A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories by Rachel Bowlby

Bryony Randall lauds an insightful and overdue study of literary representations of parenting

July 11, 2013

Parenthood”, Rachel Bowlby observes in the first pages of this fascinating work of cultural and literary commentary, “has often tended to go without saying: as if we knew the story, and the story is not very interesting.” A mere background to childhood and the predictable corollary of romantic love, parenthood, Bowlby observes, has rarely been a topic for literary criticism even where canonical texts offer parental stories of quite remarkable peculiarity or complexity. This book argues not only that the range of possible ways to be a parent have proliferated dramatically over the course of the past hundred years, but also that there have been fundamental changes in how parenthood is framed – namely, it has moved from being something nigh on inevitable, to something that could be avoided (through contraception), to something that is actively chosen. It is therefore striking that the subject has been so neglected by literary scholars. Perhaps those of us who are parents are, rightly or wrongly, too sensitive to any possible claims of special pleading to have made it a topic of critical discussion. The identity politics of parenthood, it being more or less chosen in ways that many other identities are not, is fraught – as this book amply demonstrates.

Elegantly, she suggests that Maisie in Henry James’ What Maisie Knew ‘has’ parents as people usually ‘have’ children

A Child of One’s Own has what might appear to be two quite distinct parts. The first is, broadly, cultural history: a measured and meticulous parsing of a range of possible parental identities, in particular those offered by recent advances in reproductive technology. Bowlby’s voice here is as impressive as her learning and her critical acumen. Calmly and without a trace of hysteria or judgement, she examines cultural responses to narratives, specific and general, about gay parents, single parents, post-menopausal mothers, sperm and egg donors and surrogate mothers. So, for example, we are made to notice that there are “egg donors”, but “surrogate mothers” – the less emotive sounding “gestational carrier” yet to gain common currency. She also examines, with the same alertness to language, those more long-standing identities of adoptive parents, foster parents, parents seeking a child and parents attempting to divest themselves of their children.

Inevitably this includes the retelling of some remarkable stories – for example, of the French woman who conceived via in vitro fertilisation and gave birth at the age of 62, then flew to California days after delivery to collect another baby who had just been born to a surrogate mother. This is done not to titillate but rather to give examples of the most extraordinary parenting identities currently available – those identities at what appear to be the extreme end of the spectrum on which all parents can be placed. The parent and child may not experience what follows as “extraordinary” at all, of course; almost all parents, at least at some time or another, are to their children the most ordinary, boring people on the planet. What is more, Bowlby’s analysis gradually draws us to the realisation that the “ordinary” way of becoming a parent (marriage between two people of the opposite sex, fertilisation of her egg with his sperm during sexual intercourse, followed by her pregnancy and their both parenting the child for the duration) is a rapidly fading norm in the Western world.

Pregnancy itself, however, remains central. Although alternatives are possible (and as Bowlby notices, versions of male pregnancy can be found in classical and biblical narratives), for the moment, the retort to a man wishing to give birth remains the same as that directed at the plaintive Stan/Loretta in the Monty Python film Life of Brian: “Where’s the fetus going to gestate? You going to keep it in a box?” The tethering of pregnancy to gender is, of course, the great stumbling block to fantasies of truly equal parenting. The politics of this biological insistence has been explored in another recent book of note, The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Jane Rogers’ novel imagines a near future in which biological terrorism has made pregnancy a terminal condition, lending a new intensity to familiar social phenomena, including the lethal force of sexual violence and self-sacrificing tendencies in adolescent girls. This draws attention to the darker side of this limitation, which, as Bowlby notes, technology has yet to open up.

The second, longer part of the book examines the parents in nine literary texts, from Euripides’ Medea to Edith Wharton’s 1934 short story Roman Fever via a roll call of mainstream 18th- and 19th-century novelists. Here Bowlby’s widely celebrated talent as a literary critic is demonstrated to quite spectacular effect. Literary critics – academics in general – are permanently aware of the pressure to make their work “relevant”, and in less skilled hands the parts of this book concerned with contemporary culture might have appeared worlds away from Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. This book, however, is an instance of genuine dialogue between the contemporary and the historical. It is not a simple compare-and-contrast exercise. Rather, Bowlby’s exploration of the discourses around current reproductive technologies produces critical tools that, when brought to bear on the literary texts, provide ways of articulating otherwise obscure aspects of those texts. So, for example, her patient delineation of the many possible parental configurations for the eponymous little girl in Henry James’ What Maisie Knew echoes her previous mapping-out of multiple modern parental identities, with equal persuasiveness.

