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.