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Parenting in England, 1760-1830

By Pat Thane | Posted 17th June 2013, 11:06
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Parenting in England 1760-1830: Emotion, Identity and Generation
Joanne Bailey
Oxford University Press  277pp  £65

We know surprisingly little about the history of parenting, given its centrality to human experience. There is no lack of easy generalisations about the expected roles of mothers and, more rarely, fathers at various times in the past, both from scholars and in everyday discourse. But attempts to reconstruct the experiences and emotions of parenting and representations and societal expectations of parents in the past are rare indeed. This Joanne Bailey achieves for the late Georgian period. She constructs a detailed, fascinating picture from the letters of aristocrats, paupers, business and professional families, memoirs, diaries, biographies, pamphlets, magazines, literary and visual works.

Her findings are often unexpected, particularly her revelation of the importance of emotionally expressive, ‘tender’ fatherhood, the social expectation and, often, the reality of committed fatherhood with obligations little different from those of motherhood in a culture of sensibility, which encouraged expressions of feeling in both sexes. Maternal love was assumed to be innate, whereas fatherly love was learned after the birth and helped to humanise men. Thereafter, there was no strict gender divide between the duties of parents. Both should care and provide, emotionally and materially, protect, discipline (never harshly), educate and act as models of virtuous behaviour for their children. Mothers might spend more time with their children, but not always: poor mothers had to work, others had many children sharing their attention. They cared for sick children, but often so did fathers. A pervasive emotion of 18th-, as of 21st-century parents, was anxiety. There was much to be anxious about in a world that was, as Bailey describes, ‘frighteningly unstable’, with lives ‘unpredictable, vulnerable and too often short-lived’. A third of children died before their tenth birthday.

Parenting did not inhabit only a ‘private sphere’ of home life. As in other aspects of Georgian life, there was no rigid separation of public and private spheres. Then, as now, happy families were perceived as the bedrock of social stability. Raising numerous, healthy, socially responsible children, fit to work and fight, was seen as vital to maintaining the nation’s growing empire and trade, the answer to fears of depopulation and national decline following the disastrous opening to the Seven Years War, the loss of the American colonies and the French Revolution.

Unfortunately, family life was not always long and happy. It was disrupted by the death of parents as well as children. Wives suffered domestic violence and desertion; couples separated. One outcome was remarriage and step-parenthood, recognised as difficult. The image of the cruel step-parent was pervasive in literature. In life they were enjoined to treat step-children as they would their own. Otherwise, parents coped with these and other crises with the support of family networks and servants. They were rarely isolated. It was rare for adult generations to share a home; indeed there were warnings, as there had long been, about the tensions that could arise from sharing, except where an ageing parent could no longer manage alone, or provided useful housekeeping, or a widowed or deserted daughter needed a home. But support crossed household boundaries. It was rarer then for three generations in a family to survive long together, yet grandparents, frequently described as ‘doting’, then as now provided childcare and financial and emotional support to children and grandchildren, who generally reciprocated when they could. This is another set of relationships too rarely explored historically. Servants were the expected back up to family support, perceived as less ideal carers than family members, but necessary and often valued.

Bailey emphasises that these values and practices were not divided by class or religion.They did not originate with evangelicals, nor were they middle-class inventions, which filtered up and down the social scale. They existed throughout society and over time, but not uniformly. There were harsh parents and abandoned, abused children in all classes. She suggests that by the 1830s warfare was breeding ‘hardy manliness’ and a stricter division of gender codes, but she is suitably cautious about the generalisations that bedevil this area of history, recognising that tender, committed fatherhood did not disappear.

Pat Thane’s most recent publication is Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth Century England (Oxford University Press, 2012).


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