The notions of maternity and motherhood in late-eighteenth century England are fraught with ambiguity and contradictions. By this period, the cult of idealized motherhood and maternal virtue is beginning to emerge in England in order to protect a seemingly threatened cultural hegemony. However, this ideological project is dependent upon problematic constructs of the overriding “unnatural” aspects of maternity. In order to delineate ideal, normative maternity, examples of dangerous and monstrous motherhood are overwhelmingly emphasized. Although women’s reproductive authority was historically granted to them because the female body was viewed as the natural site of reproduction, eighteenth-century England saw an influx in the number of ways motherhood could be rendered unnatural by its very ties to women’s bodies, which were represented as being susceptible to (or, more seriously, the source of) all that was uncontrollable and irrational: illicit sexuality, ignorance, passions, madness, disease, and even murderous desires. Maternity as it was understood as the symbolic locus of collective female community and creative agency was effectively effaced, and was instead rendered an “unnatural” pathological condition “naturally” in need of treatment and control by masculine, rational authorities.
In this thesis, I interrogate these constructions of maternity through the 1790s fiction of writers Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, and Eliza Fenwick, all of whom, I argue, use their texts to protest the pathologization and mechanization of maternity that had occurred within their culture. In Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman, Hays’s The Victim of Prejudice, and Fenwick’s Secresy, or The Ruin on the Rock, each writer utilizes popular gothic conventions in their dramatizations of the dangers of various forms of feminine oppression in patriarchal England, not the least of which lies in the removal of maternity from female control. In each of their novels, Wollstonecraft, Fenwick, and Hays appropriate and reproduce much of the dominant negative discourse of unnatural maternity in order to show how it is ultimately these sorts of oppressive ideological fictions (and their patriarchal proponents) that are themselves monstrous, rather than the women whom they demonize and oppress. Furthermore, I argue that by creating and disseminating texts that protest the loss of maternal agency and demand a return of forms of collective female power, these writers are attempting to wrest back control of some form of creative power that was once indelibly linked to the woman’s womb.