This dialogue between the different settings is achieved without losing sight of the historical specificity of the texts under discussion. Indeed, it is done by focusing on the network of social and ethical discourses, as well as literal biological possibilities, in play at the time of the text in question. For example, Bowlby reads the highly evasive narrative circling around the “secret” at the heart of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge in relation to the new, but nonetheless urgent, set of questions about disclosure or otherwise of parentage in the era of IVF and other technologies. The almost centrifugal complexity of each cultural and discursive situation is thereby revealed with new intensity.

Bowlby’s eye for detail is hawk-like, and she does not give up until she has wrung every drop of potential from her readings. From the observation that a moment of parental recognition is the subject of the only moment of nostalgic remembering in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, to the elegant suggestion that James’ Maisie “has” parents as people usually “have” children, there are new discoveries about these familiar texts at every turn. This display of tenacious clear-sightedness is concluded with a virtuoso reading of Roman Fever, where Bowlby’s intense scrutiny of a single phrase, “I had Barbara”, yields an extraordinary level of insight, primarily into the text itself but also into the larger question of parenthood. The chapter concludes with a brief autobiographical anecdote that satisfyingly places the reading in a larger literary historical context. Indeed, among the most appealing parts of this book are short sections such as this where Bowlby’s own narrative voice is heard; elsewhere she apologises, “but not too much”, for her “monomania” in now reading Great Expectations as a novel driven entirely by twin parental desires. This is, of course, a good parenting principle: to admit one’s possible blind spots, and apologise – but not too much.

The author

“I had a wonderful Latin teacher called Joan Pharo,” recalls Rachel Bowlby, Northcliffe professor of English at University College London, of her school days.

“She had helped to develop the new Cambridge Latin Course, which got you reading Pliny and Catullus almost from the beginning: Pompeii and love poetry, perfect for adolescents. Without ever spelling it out, she passed on a fascination with words and their history, and with how translation is about much more than just being accurate or not.

“Later on (at a different school in a different place), I was a lonely, over-studious sixth-former, the only one taking Greek A level. But the big dictionaries and the endless translating were a kind of solace, and that has never left me,” she observes.

Born in Billingham-on-Tees in County Durham, Bowlby lives in Heathfield, East Sussex with the younger of her two daughters; the elder is at university.

“Heathfield is unusual in having a high street that’s actually thriving (and didn’t used to be). There’s a greengrocer, a butcher and a bakery, all doing fine alongside a couple of small supermarkets. I think people are becoming more aware of the need to keep hold of local shops, especially where there’s a significant proportion of old people in a community - which now means most places.”

Were she to live elsewhere, she says, “It would have to be Paris. I’ve lived there for short and longer periods at different times and it’s never stopped feeling like an inspiring elsewhere that’s also a second home.”

Bowlby took her undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford and a doctorate in comparative literature at Yale University.

Of the latter institution, she says, “Just occasionally, reality lives up to or even exceeds the illusions, and that was what happened for me when I went to Yale, at the time the (American) centre of (mainly French) deconstruction. It was everything I’d dreamed of: the chance to take courses in all sorts of different things, and a real sense of intellectual excitement. After that I was lucky enough to teach at the University of Sussex, another place where there was a sense intellectually of something happening, and where interdisciplinarity was taken for granted.”

She has been a visiting lecturer in the US, New Zealand and France. Her experiences, she says, showed her that “there are big differences, and sometimes within a single country. But what is striking to me at the moment is the way that institutions worldwide are coming to resemble one another -at least in their website faces - more and more. A good effect of the internet is that a university in New Zealand, say, may not feel out on a geographical limb in the way that it did in the past: unlike snail mail or air travel, the email communication time from Dunedin to London is the same as it is from Dundee (or Dagenham).

