traditional mode of parenting to brutality and tyranny. She recommends, in place of submission and fear, a blend of "esteem and love . . . [with] reason made the foundation of the first duty" (157). Rousseau begins Emile by declaring that "the first education is the most important, and this first education belongs incontestably to women; if the Author of nature had wanted it to belong to men, He would have given them milk with which to nurse the children" (37n). Rousseau grants mothers, based on their breast-feeding capabilities, a new significance in the lives of their children.

In fact, among moralists, fiction-writers, members of the medical profession, and philosophers of the day, this new emphasis on the mother's duty to her children centered on breast-feeding practices. Among the upper-classes in this time, wet-nursing was still a prevalent practice. But with the new interest in the affectionate parent-child relationship, however, came a new advocacy for maternal breast-feeding.13 Rousseau sentimentally appeals to mothers to

deign to nurse their children, [so that] morals will reform themselves, nature's sentiments will be awakened in every heart [and] the state will be repeopled. This first point, this point alone, will bring everything back together (46).

Wollstonecraft also grants maternal breast-feeding the highest importance among parental duties; she says that a mother's parental affection "scarcely deserves the name, when it does not lead her to suckle her own children" (152).

This new advocacy for maternal breast-feeding symbolizes the revolution that occurred within the family. Mothers were expected to nurture and attend to their children from the very start, in Wollstonecraft's words, cultivating affection by "the habitual exercise of a mutual sympathy" (152), whereas children were no longer expected to fear and submit to their parents. This revolution within the household altered the familial hierarchy, granting the children a kind of authority over the parent. The child was no longer expected to be blindly obedient to the parent, rather the parent was expected to be vigilantly attentive to the child. Indeed, deMause, in "The Evolution of Childhood," details a phenomenon he calls the "infant as mother" (18) with bizarre references to parents in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries "licking children" (19) to expel the milk commonly known as "witch's milk," which on rare occasions is produced from the breasts of newborns "as a result of a carryover of female hormones from the mother" (18). DeMause cogently notes that "one receives the impression that [in this time] the perfect child would be one who literally breast-feeds the parent" (19). He refers to this phenomenon as the "reversal reaction" and notes that it virtually disappeared after the eighteenth century.

In the late eighteenth century, the spirit of reform altered familial relationships and destabilized the domestic. In fact, during the French Revolution and its aftermath, the domestic became more overtly politicized. Edmund Burke writes in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) that we "begin our public affections in our families" (198). To be sure, the family itself is a kind of body politic. In literature the entrance of women into the literary economy brought with it the new focus on the private. Opie, then, locates her fictions in the domestic realm and, at the same time, is able to comment on social and political issues; she politicizes the private. Although Opie does not explicitly address herself to political or even public matters, she presents in her Simple Tales and Adeline Mowbray "revolutionized" families in which children figuratively breast-feed their own parents with their witch's milk. Opie allows the children in her fictions, then, to usurp authority from their parents.