Mothering and its absence in a group of nineteenth-century novels

Rebecca Etherington

Rebecca Etherington explores the role of the mother in Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House, Mary Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.


Victorian society’s fixation with, and aspiration toward the notion of the ‘ideal family’ was substantially influenced by Queen Victoria, who epitomised middle-class femininity and domesticity. She exemplified that the home was the centre of morality and a place of comfort, where domestic integrity was embodied by the woman. Once secured in matrimony, motherhood was confirmation that the woman had entered the world of womanly virtue and female fulfillment. Throughout much Victorian literature, the private sphere of the home is presented as an image of comfort and safety from the outside world, wherein women had their place. Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House[1] is demonstrative of this.  In this novel, Patmore idealises his wife as a charming, self-sacrificing angel who should be used as an icon for other women to base themselves upon. The idea of the woman as an angel in the house became a popular Victorian image, one which not only romanticised women but also contributed to society’s constricting expectations; that women should be submissive, passive beings whose only role was as a devoted, perfect mother and wife. In defiance of this restrictive public perception came the rise of sensation novels, which depicted women in a new light. A literature emerged whereby less-than-perfect mother figures were presented, and the effects of absent mothers on children’s upbringings documented, much to the shock and mixed reviews of critics.


Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) is one such novel, exemplifying the turning point in nineteenth-century fiction. Mary Braddon wrote under the new genre of the sensation novel, which was known for its unconventional depiction of women- representing them not just as images of moral perfection whose only interests lie in the domestic sphere and upbringing of their children. Lady Audley assumes three different identities and fakes her own death, in order to escape her impoverished beginning as Helen Talboy, wife and mother. She rises up the social ladder, acquires the identity of a governess and then a Lady of high society. Outwardly, Lady Audley embodies all the Victorian feminine ideals of an elegant and respectable woman. She is the image of divinity and her manners and virtue mean that she is everything one would expect of a Victorian heroine.  This is apparent in the passage of the novel that remarks, ‘the innocence and candour of an infant beamed in Lady Audley’s fair face, and shone out of her large and liquid blue eyes. The rosy lips, the delicate nose, the profusion of fair ringlets, all contributed to preserve to her beauty the character of extreme youth and freshness’[2]. The idea that such a woman could abscond her husband, and even worse, her child Georgey, in order to conduct her own selfish pursuits, was outrageous. Accordingly, it leads to Lady Audley being declared as insane and institutionalised in an asylum. Motherhood was the pinnacle of womanhood and in order to fulfill your role as a woman, it was expected that you bond with your child and cater to its every need. To abandon a child was completely unnatural and in line with her other atrocious crimes as far as a Victorian society is concerned. Elaine Showalter argues that ‘madness has been the historical label applied to female protest and revolution’.[3] She questions Lady Audley’s insanity and suggests instead that she is merely an intelligent working class woman with aspirations to escape maternity and poverty to better her own life. She cannot bond with her child, who is a constant reminder of the husband who abandoned her, and therefore deviates from the stringent rules of society in order to economically benefit herself and to change the path of her life. Claiming that her motives were a result of insanity was essentially a favourable alternative to a life in prison and the only way to save the Audley family name.


The publication of Lady Audley’s Secret was problematic for some critics who worried that women would be negatively influenced it. The suggestion that a Victorian woman may have the intellectuality and passions to enable her to deceive a society in order to better herself was a very new and distressing idea. W. Fraser Rae was particularly offended by Braddon’s literature, writing that ‘into uncontaminated minds they will instil false views of human conduct [...] The fault of these novels is that they contain pictures of daily life, wherein there are scenes so grossly untrue to nature.’[4] Lady Audley’s threat was the possibility that someone from the lower class with such “beastly” characteristics could infiltrate society, unbeknownst to even her husband. Braddon’s suggestion of the transfigurative opportunities of womanhood thrilled female readers by, as Showalter says, ‘expressing a wide range of suppressed female emotions, and by tapping and satisfying fantasies of protest and escape.’[5] Elizabeth Langland writes that ‘the very sensationalism of sensation fiction allowed it to expose not only the conflicting passions of middle class women but the dark side of domesticity itself.’[6] The implication that women could be more than what they appear was terrifying, as reflected in the character of Lady Audley, who is paradoxically described as a ‘beautiful fiend.’[7] The suggestion that evil can exist under angelic beauty was uncomfortable and disconcerting.


