Wordsworth's Prescient Baby: Conceptions of the Mother-Infant Relationship in the Development of the Self (1790s-1890s)

By Emilia Halton-Hernandez
2014, Vol. 6 No. 03 | pg. 3/4 |

"A Mother's Responsibility:" Infancy and the Power of Love in the 1830s

As we have seen at the turn of the nineteenth century, parents had to rely on a narrow scope of literature for childcare advice, either by those with a philosophical preoccupation or medical focus. By the 1830s there was a huge increase in the publication and consumption of childcare literature. 48 Baby-care books were no longer a spin-off from medical manuals concerned with infant mortality and advice shifted to a focus on moral and spiritual welfare. 49 I shall try to show how maternal care was now being understood to shape the infant and how some of the ideas that evolved resembled Wordsworth’s but viewed through a moral lens.  

Around the late 1820s and 1830s, many childcare manuals came to be written by women, often by those who were mothers themselves. Melesina Trench reflected on her own experiences as a mother to inform the advice she gave in Thoughts of a parent on education (1837). When publications such as Mother’s Magazine, Parent’s Assistant and The Family Magazine came on the market they were very popular amongst middle and upper class families.50 This was a significant change from the male dominated literature of the eighteenth century with its close connections to the philosophical and medical professions. By the 1830s child rearing literature became a popular and respected field in its own right.

How do we account for this emergent boom in the 1830s? Advances in printing, literacy and in the sciences and lower mortality rates were important. Hardyment also points to the new wave of evangelism in Victorian society which made child-rearing a moral task of ‘continual nourishing and pruning, staking up and cutting back.’51 With increased religious and moral responsibilities, the role of the mother as ‘primary’ carer came to be seen as increasingly important. William Cadogan’s simple belief in the 1750s that once feeding was established ‘there seems nothing left… to do but keep the child clean and sweet’52 was no longer sufficient by the 1830s.53 Now writers like JSC Abbott in The Mother at Home (1830) urged to ‘be the happy mother of a happy child, give your attention, and your efforts, and your prayers, to the great duty of training him up for God and heaven.’54  

A focus on the earliest stages of infancy in the shaping of character comes to the fore in 1830s childcare literature, but its motivation is not to solve philosophical questions about the nature of the mind and existence. The rise of observational studies, not philosophical speculation reflected the rise of empiricism in the natural sciences. Mme. Necker de Saussure, a French writer whose Progressive Education was published in French and English between 1828 and 1832 was widely read by British mothers including Elizabeth Gaskell.55 She stressed the importance of forming character early on in infancy as ‘It is then that we have the greatest chance of exercising that influence over the relative proportion of the different inclinations, in which consists the art of forming the character.’56

Similar counsel was expressed by others. ‘Education of the heart,’ wrote Melesina Trench, ‘must begin in the cradle… ideas impressed on infancy- these- and, in most cases these alone, enable us to do our part, and so-operate with the assistance from above, in resisting strong and urgent temptation.57

Gaskell’s diary also provides corroborative evidence about the greater attention paid to moulding character early on. She reveals a sense of urgency (1835-1838) about the education of her 6 month old daughter. Upon reading Mme. Necker de Saussure’s advice, she planned ‘to act on principles now which can be carried on through the whole of her education.’58

Now that infancy was seen as the locus for the development of moral character, the mother’s psychological responsibilities increased alongside heightened anxiety to make a good job of it. Sarah Stickney Ellis’s The Mothers of England: Their Influence and Responsibility (1843) stressed the importance of a woman’s virtuous qualities on the wellbeing of her child. ‘Influence there must be arising out of the close connection and constant association of the mother and the child,’ but she warns, ‘that where good sense, and good principle, are wanting in the mother’s conduct, the absence of these essentials to good influence...will…tell upon the characters of her children in after life to an alarming extent.’59 She added that ‘In vain might such a mother train her children according to the most approved and best established rules’.60 Such a sense of maternal importance and accountability was nowhere to be found in Stanley or Wedgwood.

In the opening lines of her diary Gaskell dedicates the book to her daughter Marianne as ‘a token of her Mother’s love, and extreme anxiety in the formation of her little girl’s character.’61 She openly chides herself for feeling jealous when Marianne shows affection to her Nurse Betsy.62 Gaskell describes with sensitivity the developing relationship between herself and Marianne. Her sense of responsibility for shaping Marianne’s character is absolute and unquestioned. She worries that ‘my dearest little girl, if, when you read this, you trace back any evil or unhappy feeling to my mismanagement in your childhood, forgive me, love!’63 Moreover, in her later fictional work, The Old Nurse’s Story, (1852) she ends a story about a young girl’s curse with the line ‘alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age!’64 Motherhood now required not only maternal devotion but the perfection of the maternal soul to fulfil this task.

