*Today’s guest post comes via Jeremy Brok, a creative non fiction masters candidate currently in his first year at the University of Missouri. After graduating from DePauw University in 2007, Jeremy spent three years serving with an AmeriCorps Emergency Response Team based in St. Louis where he finds much material for his personal essays.*
When studying the predominant women writers of Victorian literature, the idea of motherhood doesn’t typically find itself at the top of the syllabus. The renowned authors like Austen, Eliot, and Bronte & Bronte (the 19th century writers, not the law firm) mined social issues for women as marriage, romantic love, and how to love men named Heathcliff, generally from the perspectives of young, single women. However, the somewhat less known Victorian wordsmith Margaret Oliphant focused on motherhood from the mother’s perspective in her many, many works.
Oliphant published over one hundred separate pieces during her lifetime, truly testing the whole quantity over quality theory, but she needed to pay the bills. Her husband’s early death left her with three children to take care of and only her pen and experiences as a mother to accomplish the task. Some critics have used this fiscal need to explain Oliphant’s plethora of publications, calling her maternal sincerity into question. Despite the claim that she was nothing more than a “domestic done”, churning out books in assembly-line fashion for profit and “making her maternity the source of her commercial inspiration” (D’Albertis 825), Oliphant’s novels prove that above all, above her social obligations, above her work as an author, she valued motherhood.
In her 1865 novel The Doctor’s Family, Oliphant tells the story of tough-as-nails Nettie, a young woman who travels from Australia to England to care for her sister’s kids while her sister looks for her dead-beat husband at his brother’s house. Though this might appear to begin as some Victorian incarnation ofCops, dead-beat dad’s brother is actually a doctor who—mothers, still your beating hearts—wants to marry Nettie and take her away from the misery of raising children who are not her own. The problem is that Nettie doesn’t consider her existence so miserable. In fact she loves it, loves the kids, like they are her own, even though they aren’t, biologically—crazy! Nettie explains this strange phenomenon by saying, “If I were to say it was my duty and all that sort of stuff, you would understand me… but one only says it is one’s duty when one has something disagreeable to do; and I am not doing anything disagreeable,” (The Doctor’s Family 108). Nettie feels both steadfast duty to care for these children whose parents cannot or will not, and intense desire to remain with them despite what English society might say.
At this time, it was neither necessary nor expected for Victorian mothers to actually spend time with their children. That’s what nannies and governesses and foot-loose, cockney-talking chimney sweeps were for. All they were required to do was to provide this care for their children and anything beyond that was their prerogative. Motherhood certainly wasn’t supposed to interfere with a woman’s other social responsibilities such as being a wife or wearing giant, feathered hats. But in The Doctor’s FamilyOliphant depicts a heroine who prioritizes her motherhood over her social standing, romantic pursuits, and all else.
In this way, Oliphant represents a part of herself who dearly loves her children and prizes them above everything else in her life, even her status as an author. The fact that she rolled out publications about motherhood like Fords off the line was irrelevant to Oliphant’s genuine love of her children. Like Nettie, Oliphant’s priority was to care for her children; it was simply a happy twist of fate that her publications both reflected and provided financially for this. Oliphant’s idealized view of motherhood, though unique in her time, contributed to our modern definition of it and has surely kept unknown numbers of children out of the sooty, black-lunged grasps of the chimney sweep nanny.