The rise of a feminist literature that presented women as multidimensional and more than just mothers was an issue explored by many authors. Like Braddon, William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair,[8] presents a manipulative female protagonist, Becky Sharp, who domestically deprives her husband and son in favour of climbing the social ladder. However, ultimately she is not praised for her attempts at bettering herself; Thackeray’s message is a warning to women that they should not model themselves on such characters. Braddon’s message, presented by the strong Lady Audley, is also seen by many as diluted by the end of the book, when her attempts at succeeding in life come to nothing and therefore her role as a positive driving force for Victorian women is diminished.


The absence of a mother was also considered by many to have detrimental effects on the child. Reflecting her own upbringing, Emily Bronte’s characters in Wuthering Heights (1847) are all without mothers. There has been much psychoanalytical interest over the book in terms of the effects that the absence of a mother has on Cathy and Heathciff. When Cathy was young, her mother died, as did Heathcliff’s and with the absence of a loving mother figure, Cathy and Heathcliff are obliged to act as one-another's mother. Wade Thompson describes the situation as the children being, ‘left to fend for themselves early in life without the love and protection of their mothers',[9] and, as a consequence, they 'find themselves in a fierce struggle for survival against actively hostile adults who seem obsessed with the desire to kill or maim them.'[10] They find a sense of security and inter-dependence in one another that they is lacking in their lives. Their relationship can be psychoanalytically analysed in terms of the ‘mirror stage’ theory of Jacques Lacan, a post-Freudian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Read in this way, Cathy’s obsession with Heathcliff is a result of her never having established her own identity as an individual. Lacan’s theory is that a child only begins to recognise their image in the reflection of a mirror as their own body, after going through the mirror stage, and this is when they perceive themselves for the first time as being separate from the mother. Cathy can be analysed in terms of never having completed this stage, explaining the childlike dependence she has on Heathcliff- her pseudo ‘mother’, having never fully distinguished a separation from him. She fails to recognise her face in the reflection of a mirror: ‘“Don't you see that face?” she enquired, gazing earnestly at the mirror. And say what I could, I was incapable of making her comprehend it to be her own.’[11] Further, Cathy declares, ‘Nelly, I am Heathcliff.’[12] The edges of their two different identities are blurred, meaning that Catherine’s relationship with Heathcliff cannot simply be defined as love- it is more than that. It is a fundamental dependence, where it seems impossible that one could exist without the other. Her situation of non-differentiation from him means that when he leaves her, she is racked with an overwhelming sense of grief. Cathy finally has to accept the fact that she has lost her symbiotic other and is an individual without Heathcliff.


After Heathcliff leaves, Cathy has to find the motherly comfort that she needs in different characters, such as Nelly, and then later on in Edgar Linton: ‘No mother could have nursed an only child more tenderly than Edgar tended her.’[13] Psychiatrist Philip K. Wion suggests that Cathy’s relationships with other characters are a ‘displaced version of the symbiotic relationship between mother and child.’[14] Cathy’s temper tantrums, sorrowful temperament and and intense reactions to separation are very reflective of a toddler’s behaviour. The absence of mothers has further damning effects on the next generation whose motherless mothers can themselves only maintain the cycle of abandonment. The death of Catherine Earnshaw is documented in the same sentence as the birth of her daughter, Catherine Linton and similarly, Isabella and Frances die shortly after the births of their children. It is as though the mother and child cannot coexist in the same world. The death of Catherine Earnshaw’s mother had extreme repercussions on her temperament and left her lost and unstable as well as incapable of forming normal, functional relationships with people. The lack of positive female influence left her wild and passionate and destined for disaster, much like Catherine Linton, who, also without a mother, is wild and willful which leads her to Wuthering Heights and all the problems and perils that lay within.


