Published on March 12, 2014
Visualising parents in Georgian England:‘In the bosom of the family’ Dr Joanne Bailey, Oxford Brookes University This presentation explores the intense emotions Georgian parents and children provoked in each other and the ways in which systems of feeling were shaped by the family and within familial relationships. It is based on the meanings of the emotions associated with parenthood found in autobiographies, correspondence, and visual and textual culture. This opens up emotions associated with parenthood beyond love to incorporate anger, anxiety, grief and such historically specific forms of ‘feeling’ as tenderness, distress, and benevolence.
EMBODIED PARENTHOOD Sensibility and feelings My presentation uses an embodied approach to parenting to undermine assumptions about gendered parenthood and parenting. The gendered stereotypes of mothers providing physical care and fathers offering material care and government become far more multi-layered and complex from this perspective. Loving arms and nurturing bosoms were also paternal, and the labouring bodies praised for providing for children were maternal as well as paternal.
The Lady’s Magazine, 1780s EMBODIED PARENTHOOD: SENSIBILITY AND FEELINGS The embodied, demonstrative nature of parents' love for their children, was driven by the cultural force of sensibility. It praised feelings – like sympathy, affection, distress - and people were encouraged to express them in actions and behaviours. The tender parent was visualised experiencing his or her feelings of parental love in the body, through tears and nervous and physical sensations: quiverings, blushing, swooning - all typical expressions of refined sensibility So images of tender parental love were also sentimentally corporeal.
A scrap (1815) aimed at entertaining and educating children –depicts maternal loving arms feeding the infant and rocking it to sleep.
The father's body was also the medium of his love through tears, hugs and clasping, clinging arms during sensibility’s reign. (1819 scrap)
Francis Wheatley,The Fisherman’s Return, 1795 The best loved was in this well-known stanza fromThomas Gray, ElegyWritten in a Country Churchyard, 1752: For them no more the blazing Hearth shall burn, Or busy Houswife ply her Evening Care: No Children run to lisp their Sire's Return, Or climb his Knees the envied Kiss to share. Illustration: 1862 The popularity of the demonstrative father is revealed in descriptions of children at their father's knees. In visual and literary versions this was typically a father returning home after labour.
William Redmore Bigg, Saturday Evening, 1795 It was these father-child embraces at meeting that artists portrayed. InWilliam Redmore Bigg’s The Husbandman’s Return from Labour, the father delightedly lofts his infant in the air to kiss.
CULTURAL FUNCTION OF IMAGINED RURAL LABOURING PARENTS Images stimulated ‘feeling’ in readers and viewers - the purpose of the project of sensibility. The rural, devoted, hard-working father, the waiting, domestic mother, and the loving happy children symbolised the truly feeling family of sensibility. For a ‘polite’ audience rural labouring parents embodied the ideal qualities of the sensible family without the tensions inherent in wealthier lifestyles - where it was necessary to be in the ‘world’ to be successful but also to protect oneself from its risks by a domestic retirement devoted to children and altruistic acts of benevolence. Evidence that people enacted with the image: ◦ Genteel women stitched cheerful rural labourers enjoying domestic idylls into their embroidery in the later eighteenth century, following pastoral trends of painting. ◦ The Irish gentlewoman Dorothea Herbert evoked the delights of her family life through the imagery. She headed chapter 40 of her memoir, describing 1785:‘Rural felicity,’ rhapsodising that ‘We Now sat down quietly in the DomesticWay’ with no company, spending time singing, reading poetry, novels, sermons, and history, Embroidering, drawing, laughing and idling.’
CULTURAL FUNCTION OF IMAGINED RURAL LABOURING PARENTS Images of rural labouring parents and children symbolised a stable social and gender order - this was what the higher social ranks wanted them to be: industrious, cheerful, modest, quiet, neat, sober and unthreatening. When the labouring man cheerfully arrived home he did not just illustrate that work was intrinsically fulfilling,or that its pains were compensated by his familial pleasures, he indicated that he willingly engaged in the existing social hierarchy, upon which successful society rested. Thus this orderly vision was co-opted by several groups and important conceptual site for writers on political economy, philanthropy, and poor law. The image was politicised in England in the 1790s in reaction to revolution abroad and its threat at home. For loyalists the idealised rural family was a vehicle of patriotism displaying the virtues of the labouring classes and illustrating their superior conditions to their counterparts in France.
