For an exciting collection edited by Hatsuko Niimi and Masashi Suzuki, titled A Firm Perswasion: Essays in British Romanticism, just out from Sairyusha, I’ve written an essay, “‘Nourishd with milk ye serpents’: Blake, Infant Nursing and Family Bonds”.
It looks at the hot topics in infant care in the late eighteenth century — breastfeeding and swaddling — and argues that Blake is at odds with his fellow radical thinkers. Swaddling was considered a symbol of oppression and arbitrary power, while maternal breastfeeding was idealized as a route to individual virtue and political regeneration. Blake, however, considers suckling as constraining as swaddling — yes, ye serpents, emotional bonds are as oppressive as physical ones. If Blake sticks it to smothering mothers and tyrannical fathers, at the same time, he sees nurses, and non-biological parent figures generally, in an interestingly positive light.
Rousseau is the granddaddy of this discourse of radical childrearing, but my special focus is on Mary Wollstonecraft, including her incredibly poignant letters to that undeserving rat Gilbert Imlay, and lessons written for her young daughter Fanny, possibly just before one of her suicide attempts. I also look at poems by Ann Yearsley, and Mary Lamb (more fraught parent-child relationships there). It’s all put in the context of medical writing (as ever, read for its literary as well as its scientific and cultural juicyness), particularly William Cadogan’s (hilarious) Essay upon Nursing, and a book by Benjamin Lara that Wollstonecraft reviewed (quite positively), An Essay on the Injurious Custom of Mothers not suckling their own Children.