Jane Austen also explores the effects that an ‘incompetent’ mother figure can have on their offspring in Sense and Sensibility. Although Mrs Dashwood is kind hearted and loving, the influence of her sensibility and attitudes towards love have severe effects on her daughter Marianne. Her tendency towards irrational emotions and strong feelings lead to a lack of discipline over her daughter. Mrs Dashwood supports Marianne in her extreme culmination of emotion: ‘They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction.’[15] The word violence is used by Austen to connote how damaging the expression of strong feelings could be at the time. Reasonable judgement and caution were of utmost importance in their society and the romantic Marianne, like her mother, displays extreme emotion that shows no restraint and goes beyond reasonable extremes. Mrs Dashwood does nothing to warn Marianne of the detrimental effects that her actions could have on her place in society and she ends up in a position where her lack of discretion brings shame and humiliation upon her whole family. Mrs Dashwood lacks the abilities of self-restraint or perception, which leaves her incapable of controlling her daughter and ultimately leads to her downfall.


Similarly to Braddon and Thackeray, Charles Dickens also presented characters with a striking contrast to the expected representation of Victorian women. Hard Times portrays female characters who are grossly unmaternal and wholly unlike the idealised, loving housewife as presented in Patmore’s poem. Mrs Gradgrind, wife of the cold, rational Thomas Gradgrind is described as ‘a little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily’.[16]  This is far from the angelic, feminine characters presented in the books that so often graced the shelves of the Victorian home. There are no images of the warm home and cosy hearth.  Instead, Coketown is presented as a cold, industrial, bleak place where children are repressed and the inhabitants selfish. Hard Times was not received well by the Victorian readership, who were offended by Dickens world of harsh constraint, which was so different from his idealised novels, where the middle-class families were presented in a gay and harmonious light. Critics advised Dickens to stick to what he does best, with Margaret Oliphant asserting that ‘nowhere does the household hearth burn brighter- nowhere is the family love so warm- the natural bonds so strong: and this is the ground which Mr Dickens occupies par excellence,[17] Hard Times was not ‘Dickensian’ enough, lacking the expected sentimentalities and foregrounding of typical Victorian female characters of his previous novels.  To suggest that a man could be course and unfeeling was one thing, but to suggest that a mother could present in the same way was absurd. A Westminster Review writer reacts strongly against the female representations claiming that they are ‘most intolerable galimatias’ [gibberish] (308). The middle classes were happy living in blissful naivety and would rather read about an idealised world of perfection than something that was, perhaps more realistic, but also an uncomfortable, unprepossessing reality. Like the reception of Lady Audley’s Secret, critics were disgruntled by the presentation of role transgressing females who did not fit the conventional standards.


Great Expectations (1861) is another of Dickens’ novels where females do not conform to the roles prescribed to them by Victorian society. Pip’s anguish stems directly from the noticeable lack of adequate mother figures throughout the novel. In the absence of his mother, who he imagines to be ‘freckled and sickly’,[18] the unloving, masculine Mrs. Joe Gargery- Pip’s sister, substitutes her place as a mother figure. However, Mrs. Joe is the antithesis of the ideal Victorian woman: ‘My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of the skin that sometimes I used to wonder if she washed herself with a nutmeg grater instead of soap.’[19] As in Wuthering Heights, the novel is haunted by the lack of a mother figure and dominated by the orphan’s quest to find a suitable alternative. Mrs. Joe is aggressive and unmaternal, which leads Pip to the disturbed spinster Miss Havisham, who he hopes will fill that hole in his life. However, like the sadist Mrs. Joe, Miss Havisham too is sadistic and obsessed. Miss Havisham duplicates herself in the young Estella, another orphan who she takes on as her own and breeds her to be untouchable, pure desire. Like the motherless mothers in Wuthering Heights, who are only able to inflict a further cycle of abandonment and neglect on their children, Miss Havisham herself had no mother, which is reflected in her inability to provide appropriate love and comfort for her adopted daughter. Dickens uses Miss Havisham to highlight the negative effects that a mother figure can have on a child. He responds to the Darwinian debate by highlighting the fact that Miss Havisham’s incompetence as a loving mother has completely taken over Estella and ruined her Nature. Pip states, ‘it is not in Nature to behave as you are doing.’ Estella responds that, ‘it is in my nature.’[20] Estella’s nature is a product of her Nurture, which is again accentuated when she says, ‘we are not free to follow our own devices, you and I.’ This projects the control that her adoptive mother has over her life. She has been conditioned to think, feel and act exactly as Miss Havisham wishes. Pip too has a lack of self-control in that, in the absence of any adequate mother figure, he has been forced to act as his own mother. However the parameters he has set himself in terms of how he is allowed to behave have been conditioned by what he thinks society expects of him, meaning that he is as trapped as Estella.