This cottage scene also symbolised what needed to be protected from political upheaval.A particularly well-known example is James Gillray’s The Blessings of Peace,The Curses ofWar, 1795.
CULTURAL FUNCTION OF IMAGINED RURAL LABOURING PARENTS The motif was not only an ideological tool to keep the poor in their place. Loving families’ appeal spanned several social ranks, disseminated more broadly through cheap print by the early 1790s. Memoirists from humble origins took up this language to idealise their families. John Bailey began his memoir  explaining that after his parents were married his mother left service ‘and retired to her mother’s rural cot, in the village of Slinfold’ where he was born in 1778. In 1804 in Ipswich Workhouse, the poet Ann Candler wrote: ‘My daughter Lucy is married, and lives at Copdock in this county, and is, I believe, in the true sense of the words, the contented happy Cottager! Her husband is a very sober industrious man’. In 19c such ‘Cottage-door’ images became politicised for urban and rural labouring ranks - showing humble cottagers achieving domestic happiness in the face of gruelling labour.
CULTURAL FUNCTION OF IMAGINED ‘FEELING’ PARENTS Emotive images of parents deployed to promote patriotism or political and social stability. Although men in the regular forces were preferably bachelors, military men were ‘domesticated’ in such representations to stir patriotic hearts.They were in the service of the eighteenth-century nation - symbolic defenders of home and family. Husbands’ reluctance to part from loving families was often portrayed. In the Lady’s Magazine The Patriotic Parting (1782), the man turns to wave at his wife, their son sorrowfully buries his head in his mother’s skirts.
EMOTIONAL POWER OF IMAGES OF PARENTS: Visualisations of parents held immense power for individuals, influencing how these generations thought about their parents : ◦ In 1778 8-year old Eliza Fletcher’s father was a commissioner for enclosure and away from home. Decades later she observed ‘I well remember the joy which my father’s return, especially, diffused through all his little household’. ◦ Dorothea Herbert headed the chapter describing the aftermath of her father’s death (a landed clergyman) with ‘For them no more the blazing Hearth shall burn | Or Busy Huswife ply her Evening Care | No Children run to lisp their Sires return | Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share. [From Thomas Gray’s Elegy] ◦ In old age the Irish novelist Sydney Morgan recalled: 'The songs taught me on my father’s knee, have lost nothing of their power even to the present day’. It could structure parental self-identity. In the 1790sThomasWright reconfigured Gray’s lines to refer to his deceased son who: “No more shalt run to lisp thy sires return, | Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share”. In doing so, he made himself the rural loving father.
NURTURING BOSOMS Maternal and Paternal My presentation now examines a specific phrase that was often used in the period,– ‘nurturing bosoms’ to think more specifically about the way that descriptions of parenting drew on both feelings and bodies. Not an innovative term, it nevertheless took on specific meanings in Georgian culture.
MATERNAL BOSOMS - AFFECTION In fiction, infants burrowed in maternal bosoms. Juliet Grenville in the eponymous novel by Henry Brooke, 1774,‘comes to the door, with her children on either side, and one little babe looking and chuckling at her from her bosom’. Memoirists identified with it. Ann Candler’s poem on the loss of her baby son, invoked her feelings on first seeing him:‘Hope’s dawning beam my bosom fill’d, |With fairy visions bright’. Mary Robinson, actress turned author, evoked the phrase three times in her memoir when describing her response to her own daughter:At length the expected, though, to me, most perilous moment arrived, which 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 presented the little darling to my bosom, my maternal bosom; when I kissed its hands, its cheeks, its forehead, as it nestled closely to my heart, and seemed to claim that affection which has never failed to warm it.