Interestingly, male childcare writers most burdened mothers with a sense of anxiety for the successes or failures of their offspring in later life. John SC Abbott in The Mother at Home (1830) wrote gravely: ‘It was the mother of Byron who laid the foundation of his pre-eminence in guilt. She taught him to plunge into the sea of profligacy and wretchedness.’65 Whereas George Washington’s ‘inestimable’ mother, alongside God’s hand, was a primary factor in the President’s success.66 Jabez Burns’ Mothers of the Wise and Good (1846) sought to inspire mothers with tales of famous men who supposedly owed everything to maternal influence in infancy. Clearly, the growing sense of the power of the mother’s role impelled such gentlemen to write these cautionary tales.

With the greater recognition of maternal influence we also see more emphasis placed upon Wordsworth’s notion of the importance of the ‘discipline of love’. Andrew Combe’s Treatise on the Physiological and Moral Management of Infancy (1840) identifies a possible connection between a loving mother and a loving child: ‘If we wish to call out and give healthy development to the kindly and affectionate feelings in an infant’ we must treat it ‘with habitual kindliness and affection, because these are the natural stimuli to such feelings, just as the light is to the eye, or sound to ear.’67 Mme. Necker de Saussure similarly describes the importance of an attentive mother, who with ‘a smiling air, a caressing ascent, raises a smile on his lips…she has smiled affectionately on him; he feels that he is loved, and he loves in return.’68 This is now clearly Wordsworth’s territory.

However, others expressed alarm about excessive maternal affection, echoing Locke’s theories of spoiling the child. The philosopher repeatedly instructed parents to suppress their love in the interests of training up a virtuous child. ‘Parents being wisely ordained by Nature to love their children, are very apt, if Reason not watch their natural Affection very warily, I say, to let it run into Fondness.’69 Abbott similarly explained the perils of over-indulgent love in the account of a vagrant: ‘Why is he there, far from his own pleasant fireside and the love of him? Because his mother never established any control over her boy. In his infancy she indulged him, under the influence of an overweening maternal fondness.’70 Particularly damning on the effect of unchecked maternal love, Thomas Bull in his Maternal Management of Children (1840) wrote that: ‘Tender human feelings are as useless as the blind caresses that cause animals to strangle their own young without the knowledge that we assume a gardener must have of plants.’71

Like Saussure and Combe, Wordsworth’s babe who when he ‘Doth gather passion from his Mother's eye’ (273) is capable of returning passion. Two writers of the 1830s shared remarkably similar views to Wordsworth on this aspect of infantile development. Sarah Lewis translated and added to passages from the French writer Louis Aimé Martin’s (1781-1844) book De l'éducation des mères de famille (1834) to form Woman’s Mission (1839). They explain ‘that in children sentiment precedes intelligence; the first answer to the maternal smile is the first dawn of intelligence; the first sensation is the responding caress. Comprehension begins in feeling; hence, to her who first arouses the feelings, who first awakens the tenderness, must belong the happiest influences.’72 This bears a striking resemblance to Wordsworth’s lines that with love, the infants ‘organs and recipient faculties/Are quickened, are more vigorous, his mind spreads/Tenacious of the forms which itreceives’ (282-284).

Both Wordsworth and Lewis/Martin locate a crucial part of the development of the self at the beginning of life in the baby’s first sensual relations with the mother. Experiences of the new-born are therefore crucial. Although we have seen other writers in the 1830s such as Saussure and Trench recognise the importance of maternal care in emotional development, none go as far as Wordsworth and Lewis/Martin in their assertions that here lies the origins of the emergent self and the creation of a dynamic inner world. In this view the subjective self is always an intersubjective one, i.e. the child’s subjective sense of its inner world and its interactions not just with external objects but also the internal worlds of others. The baby is not just a recipient of sensation but itself seeks interconnectedness with the subjective self of the mother.

