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Bearing Liminality, Laboring White Ink

Pregnancy and Childbirth in Women's Literature

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Francisco José Cortés Vieco

Literature has been a bastion of male creativity, not of female procreativity, which has traditionally inhibited the voices of women and disempowered their self-expression. This book explores the underestimated legacy of women’s fiction and (semi-)autobiographical works about pregnancy and childbirth in Great Britain and North America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, highlighting the symbiosis between the processes of childbearing and writing, problematizing female subjugation to the patriarchal institution of motherhood, and compensating for the silence around the experience of becoming a mother in literature.

Drawing on the anthropological concept of liminality, controversies about maternity within women’s liberation movements, and milestones in French feminist theory, this book discusses pregnancy and childbirth as transformative events that can engender both women’s imaginative responses to procreation and re-creations of memories about their prenatal/natal episodes, as well as therapeutic narratives of self-discovery and recovery from pain. Examining the works of authors such as Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, Jean Rhys, Anaïs Nin, Margaret Drabble, and Toni Morrison, this book posits a literary corpus of procreativity, written by women with an empowering white ink to defend their (un)maternal freedom and (life-)writings.

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CHAPTER 1: The Nineteenth-Century Threshold for Inkless Liminal Women: Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Mary Anne Evans/George Eliot

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The dominant ideology of patriarchal fertility impregnated the institution of motherhood in nineteenth-century Great Britain, whereas barrenness was enforced against women to erase potential discourses of procreativity and mothering, notably in Victorian times (1837–1901). A loyal wife bearing nine children, Queen Victoria became the mother of all her subjects (to be) born in the same Protestant Empire where, centuries before, the Virgin Mary’s sacred powers were defeated and a more docile substitute was employed. “The Angel in the House”1 was the contemporary paradigm of virtuous femininity and propriety, Christian faith and ideal domesticity prescribed to all Victorian women, deprived of formal education, suffrage, custody rights, remunerative professions, and birth control. Although emphasizing women’s moral superiority, this female angel was placed in a role secondary to men (Hogan and Bradstock 1998: 1). This archetype was also conceived as a saintly creature on earth with absent sexual desire, because virginity and chastity ruled her life before and after her divinely appointed mission: married motherhood. A vessel of spirituality and incorporeality, the Angel in the House was praised for nurturing her entire family and for her infinite maternal love. Albeit she was publicly exhibited in her celebrated social roles of preliminal maidenhood – suitable for marital procreation – and postliminal childrearing, this angel was confined at home ←21 | 22→until having trespassed the mortal threshold of labor, to protect the prenatal treasure in her womb, and to cover her liminally physical deformity during her pregnancies.

In the nineteenth century, the British...

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