MATERNAL BOSOMS - NURSING Effusions about bosoms evoked maternal breastfeeding Medical discourse promised that maternal nursing would benefit society by securing the better health of children and mothers, and would keep women usefully occupied with their proper function. It was naturalised as an inescapable duty and thus 'wet nursing' was criticised for rupturing the natural bonds of motherhood because the infant might love a wet-nurse more than its mother, as well as for endangering its health.
Yet the celebration of maternal nursing was part of the broader landscape of maternity, not just a medical demand. Its imagery was even invoked by mothers who did not breastfeed. In the late 1760s Arabella Heatley wrote some agonised letters to her estranged husband who had separated from her due to her infidelity, painfully longing for her infant son to be returned to her bosom. Here the personal merged with the public when her letters were transformed into commodities, printed in volume seven of the Trials for Adultery in 1779.The church court transcript of the couple’s separation case [he sued her for adultery] was published In an earlier volume – and it shows that she had not breast-fed her baby. For her the maternal ‘bosom’ was independent of the act of breastfeeding.
PATERNAL BOSOMS Parental bosoms were not just female , fathers frequently clasped children to their paternal bosoms. ◦ When Reverend Primrose, Goldsmith’sVicar of Wakefield, recovered his errant daughter he welcomed ‘my dearest lost one, my treasure, to your poor old father’s bosom’. This demonstrates the second contemporary meaning of bosom. In its modern usage, we use ‘bosom’ only as a polite euphemism for women’s breasts.Yet in the period studied,‘bosom’ also had a more gender neutral form, which described the human breast (chest) and the enclosure formed by the breast and arms. Their ultimate role model - God was depicted as a father with 'arms of love.' John Bailey [Baptist preacher] for example compared the solace he found in God's bosom to that which the child found in its parent’s. The meaning of bosom as enclosure between breast and arms originated in scriptural phrasing, as both ‘nurse’ and ‘nursing’ fathers and mothers indicate. Indeed the nursing father was its most striking invocation.
PATERNAL BOSOMS At its core was an image of nurturing fatherhood originating in The Book of Numbers 11:12, where Moses complained about the burden of leading his people through the desert:‘Have I conceived all this people? Have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers’. The nursing father analogy served several purposes, both political and religious. ◦ It had a long tradition of being deployed to invoke the legitimacy of patriarchal power. In early-modern royal iconography and political ideology it explained why subjects should acquiesce to a monarch’s rule. Both James I and Charles I, for example, declared themselves ‘nursing’ fathers and Anglican sermons described Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs thus. ◦ Handel - My Heart is Inditing, HWV 261 (Coronation Anthem #4) written for 1727 coronation of George II ends verse: Kings shall be thy nursing fathers/and queens thy nursing mothers. ◦ It continued to be useful at the end of the 18th century for loyalists. In a sermon published in 1792, Cornelius Bayley defended George III’s divine right to rule as ‘a nursing father given’ by God.
PATERNAL BOSOMS (NURSING FATHERS) The metaphor also had religious functions. ◦ The monarch or magistrate as nursing father protected the true church and suppressed false religions. Eighteenth-century commentators used it as a particularly corporeal metaphor. ◦ In his sermon on the duties of Baptist ministers (1797), which related the duties of ministers to the qualities of nursing fathers, John Ryland reminded ministers that the nursing father undertook ‘long fatiguing marches’ during which he relieved his tenderer partner ‘of the burden of her sucking infant’, by carrying ‘it in his bosom ... for a very considerable period, till the child had acquired a degree of strength proportioned to the toils of the difficult journey’. The culture of sensibility gave the term bosom further power ‘as the seat of thoughts and feelings’. ThomasWright combined the archaic and the new in his declaration that no real Christian would promote division ‘betwixt a father – a tender and affectionate father – and the offspring of his own bowels.’
