An Annotated edition by Anne Blombach, Nele Leitolf and Alina Pohlmann
The numbers in brackets below refer to the notes below the text.
In a busy seaport town (1) in the North of England two women (2) emerge from a low looking public house (3) near the docks (4). Both had been drinking (5), and now they had reached the quarrelling point; foul language and bitter oath (6) were hurled at each other, accompanied with much shaking of fists and threats (7). At last the younger woman dealt her companion a violent blow in the face, which silenced her for a few moments. When she recovered herself enough to speak, she saw her enemy watching her, and raising her voice to its highest pitch, she shrieked out these fearful words, with oaths to vile to mention: “May God strike your arm from your body.”
She who uttered this curse gave birth to a child (8) some months later, and who shall paint that mother’s remorse when told her infant girl (9) had but one arm (10)! She called upon God to forgive her (11), and repeated over and over again, “the curse (12) has fallen home (13). Oh! My baby, my poor baby!” It was painful to listen to her, and none could comfort her. Before many days were passed that mother received the “call” (14) and was taken to her resting place – a bad life and drink (15) had done its work rapidly and surely (16).
Oh, mothers (17) who read this story, take it to your own hearts and ask yourselves, “What am I doing to put a stop to gross language in my own family?” I have seen a mother laugh when a smart child has uttered an oath (18). But guard, I beg of you, the first “buds of bad language” (19). A man does not become a swearer all at once. It’s the mother who can watch the tender years of her children. Oh, curb their tongue early and let them not acquire even a careless habit of speech (20). Never encourage or make an excuse (21), such as, “Oh! Johnny only curses because his father does.” Rather exercise great firmness, because of that fact. Never forget God gave you your children to train for Him (22), and if by your vanity or negligence (23) you imperil your child’s soul (24), who shall comfort you (25)? I have known mothers who spend hours on their children’s hair and dress, and most anxious to give them the best so-called education (26) they could afford. They could never give them enough head knowledge (27), while their poor little souls were starving (28). God’s blessed Book might be slighted, prayers never said, the Sabbath (29) given up to worldly enjoyment, yet the foolish mother was swelling with pride at the number of lessons Polly could learn (30), and the splendid bringing-up she was giving her daughter.
Dear mothers! as a mother (31) let me beg of you to think less of their accomplishments, and more of their moral training (32). Pray with and for your children regularly. Teach them to love God and God’s people, and He will help you to carry your loved ones safely through a troublesome world into the eternal rest and joy of His kingdom (33). Oh! happy mother! who can then say, “Behold! O Lord, I and children whom Thou hast given me!”
Morey Day. (34)
- The name of the location is purposefully left out to evoke a sense of general validity independent of specific place or time.
- The women remain unnamed for the same reason. Their actions serve as a parable for “proper” womanhood in general, not the mistakes of two women specifically.
- Going out to drink at night was understood to be highly inappropriate for women in Victorian Britain. As they hereby engage in behavior that is associated with masculinity, the author suggests that the characters are unmarried. Even without familial ties, The British Workwoman warns female workers about this behaviour: “They may walk about the streets in the twilight – flirting or chatting, with noisy mirth. They may read some of the cheap trashy novels, of which there is such a large class within their reach … But, O, we entreat all British Workwomen, away from home, to beware of these ways of spending their evenings.”
- Many women worked in factories to earn money. These women were largely frowned upon by men and women who worked at home or in domestic circles. It was feared that women would become “unsexed” through factory labour. Victorian British society was highly concerned with the relative independence an employment in a factory would afford women. Long hours spent in factories resulted in concerns about women being ill-prepared for their domestic duties and a belief that female factory workers neglected their “real” work of marriage and motherhood.
- While it was socially acceptable for men to drink and spend part of their income on personal pleasure that the family was excluded from, women did not enjoy such liberties. All money earned by women would immediately become the husband’s possession and drinking was associated with masculinity. This further enforces the suggestion that both are unmarried and without family, as they have become undesirable to men through their engagement in “manly” action, such as drinking. Additionally, they have no family to attend to in the evenings, and hence have the time and freedom to spend their money on worldly pleasures. (see Joan Perkin, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England, Routledge 2002, pp. 121-2).
- The absence of foul language is part of the ideology re-produced by The British Workwoman. The magazine instructs women, as in this story, to raise their children in the absence of profanities. While this behaviour is theoretically equally frowned upon in men and women, swearing is figured as a failure on the mother’s part. Hence, it becomes a female problem and erases responsibility from sons, husbands, fathers and male members of society to refrain from profanity.
