George Justice, Editor
Mama, You’ve been on My Mind

Mothering Daughters: Novels and the Politics of Family Romance, Frances Burney to Jane Austen

By Susan C. Greenfield.
Wayne State University Press, 2002. 227 pages.
2 B/W illustrations. Hardcover. $34.95.

Reviewed by Emily Bowles.

In Mothering Daughters, Susan C. Greenfield resituates the fictions of Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth, Amelia Alderson Opie, and Jane Austen within a nuanced framework that complicates the central narratives of psychoanalysis. Greenfield juxtaposes her understanding of psychoanalytic theory with her knowledge of the 18th Century and its literature, making Mothering Daughters an elegant, illuminating, and provocative critical text. Organized as a series of case studies, the book comprises six chapters that chronicle a subtle movement at once historical, psychoanalytic, and literary toward what Greenfield considers the “logical psychological conclusion” of the mother-daughter story as it manifests in Emma.

Tracing the developments toward this “logical psychological conclusion” of the mother-daughter story, Greenfield takes a linear historical approach and moves from Burney through Austen to detail literary representations of changes in familial structures and in domestic romance. She articulates the material and ideological trappings that differ among the women writers of her study and intersperses references to their male contemporaries and their male antecedents, thereby addressing issues of female biology in tandem with aesthetic and commercial values. Greenfield’s attention to the intersections among gender, the marketplace, the novel, and intellectual culture at large shares a common critical lexicon with the works of Nancy Armstrong, Janet Todd, Catherine Gallagher, and Claudia L. Johnson. Greenfield complicates the works of these and other 18th Century scholars by exploring paradigmatic shifts in mother-daughter relationships that occur across history, both in its public and private senses, because of tangible factors as seemingly disconnected as breastfeeding and colonialism.

Greenfield begins with a discussion of the importance of female imprinting in Evelina, a text that offers the replicated female image as a sign of “biological kinship.” Greenfield focuses on the “social protection” guaranteed by a daughter’s resemblance to her mother in her first chapter, a concern that becomes “sexually and psychologically charged” in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian. The desire engendered in Radcliffe’s novel depends not on a social recognition of the daughter in the mother but rather on a private recognition that one woman “is the spectator of another woman.” Greenfield refocuses the mother-daughter relationship onto the bosom in chapter three. In her discussions of Wollstonecraft, Edgeworth, and Opie, she considers how breastfeeding be-comes the sign of “being a good mother” by the end of the 18th Century and locates the political, biological, and biographical ramifications of breastfeeding as subtexts to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria; Or, the Wrongs of Woman. Greenfield explores a similarly complex aggregation of maternal qualities in Edgeworth’s Belinda, of which she notes: “Edgeworth assembles competing values in one book, simultaneously exposing the ideological promise and the instability of the mother’s body.” The multiple functions of the female body evoked in Belinda become, as Greenfield argues, affixed to colonialist concerns via the bodies of black and mulatto wet nurses and servants, a connection that Greenfield foregrounds in her chapter on Adeline Mowbray.

Austen’s Emma is the textual site in which the signs of a recursive mother-daughter narrative collapse into an autonomous female subject. Greenfield considers Emma to be an “artistic triumph” because Austen deploys the tropes of “popular narrative conventions,” present from Burney through Opie and characteristic of the psychoanalytic family romance, without satirizing or supplanting the “palpable” expectation for a “dead mother.” Greenfield reads Emma’s concern with interiority quite keenly and foregrounds the internalization of colonial impulses in the novel in a manner complicated by her interpretations of Edgeworth and Opie. Perhaps the most problematic—but also the most provocative—concern in the chapter is not with colonialism but with the role of novelistic discourse in the construction of female subjectivity. Greenfield writes: “Emma is the first novel in which the existence of an unconscious seems indubitable—the first in which the heroine’s misunderstanding of her own mind is the subject of the story.” While Greenfield rightly suggests that neither Henry Fielding nor Samuel Richardson constructs a novel composed of the heroine’s misunderstanding of her own mind, such a view too brashly dismisses the work of novel theorists after Ian Watt and ignores the contributions of, for instance, Aphra Behn and Charlotte Lennox in the developments of plots that similarly “balance ironic distance with interior insight.”

Greenfield’s Mothering Daughters is a welcome addition to psychoanalytic studies, women’s studies, 18th Century scholarship, and Austen studies. The analyses that Greenfield provides are themselves significant but Greenfield also opens interpretive doorways with her trenchant observations and her delightful mixture of theory, history, cultural materialism, feminism, and literature. Greenfield’s work not only provides new readings of women writers from Burney through Austen but also suggests the critical need for reevaluating the role of mothers as a “bodily source that provides the basis for social reconstruction.”

Emily Bowles, a graduate student at Emory University, is working on her dissertation titled “Empire Lost”: Unstable Terms in the Language of Female Sexuality and Political Conquest, 1660 to 1820.

JASNA News v.19, no. 3, Winter 2003, p. 26

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