PATERNAL BOSOMS (NURSING FATHERS) Over the course of the eighteenth century the term nursing fathers and mothers was applied more generally: It portrayed the protection offered by new forms of institutional care. A charity sermon preached for the London Foundling Hospital in 1770 described a relieved mother handing over her infant into ‘the arms of nursing fathers and nursing mothers more able to protect it than its own!’ ‘Nursing’ was attenuated to mean support. In 1791, a commentator explained that the vogue for ‘private plays’ was ‘a fashion which hath kings and princes for its nursing fathers and queens and princesses for its nursing mothers’. Here the royal family was condemned for supporting their own amusement when they should be facilitating piety and national good. In a more secular form the qualities of the nursing father served to ennoble more humble men. In Wordsworth’s Michael the motif signified the dignity and capacity of feeling of a simple man - demonstrated by Michael’s depth of love and care for his son ‘while he was a babe in arms, | Had done him female service, not alone | For dalliance and delight, as is the use | of Fathers, but with patient mind enforced | to acts of tenderness; and he had rocked |his cradle with a woman’s gentle hand.’ The nursing father had always been affectionate, but the phrase seems have been used more often as an increasingly straightforward description of a tender, emotionally-charged and practically engaged fatherhood from the later eighteenth century.
PARENTAL IDENTIFICATION WITH ‘FEELING’ When Elizabeth Shaw heard that her ill son, travelling from home as a salesman, had improved, she wrote with relief: ‘to say what I felt for you is needless, as you never can know till you are a parent and should you be like some I know not even then’. Those who were educated or familiar with literary conventions were most expansive in their use of the rhetoric. Mary Robinson declared that she was possessed ‘a too acute sensibility’ from childhood. As such, her memoirs were shaped by this cultural identity. So, for instance, she said that the birth of her first daughter awoke new sensations in her soul. To be a feeling parent was also, therefore, a mark of superiority and humanity.
PARENTAL IDENTIFICATION WITH ‘FEELING’ Men did not define themselves as tearful fathers of feeling, but they did profess to be ‘sensible men’. This was not specific to class or education. Pauper fathers who wrote to their settlement parishes seeking relief in the early nineteenth century talked of their suffering at seeing their children go without, and their feeling hearts; a rhetorical strategy that was also surely intended to appeal to higher-ranking parish authorities familiar with sensible and Christian ideals of benevolence. Life-writers described themselves as nursing fathers, shorn of its political and religious patriarchal meanings, to mean they literally nursed their children.
PARENTAL IDENTIFICATION WITH ‘FEELING’ Writing in the 1790s,William Hutton recalled the year 1758 with some pride over his achievements, business and paternal: I procured all the intelligence I could relative to the fabrication of paper; engaged an artist to make me a model of a mill; attended to business; and nursed my children; while the year ran round. On the 2nd of July, Mrs. Hutton brought me another son, so that I had now three to nurse; all of whom I frequently carried together in my arms.This I could not do without a smile; while he who had none, would view the act with envy. Clearly, he felt that his hands-on fathering was something other men aspired to.
William Cobbett [b. 1763, writing 1820s] George Courtauld [b. 1761, writing 1815 George Courtauld saw himself as a ‘solicitous parent’ He wrote to his eldest adult children early in 1815, in response to family tensions, reminding them how much he had loved them throughout their lives by emphasising his bodily labours on their behalf.: I have loved you all from the cradle – I have uniformly been a nursing father to all of you – and I might almost say a nursing mother too – for at different times when several of you were quite infants I was left alone with you, and when not alone how often have I hushed you to sleep walking about the room with you for hours in the night – to ease your pains and lull your sorrows. William Cobbett built his whole persona on this in his Advice toYoung Men. Though he was constantly occupied with business he insisted that he made time to assist his wife with the children ‘in all sorts of things: get up, light her fire, boil her tea-kettle, carry her up warm water in cold weather, take the child while she dressed herself and got the breakfast ready, then breakfast, get her in water and wood for the day, then dress myself neatly, and sally forth to my business’.
CONCLUSION Representations of the corporeality and materiality of parenting and parenthood extended beyond childbirth, breast feeding, and nurturing children's bodies to encompass material, physical, and emotional sustenance into children’s adulthood. Investigating parents in this way is thus very revealing.Thinking about bodies and emotions complicates assumptions about gender difference, opening up gender identities beyond binary oppositions. It also demonstrates that the material aspects of parental care were crucial cultural metaphors in discussions of national concerns, but also retained very personal meanings. Thanks to the following institutions for their financial support for this research project:
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