Orphans are forced to find alternative maternal comfort, which often has damning consequences on their mentality and emotional stability, as seen in the characters of Cathy, Heathcliff, Pip and Estella. Without a mother, young girls are presented in Victorian novels as becoming wayward and wild like Cathy, whilst mothers who abandoned their children were seen as equally unfeminine and formidable. The need to uphold Victorian standards put pressure on women who were destined to be labeled as ‘insane’ if they transgressed from the maternal roles expected of them, as reflected in the character of Lady Audley. Miss Havisham too, was driven mad by her failure in fulfilling the expected role of a Victorian woman as a wife and adequate mother, resulting in her moulding the orphaned Estella into a person incapable of love or happiness. All of these novels contribute towards challenging and destabilising constrictive Victorian domestic ideals but not without provoking uneasiness and negative reactions in many critics of the time.



Word count: 2731





Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (London: Penguin Books, 1994)

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth, Lady Audley’s Secret(London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1998)

Bronte, Emily, Wuthering Heights [e-book] (London: John Murray, 1910)

Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1999)

Dickens, Charles, Hard Times (London: Penguin Classics, 1995)

Langland, Elizabeth, Beyond Sensation: Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Context (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000)

Oliphant, Margaret, Charles Dickens (Blackwoods Magazine 77, 1855)

Patmore, Coventry, The Angel in the House (Middlesex: The Echo Library, 2006)

Rae, W.Fraser, ‘Sensation Novelists: Miss Braddon’, North British Review 43 (1865)

Schapiro, Barbara A., Literature and the Rational Self (New York: New York University Press, 1994)

Showalter, Elaine, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982)

Showalter, Elaine, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago Press, 1987)

Thackeray, William Makepeace, Vanity Fair (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003)

Thompson, Wade, ‘Infantcide and Sadism in Wuthering Heights: Judith O'Neill, ed., Readings in literary criticism 2: critics on Charlotte and Emily Brontë (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd)

[1] Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House (Middlesex: The Echo Library, 2006)

[2] Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1998) pps. 58-59

[3] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago Press, 1987) p. 5

[4] W.Fraser Rae, ‘Sensation Novelists: Miss Braddon’, North British Review 43 (1865) pps.104-105

[5] Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982) pps. 158-159.

[6] Elizabeth Langland, Beyond Sensation: Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Context (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000) p.3

[7] Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p.77

[8] William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003)

[9] Wade Thompson ‘Infantcide and Sadism in Wuthering Heights: Judith O'Neill, ed., Readings in literary criticism 2: critics on Charlotte and Emily Brontë (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd) p.95

[10] Ibid., p.95

[11]Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights [e-book] (London: John Murray, 1910) p.84

[12] ibid., p.56

[13] ibid, p.92

[14] Barbara A. Schapiro, Literature and the Rational Self (New York: New York University Press, 1994) p.47

[15] Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (London: Penguin Books, 1994) p.5

[16] Charles Dickens, Hard Times (London: Penguin Classics, 1995) p.22

[17] Margaret Oliphant, Charles Dickens (Blackwoods Magazine 77, 1855) 465

[18] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1999) p.9

[19] Ibid., p.13

[20] Ibid., p.271



Rebecca Etherington


brightONLINE student literary journal

14 Aug 2013