The downside of this change, she notes, “is that there is a pressure for everywhere to look more or less like everywhere else, to be comparable according to the same criteria for the same league tables. In this case the presentation aspect drives the reality, so that you get the loss of distinctive features if these don’t seem easily identifiable for an outside observer - or the generic ‘prospective student’.”

Psychoanalysis has been an abiding interest in her scholarship, including the 1993 book Shopping with Freud. Asked whether she believes that the value of his work is not compromised by what many have seen as his anti-female views, she replies, “I don’t think I’d accept the misogynist premise. Essentialist, maybe, sometimes, in that he does on occasion make assumptions about female nature (and male nature, for that matter). But Freud wouldn’t be interesting if that was all. What’s remarkable is the way that he generally sees anyone’s identity, man’s or woman’s, but a woman’s particularly, as a precarious compromise. In human culture, there’s no way not to be identified as one or the other. But you end up as recognisably a woman (or a man) to the extent that you’ve had to give up all sorts of other possibilities along the developmental way.”

Bowlby has translated works by modern French theorists including Jacques Derrida. In undertaking this work, she says, “What I’ve enjoyed is trying - when possible - to go against a sort of special theoretical ‘translationese’ that became common in English versions of French philosophy - and which is often a long way from the feel of the French. It led to a kind of theory-speak, with an abstract and obfuscating tone, which was almost standard in student essays at one time.”

Her 1988 monograph Virginia Woolf: Feminist Destinations considered the Modernist literary figure’s legacy. Is Woolf an inspiring feminist and creative force or, as some scholars have suggested, a snob lacking in empathy for working-class women?

“I think the problem is that the question always gets put in those oppositional and caricatural terms. Like a crudely phrased exam question, she has to be either a) a Bloomsbury snob, or b) a socialist sister. It’s a sign of her semi-symbolic status as ‘the’ woman writer that she attracts this sort of headline labelling. The negative version isn’t much in evidence today. But this also has the unfortunate effect of putting Woolf on a pedestal: if you criticise anything about her writing you’re deemed to be damning her.”

A Child of One’s Own focuses intentionally on both fathers and mothers. Of its genesis, Bowlby says: “Initially, what struck me was how there seemed to be so few stories about parental feelings, as opposed to love stories or stories about a young person’s development to adulthood: the parental stories got swallowed up as if they were just the follow-up to one or the flipside of the other.

“So the starting point for the book was ‘parental’ in this structural sense, as distinct from any distinctions between the parents themselves. I was also interested in the way that in western societies there’s been a lessening of the differences of mother and father, with both of them now expected to be wage-earners, and both participating in that odd thing that is neutrally called ‘parenting’. So while there’s a lot in the book which is about mothers rather than fathers, and fathers rather than mothers, that question of a parental identity and its difference from other situations was where I began.

Cyril Connolly famously referred to “the pram in the hall” as the enemy of “good art”, but may not have been thinking specifically, or at all, about the challenges of motherhood. Is motherhood inimical to creativity, careers and autonomy?

“Well, this is where I do take issue with Woolf! In A Room of One’s Own, she says, in effect, it’s no accident that the four top women writers of the 19th century weren’t mothers. She doesn’t consider that a baby might positively give something of benefit to other sorts of creativity, rather than thwarting them. So another starting point for A Child of One’s Own was thinking about what a distance has been traveled since then. Parenthood used to be thought of as the obstacle to other possible lives, but now, for many, including sometimes for men, it is seen as a source of personal fulfillment. Not just the inevitable sequel to marriage (which was how it used to figure), but a distinctive lifestyle choice.”

Bowlby has written about shopping/consumer culture and about women and psychoanalysis. Are there still research subjects that fellow scholars see as “women’s interests” - and are they still undervalued as a result?

“What’s changed,” she replies, “is that if there were, no one would dare to say it! I think that what remains problematic, though, is the question of what counts as research. There’s more and more pressure to conform the way you do your thinking and writing to something that has the air of a scientific enterprise.”

Her favourite non-scholarly pastime, she says, is walking. “It’s something you can do more or less wherever you are. I’m lucky to live somewhere where you can be on a country lane or footpath a few minutes from the door, but I also like walking in towns.”

Karen Shook

A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories

By Rachel Bowlby
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780199607945
Published June 2013

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