Dara Rossman Regaignon, Writing Maternity: Medicine, Anxiety, Rhetoric, and Genre (Ohio State UP, 2021), Reviewed by Diana Pérez Edelman
Diana Pérez Edelman
University of North Georgia, Gainesville
Dara Rossman Regaignon’s Writing Maternity: Medicine, Anxiety, Rhetoric, and Genre begins with a compelling analysis of a 2017 Facebook post by an anxiety-ridden mommy and blogger, Bunmi Laditan. Illustrative of the conflicting messages that mothers and mothers-to-be receive, Laditan’s post, as Regaignon unpacks it, is an accretion of generations of advice literature that makes motherhood synonymous with neurotic anxiety. Regaignon’s central claim, which she traces historically in advice literature, fiction, and life writing, is that “maternal concern is cultural rather than natural” (x). The aim of the study is to “understand how anxiety was written onto motherhood in the early nineteenth century—in other words, how that emotion came to be part of maternity’s affective script” (xii).
After defining anxiety using the work of Sigmund Freud, Søren Kierkegaard, and Sarah Ahmed, Regaignon deploys rhetoric and genre theory to interpret specific works in an “ecology of genres” that, she argues, contribute to the inherence of anxiety within motherhood. It is Regaignon’s contention that genre is not merely a verbal or written structure but a system (an “ecology”) that affects relationships: “to enact a genre…is to take on its structural assumptions and to participate in the rhetorical situation from which it emerges and which it (re)enacts” (19).
In Chapter 2, the author effectively explains, particularly for those of us who come from a literary studies perspective, the various elements of rhetorical and genre theory that constitute her methodology, including uptake theory and Bakhtin. Advice literature has certain uptake affordances (the possible responses, as well as restrictions, that the audience, addressee, or reader can have to a rhetorical situation) and certain update captures (effect on the audience that leads to the audience’s response/reaction). She then provides the “uptake profile” of advice literature, demonstrating that it makes anxiety synonymous with proper maternal care through enforcing a hierarchical relationship between mothers and “professional” medical men and erasing maternal agency. Within this dynamic, mothers must choose between contradictory sets of instructions, which, if not followed, are surely to be fatal to the child.
Chapter 3 looks at the rhetorical strategies of three works that deal with child death—Dicken’s The Old Curiosity Shop, the memoirs of Mary Martha Sherwood and Catharine Tait, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. The overarching rhetorical framework here is proleptic: the fearful anticipation of child death. A particularly poignant example of how genre creates the uptake capture of maternal anxiety is the novel’s serialization, which prolongs the anticipation of Little Nell’s death and is reflective, in the genre ecology, of the tendency of advice literature to insert, somewhat randomly, references to potential (and, indeed, likely) child death.
Chapter 4 uses the Derridean concept of the supplement to argue that maternal management operates paraliptically in that it performatively denies the need for supplemental care for children, specifically the lower class and racial others employed as nurses. Maternal management makes anxiety “stick” to motherhood because mothers must be constantly on the watch for the ways that non-European, lower-class ideas might infiltrate the family. This chapter is particularly compelling in its analysis of The Life of Mrs. Sherwood (1854) in which Sherwood laments the need for, but also relies on, her Indian wet nurse. After Ameena takes her son Henry to a Hindu ceremony, Sherwood agonizes over whether his soul has been damned and associates the weaning of Henry with his death several months later. This episode cogently illustrates the fragility of the white middle class nuclear family and the anxiety created by the need to employ “outsiders” who might harm the children morally and physically.
Using thing theory and studies of commodity culture, Chapter 5 traces the complexities of opium warnings in advice literature and the genre ecology. This chapter effectively connects maternal concern and maternal management to anxieties about the future of the British Empire, which rests tenuously on the opium trade and colonized peoples. Chapter 3 argued that maternal anxiety is temporal in its anticipation of child death while Chapter 4 explained that the anxiety is also spatial in that it required mothers to relentlessly supervise caregivers who were operating out of sight. Opium, Regaignon writes, “collapses the temporal and spatial axes of maternal anxiety” because one never knows when or where the nurse will give the child opium and, thus, hasten its death (140).
Regaignon’s argument about where maternal anxiety comes from is certainly compelling, but what I find most inspiring about this study is its methodology. In viewing genre as participating in an ecology that has real-life effects on specific subjects (or subject-types: mothers), Regaignon offers a new way to approach Romantic literature (or any period, for that matter). What specific emotions “stick” to other subject-positions, and can they be traced to a specific set of genres? What is the uptake profile of lyric poetry? The Gothic novel? The penny dreadful? Medical advice literature more broadly? What is the affective residue of the various genre ecologies of Romanticism? This methodology provides a new way for scholars to demonstrate the importance of literature (of all types) beyond historical artifact, an approach that is sorely needed as the humanities are continually under attack.