Inventing the ‘In Between’: Women and Motherhood in Eighteenth-Century Period Drama Back

The roles of women in period film and television tend towards all too familiar roles: the lover, the mother and the grandmother. The role of the mother is especially indicative of how the adult woman is so often stereotyped in popular culture. The woman as ‘good mother’ is self-sacrificing, loving and ‘natural.’ Conversely, the bad mother is comic, selfish and ‘unnatural.’ There is seemingly no middle ground in the representations of maternity. Think of Mrs Bennet, so abused, both by writers and by popular opinion; her only crime being her desire to secure her daughter’s future against poverty and obscurity.

This simplification persists in twenty-first-century adaptations of eighteenth-century lives and literature, such as the 2005 BBC television serial Casanova (directed by Sheree Folkson). The role of motherhood is prevalent throughout. Henriette (played by Laura Fraser), the witty, honourable and, ultimately, unattainable love interest, is characterised as the natural figure of womanhood. Aesthetically, she looks like a fashionable woman of her time whilst also following the rules of contemporary womanhood no matter what it costs her. She marries the rich man, has his children and understands it is no longer possible to continue loving the other man, the titular Casanova (played by David Tennant). Her motherhood also effectively silences Henriette in a way that may not be intentional. Before her marriage Henriette was a vibrant presence in Casanova’s story. Afterwards she becomes a speechless ghost, appearing adrift and aloof in the distance, flanked by her sentinel children. Her role as wife and mother has robbed her of her active individuality. Nevertheless, free from Casanova’s focalisation she has in fact established a secure life within society’s rules and is shown to be a loving mother to her children.

Contrast to this the character of Bellino (played by Nina Sosanya), a woman whom we first meet disguised as a castrato. Compared to Henriette who always appears as a woman, this sets up an unfortunate foreshadowing of Bellino’s alleged unnaturalness as a mother. Whilst the Chevalier d’Eon may have a thing or two to say about that (and may even ask why she is not the protagonist of a film or series), it proves about as subtle as a hammer to the face. Bellino’s complete difference to Henriette is continuously underlined in her desire for Casanova, her sexual affair with him and her eventual abandonment at the heart of a bejewelled European court in the knowledge she is pregnant with Casanova’s child. Her reappearance in Casanova’s story near the end of the serial confirms her failure as a mother.

At a court in the shadow of an erupting volcano, Bellino’s (and Casanova’s) daughter is willingly seduced by Casanova’s illegitimate son (played by Tom Burke) to Tennant’s wide eyed disbelief. Bellino sees nothing morally wrong with this romantic tryst, instead calmly reminding everyone that they will all be dead soon so what does it matter?  Perhaps Bellino is presented like this to emphasise the fate of those women who are never secure enough in their role as a mother, or even to unwittingly reinforce eighteenth-century assumptions over unwed mothers. In this case though it is more likely the result of lazy writing which sees the woman who enjoys sex with Casanova ultimately punished as both an unnatural entity, who condones incest and moral disinterest, and, as a result, an unnatural mother. Unfortunately, this writing of motherhood (and non-romantic femininity in general) is constantly represented as a binary choice. Is this the cultural hangover of the eighteenth century, which normally sees women as either the good mother without enough dramatic interest to be the main protagonist, the delightfully evil stepmother, or the spectral presence of the deceased mother?

Another way in which mothers were used in eighteenth-century literature was as a way for the author either to satirise or criticise the characters and their methods of mothering, such as Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennet, Lady Bertram or Lady Susan.[1] Marilyn Francus has even argued that British patriarchal society in the eighteenth century may have not been as powerful as it seemed, as it was not secure enough to tell stories where a domestic mother was a protagonist of her own story.[2] As Nancy Armstrong argues, to be a protagonist “a character had to harbour an acute dissatisfaction with his or her assigned position in the social world and feel compelled to find a better one”.[3] Indeed, it speaks volumes that the British reading public had to wait until 1848 for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, where a mother is actually the protagonist and whose plight against a violent husband and a patriarchal society had rarely been delved into before.

The continued confusing state of motherhood, borrowed seemingly from the eighteenth century, is evident in the way that film and television legitimises supposed ‘good motherhood’ on the one hand, whilst elsewhere demeaning the whole ideal of motherhood by presenting it as the least important aspect of a female character’s life. The Duchess (2008, dir. Saul Dibb) presents a fine example of this. Here, Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire (played by Keira Knightley), is first shown to have had children with her controlling husband (played by Ralph Fiennes) before the rest of the movie takes her away to show her political dalliances and extra-marital affair with Charles Grey (played by Dominic Cooper). Whilst it is commendable that the film takes this particular woman’s life and shows her personality and accomplishments aside from her conventional role as wife and mother, her motherhood almost seems to be at odds with the rest of her life. It is as though a woman who is involved in politics, society and a romantic affair can’t possibly be a maternal figure as well. While mothers throughout the eighteenth century wrote, sometimes extensively, about their roles as mothers, these types of narratives were rarely supposed to be published or even read by anyone other than the intended letter recipient. This exclusion from public discourse can therefore make it very easy for biopics and other modern narratives based in the past to overlook this aspect of women’s lives; which in turn means that this void is filled with the binary choices of motherhood left from the eighteenth century, or that the void is left intact. As the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana would not have had to raise her children as actively as a middle- or lower-class woman would have needed to in the absence of governesses and other servants. But being a high-class mother did not mean the modern convention of standoffish, cold women who couldn’t bear to be around their children. Georgiana, in fact, had a portrait commissioned of her and her infant daughter in a remarkably affectionate, natural pose which does more than adhere to fashionable portraiture.[4]

So why does visual culture have such a complicated relationship with the portrayal of period mothers? Why are they either the personification of goodness or vice, if they are represented at all? And is there any potential for representations of complicated, realistic motherhood in period drama?