- Physical violence, like drinking, is associated with masculinity. Through it, the women in the story become further “unsexed”. Women were commonly regarded as uncontrollable and weak, likely due to their little understood gynaecology (See Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980, Virago 1987).
- Since the woman is likely unmarried and is giving birth only “some months later”, it is suggested that her child is illegitimate. This sinful birth would prevent the child from a life of Christian standards: “No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23:2)
- Gender of the child suggests that she has inherited the bad habits of her mother. Her disability makes her as “unmarriable” as her mother.
- The monstrous birth is a literary trope originating in the middle ages and linked to the divine punishment of unruly women. The nature of a woman’s punishment is inherently fitting to her transgression of socital boundaries, making the divinity of it undeniable. The woman’s responsibility in causing her daughter’s suffering is central to the punishment.
- The woman’s inability to act in conformity with Victorian expectations of her is figured as an irreversible sin. Her act of swearing is too severe for God to forgive.
- The word “curse” has a double meaning here: It is simultaneously referring to a magic curse and a slur.
- The curse has fallen back to its origin. The lack of “proper” womanhood prevents “proper” motherhood.
- The concept of a divine calling is prominent in Christianity: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 4:1) Here, the “call” implies death. Although the woman lived inappropriately, it is suggested that she “returns” to God in dying. This is echoed in (23).
- The author defines “a bad life” as a life that does not conform to Victorian gender expectations.
- Here the parable of the swearing woman turns into a direct threat to the readers: If they don’t conform to Victorian gender expectations, they will be punished by God.
- The story switches from fictional narration into a direct appeal to all mothers. It’s target audience was potentially wider than that, addressing mothers, prospective mothers, domestic servants, wives and sisters – everyone who is, or will be, responsible for raising children.
- This account of a supposedly lived experience serves to emphasise the moral degradation of women who do not scold children for “uttering an oath.”
- The author does not expand on the “first buds of bad language”.
- The narrative of a mother’s strictly structured household was prominent in Victorian Britain. Apart from The British Workwoman, various popular household manuals, such as Isabella Mary Beeton’s Household Management (1859-1861), instructed women on how to maintain a well organised household.
- Women were often glorified in Victorian Britain and attributed with moral excellence. The moral education of children is women’s work, because women were romanticised as morally greater than men. While understood as intellectually and physically inferior to men, women’s Christian virtue and supposed absence of immorality made every flaw in a child’s behaviour a personal failure. To make excuses for a child would mean admitting to moral fallibility, which disaccords with Victorian ideals of womanhood.
- This passage implies that children are on earth to serve God and lead a Christian life. This echos (14).
- A mother’s failure to raise her children using “proper language” is here identified as negligence and thereby elevated to a level of criminality.
- The author implies that a failure in preventing improper language will pose a severe threat to children. Through corruption of the soul, the child will be endangered in earthly life as well as in Christian afterlife.
- This rhetorical question points to a lack of solidarity amongst women in Victorian Britain. Women who fail to raise their children in accordance with society’s expectations, cannot expect comfort from their family, other women, or even God. A woman is only worthy if she achieves what is expected of her, otherwise, she will be singled out and left without any support.
- The author questions the value of institutional education.
- The dualism of intellectual knowledge and moral knowledge echoes the ideology of separate spheres, which was preeminent in Victorian Britain. The dogma is inherently patriarchal. It declares “the public sphere” (paid work, politics, higher education, the law) male, while confining women to “the private sphere” (housework, childcare). Hereby, the author genders knowledge: intellectual knowledge becomes male, while moral knowledge becomes the female counterpart.
- “Starving” indicates that intellectual knowledge and moral knowledge should interact. Since the Christian soul belongs to God, the deprivation of a child’s soul from “proper” moral education is deprivation from God.
- Day of religious compliance and reflection, to be spent absent from work and with family, often religious services are held. In Judaism, Sabbath is held from Friday evenings to Saturday evenings while in Christianity, it is held on Sundays.
- The author ridicules intellectual knowledge. In Western Christian traditions, pride is one of the seven deadly sins, which lead humans to immorality. The seven deadly sins are featured in sermons such The Parson’s Tale from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and artworks like Dante’s Purgatory. The remaining deadly sins are envy, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth and wrath.
- The author appeals to mothers directly, evoking a sense of urgency.
- Moral training is figured as the basis of accomplishments and a good Christian life.
- Eternal rest and joy of God’s kingdom as the ultimate reward for children’s moral education and conforming to gender stereotypes. By promising eternal rest and joy, the text partly acknowledges women’s struggles and suggests endurance and firmness to overcome them.
- The author self-identifies as a mother in the story. Their identity as a woman cannot be proven and the reader should remain suspicious about the author’s gender. “Morey” could be a variation of “Murray”.