‘Mothering Illegitimate Children in Late Eighteenth-Century England’

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Abstract

This article examines the care of elite illegitimate children by birth mothers and stepmothers in late eighteenth-century England. Focusing on the letters and financial records of elite families extends a previous historiographical emphasis on illegitimacy as a facet of poverty and shows that attitudes towards illegitimate children and their multiple mothers were heavily mediated by economic inequality, class-based ideals of gender and family, and the absent hand of the poor law. The experiences of birth mothers and stepmothers can be compared with their presentation in contemporary novels, suggesting that women drew on cultural scripts to justify their actions. Single birth mothers were encouraged to be physically absent, but they also manipulated mainstream ideals to construct facets of a positive maternal identity. Stepmothers, meanwhile, included illegitimate children in affective and instrumental ideals of family. Stepmothering could be a positive aspect of elite feminine identity, construing such women as benevolent saviours of the motherless and as matriarchs of successful dynasties. The adoption of illegitimate children was not invariably damaging to female reputation. The example of caring for illegitimate children thus reveals the highly unequal and sometimes coercive aspects of the shared labour of mothering.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalPast & Present
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 15 May 2020