Returning to the idea of the male gaze, the issue of motherhood could be bound up in the fetishisation of the female body, which supposedly loses some of its sexual allure once the character becomes a mother, but which still conforms to conventional femininity. This renders the mother simultaneously unattractive and attractive to the male gaze.[5] In period drama I believe there is also a continued misunderstanding of women within the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Women were apparently so powerless within society that their lives were dictated by their maternal status, making them either Henriettes or Bellinos; and if they bucked this trend, their motherhood was written off as superfluous. Of course, a woman’s identity (now, in the eighteenth century and on screen) is not solely that of a mother – but to erase that aspect of her life is to deny that women can choose to identify as mother within the tapestry of the rest of their lives. A bio-pic of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun would be a blessed relief from the trope of ‘the interesting woman who couldn’t possibly be shown as a mother’, for example. She was a gifted, interesting woman, mother to an adored daughter, who travelled with her during the French Revolution and Republic, was the bedrock of her life and whose early death almost led to her psychological collapse. Vigée Le Brun’s life is made up both of her incredible artistic gifts and her lifelong adoration of her daughter – to tell her story without one of these elements would do a disservice to the artist’s identity and motivations in life. In addition to the tried and tested tropes of motherhood, however, we must be constantly aware of how the very fluid concepts of motherhood and female identity are frequently linked, both on and off screen. Parenthood is seen as a natural end state for many women, and one need only rewatch Bridget Jones’s silent sighs of exasperation every time her biological clock is mentioned to see how that cultural myth has been perpetuated and needs to be eradicated.

One particular film, the setting of which bridges the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, deftly explores the idea that motherhood is not an automatic state for women – The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, dir. James Whale). Much has already been discussed in current criticism about how Shelley’s novel explored the guilt of Frankenstein’s Creature and his desire to have never been brought into being, and how that probably reflected Mary Shelley’s feelings towards her own mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who died of an infection (or ‘child bed fever’) soon after Mary was born. However, the way that the female mate of the Creature is presented in this film is also worthy of attention when considering the role of motherhood, looking forward past depictions of eighteenth-century women.

A lot is made in the film of how the heart is the most important and complicated organ of the human body. The Bride (played by Elsa Lanchester) possesses a heart, taken from an innocent murder victim. She literally does not have the heart to take on the role of mother/lover to the Creature. Francus argues that the eighteenth-century ideology of domestic motherhood in literature did not enable mothers to respond to the conditions and challenges of motherhood, and instead tried to calm societal worries about mothers and broadcast the ‘correct’ way to be a mother. Here, the Bride is responding to the challenges of being made a mother/lover of the Creature by rejecting both the ‘child’ (as presented by the Creature) and the patriarchal system that has tried to corner her in a role she is not willing to implement (here presented by the Drs Frankenstein and Pretorious). The Bride even defies Ruth Anolik’s critique that in Gothic literature “the mother, like marriage, is unnarratable… for the mother is a figure who imposes order and unity… and hence deflects dramatic tension”.[6] She does not impose order and unity, but her reaction and rejection lead to the explosive conclusion of the film. Whilst this can be seen as more indicative of movie making and contemporary issues of the 1930s (including Whale’s own homosexuality which can be seen in the less monstrous presentation of the Creature), I believe it can also serve to represent the many women in the 1790s, 1800s and beyond who found motherhood a challenging, not automatically natural role. The Bride is not an outrageous Bellino or a silenced Henriette – she screams, she denies and she fights against the very stereotypes being placed upon her male creators; stereotypes which continue to haunt female characters in visual media to this day.

Motherhood is a tricky thing to present in a period piece. Stereotypes of good and bad motherhood continue to abound, whilst in some instances motherhood is completely forgotten when the writers deem a character’s motherhood uninteresting and dispensable. Both methods of representation do eighteenth-century motherhood a disservice, presenting motherhood as a binary state of identity, which is less interesting than all other aspects of eighteenth-century life. Whilst I do not wish to suggest that depictions of period mothers should focus solely on their motherhood, I do believe these representations serve to demean the mothers represented on screen. What needs to be shown in period film and television is the complexity of motherhood as seen in The Bride of Frankenstein, or documented in the remarkable lives of Vigée Le Brun, Catherine the Great and many others.

Whilst it is only one aspect of women’s identity in the eighteenth century, perhaps it is time to revisit the ideals of how we represent motherhood within the wide medium of film and television, and how we rid ourselves of this eighteenth-century hangover.

[1] Marilyn Francus, Monstrous Motherhood: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Ideology of Domesticity (John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2012), 15.

[2] Ibid, 9, 19.

[3] Nancy Armstrong, How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900 (Columbia University Press: Chicester and New York, 2006), 4.

[4] Joshua Reynolds, “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and her infant daughter Lady Georgiana Cavendish”, 1784.

[5] E. Ann Kaplin, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (Routledge: London and New York, 1990), 52.

[6] Ruth Anolik, “The Missing Mother: The Meanings of Maternal Absence in the Gothic Mode”, Modern Language Studies 33, no. 1-2 (2003): 25-43.