In this sense I would argue that Wordsworth and Lewis/Martin understand the infant to have a pre-verbal affective self, whereas the tabula rasa model seems to believe the self is formed by passive cognitive registration of external stimuli. Although the tabula rasa model understands sensual experience to be formative from birth, following associationist logic it leaves no means of accounting for intersubjectivity and inner experience in shaping thought. Locke wrote in 1693 that ’little and almost insensible impressions on [their] tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences’73, but it was only once they reached the age of language that they began to develop the capacity for self-reflection, and hence intellectual thought.74 Locke and Hartley were adamant that feelings derive from ideas, and ideas are derived only once experience is reflected upon. Therefore self-reflection necessitates language to put reflection into thought. Their emphasis gives the impression that only in the later stages of infancy or childhood would the self really take meaningful shape. Newborns were considered to lack the full range of senses and faculties required for mature thought. Indeed, Locke felt it was in the early submission of the child to his father’s will that began his education: ‘Be sure then to establish the authority of a father as soon as he [the child] is capable of submission and can understand in whose power he is.’75 Whereas Wordsworth and Lewis/Martin propose a very different picture- ‘the discipline of love’ beginning in the first tender caresses of the mother.76

Wordsworth’s account resembles that of Klein’s ‘memories in feelings’. She writes that the infant’s feelings towards the mother are felt in a ‘more primitive ways than language can express. When these pre-verbal emotions and phantasies are revived…they appear as ‘memories in feelings’’77 Before the development of language, early experiences are encoded as recollections of feeling which aren’t attached to words or concepts.78 These ideas are also similar to Piaget’s studies showing the capacity for pre-linguistic conceptualisation.79

In addition, like Wordsworth, Lewis and Martin go on to make clear a more nuanced notion that the mother ‘is not however to teach virtue, but to inspire it…What she wishes us to be, she begins by making us love, and love begets unconscious imitation.’80 The claim that a mother inspires rather than teaches virtue was highly unusual in the 1830s. Saussure untypically says a mother should aim ‘to influence the motives of children. At every age it is on the heart alone that any salutary effect can be produced; and at this early period it is only by sympathy that we can influence the heart.’81 More commonly writers like Trench, Abbott and Stickney Ellis stressed that defects of character could and should be ‘remedied by training’82, much in the way that Catherine Stanley felt she could mould Owen. Locke’s reach and influence can be seen everywhere.

A counter appeal came from Sara Coleridge who expressed the belief that external training and discipline had its limits. In her correspondence with her brother Hartley Coleridge in 1833, she tells him not to attempt to ‘to pour sensibility, generosity, and such other good qualities, which cannot be supplied from without, but must well up from within, by buckets full into their [children’s] hearts.’83 Instead, it is necessary ‘to give nature elbow room…to trust more to happy influences, and less to direct tuition’.84 Coleridge here demonstrates an understanding of the infant’s internal world as nourishing itself.

Coleridge also echoes Wordsworth’s conviction that emotional sensitivity breeds intelligence and creativity. 85 In a letter to her husband in 1838, she remarks upon the temperament of her son Herbert: ‘Indeed I believe that this sensitiveness does itself tend to quicken and stimulate the intellect’86, and ‘Where the senses are active and rapid ministers to the mind, supplying it abundantly and promptly with thought-materials, no wonder that the intellect makes speedy advances; and such sensitiveness is doubtless one constituent of a poet.’87 In response to some theorist’s warnings of maternal over-indulgence, she wisely wrote in 1844 that ‘young people that are spoiled by an indulgent home are spoiled, I think, not by over-happiness, but from having been encouraged in selfishness’. 88

Sara Coleridge also kept a baby diary from 1830-1838, but for the purposes of this essay her letters are much more illuminating. Her diary is largely preoccupied with her postnatal depression and opium addiction and this is related with much personal anguish. Her observations of Herbert and her daughter Edith are concerned with their physical growth and health, whilst her letters reveal a deep understanding of emotional and psychological development. This highlights one of the problems of using baby diaries as a source through which to garner attitudes and ides. Mothers did not always feel that a baby diary was somewhere they wanted to explore their deeper feelings. Although Gaskell certainly used the diary to openly reflect upon her relationship with her daughter and her role as a mother, diaries like Sophia Holland’s are much less candid.

Sophia Holland, Gaskell’s cousin by marriage began her diary in 1836 when her son Thurstan was 6 weeks old.89 Holland adopts a fairly detached emotional tone. At five months old she writes that Thurstan began ‘to hold out his arms to come to me to be fed’.90 A month older, she notes that he cries out for her when he was not hungry, acknowledging that this attachment went beyond the desire for food.91 But beyond this, Holland’s sparse entries tell us nothing of her own thoughts and reflections.

Procuring an insight into the mother-infant relationship from baby diaries in part depends upon the psychological propensities and insight of the parent. Psychologist Kurt Koffka calls attention to the fact that ‘these diaries of child-life… are not uninfluenced by the character of the writer…indeed, by the level of his child-psychology’.92 This most likely applies to childcare advice writers also.

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