I recently came across this ridiculously interesting post (which was itself reposting images from Retronaut and The Hidden Mother Flickr Group) about hidden mothers in Victorian photographs. I find this phenomenon fascinating because of what it implies about Victorian motherhood, but I am also struck by the ensuing “Response” section debate about whether or not these were memento mori images (see subsequent post).
I am certainly not the first to observe that a conspicuous number of mothers in Victorian novels are dead or otherwise missing. Carolyn Dever, for instance, argues that these absences facilitate a Victorian domestic ideal and, conversely, the image of the “good” mother. The mother’s absence is an important element of the bildungsroman: because of her absence, subjects in novels are able to develop into complex individuals, overcoming the hurdle of a lacking home life so their narratives may resolve with the creation of a domestic ideal. As Tolstoy writes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (1). The unhappy family is the driving force of the novel, and what better way to ensure a fictional family is unhappy than to remove a vital component of that family?
The missing mother makes sense, narratively speaking, coinciding as the trope does with the development of the bildungsroman. But the existence of a “hidden mother” photographic portrait convention speaks to a cultural interest in effacing mothers extending far beyond the novel. In a Flickr discussion of the images, user Photo_History suggests that the female in the image may not be the mother, but rather a female photographer’s assistant. This is perhaps the case, but if the goal is to hold children and often babies still, it stands to reason that the mother would have better luck at this task than a stranger. Photo_History offers the following as a perfectly sensible argument: “One photo historian I have read said there would be less reason to scratch out the face of the mother than a stranger.” One would think so, yes. However, this is a culture that repeatedly effaces its mothers in its novels–a culture that, as Dever writes, was anxious about “the function of gender in the construction of origins” (xiv).
So let us assume that at least some of these women (and we can surmise from their skirts that they are predominantly women) were the mothers of the children they held. What is perhaps strangest to me is the number of women who are not wearing a black covering–something that would blend into the background, especially once the images were cropped or matted, as several have commented they would be. Instead, however, several women are draped in pattered throws:
The image on the left looks strange; the image on the right looks like it must have been downright uncomfortable. Is that a carpet? It seems extremely heavy. These throws may have been donned to camouflage the women holding the children, but they have the additional effect of transforming the mother into a piece of furniture.
These mothers are not merely effaced–they are shown to be effaced. Their absence becomes a presence in these images; indeed, it becomes the focal point of the images. These images, consciously or unconsciously, mark the mother–or the mother-proxy–as the subject of effacement.
A lamp, a chaise, a rug, a mother. Domestic objects all.
Dever, Carolyn. Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud, Cambridge UP, 1998.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin, 2000.
5 thoughts on ““Where’s Ma? Oh, she’s the one ensconced in the rug.” (Part I)”
Wow….and here I thought the Victorians staid and boring. Fascinating! Thanks!
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How do we know htese are the mothers? Perhaps the fact that they are veiled means that they are NOT the mother–a nursemaid or employee of the photographer.
Very true, Linda–many of them were likely women employed by the photographer or, as you say, a nursemaid. It’s hard to tell one way or the other, considering they are effaced. But many of them, like the woman in the first image above, are posed as though central to the family. Perhaps this, along with the way even the youngest children seem at ease being held by these women, gives us the impression they may be the children’s mothers?
Mind boggling the degree of misinformation out there that continues to perpetuate the myths of Victorian post mortem photography and hidden mothers. Even crazier that some refuse to believe there are folks out there with degrees in Victorian Studies such as myself, and we know what we are talking about. It’s understandable to a degree that people continue to believe these myths with the multitude of misinformation out there, yet refuse to believe the reason why they can’t tell who is deceased in a particular photo is due to the fact it is NOT post mortem. Hidden mothers were used to help keep small children calm in order to take a photo. Often times an assistant was beneath the shroud and the mother stood with the photographer to keep the child’s attention. Some believe the hidden mother is actually deceased and the obvious shroud symbolizes that. No truth to that what so ever. A deceased person could NOT hold a squirming child. Once the photo is cropped, edited and framed the “mother” is no longer visible. Hidden mothers were not used in post mortem photos because it was not necessary. The photo some believe is of a deceased child with the mother obviously behind her is NOT pm. The child may have been sick, possibly on the brink of death, but she is alive in the photo, her eyes and how she is holding her hands gives it away. I do not believe the photo of the older child standing next to a draped chair is a hidden mother photo unless she was developmentally delayed, because she is old enough to cooperate with the photographer.
There is also a misconception that photos took literally hours to capture. Landscape photos took hours to expose especially in the early beginnings of photography, but photos of people did not require hours of holding still. A few minutes in the beginning but as photography advanced, one needed to be still a full minute and that wasn’t exactly easy. That time was cut down to mere seconds towards the end of the era. There are also many photos with mother and child that are labeled pm when they are not pm. Closed eyes don’t always mean deceased because they often photographed small children as they slept because they were still. A good clue would be the mother’s attire, and for a deceased child she may have adorned “love” ribbons made of crape, around her neck or pinned to her clothing.