Date of Award

Fall 12-3-2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Chair

Dr. Jameela Lares

Committee Chair School


Committee Member 2

Dr. Alexandra Valint

Committee Member 2 School


Committee Member 3

Dr. Emily Stanback

Committee Member 3 School


Committee Member 4

Dr. Nicolle Jordan

Committee Member 4 School



My dissertation explores the complex and often contradictory social construction of mothers in children's literature of the Victorian period in England (1837-1901). At once idealized to be passive, “angelic” spiritual guides for the family, a mother was also required to perform physical acts of mothering like cleaning, cooking, mending, and caregiving. These two modes were often at odds and created an impossible expectation for Victorian mothers. Moreover, the project considers mothers not solely along the biological imperative of giving birth, but rather as a role various actors perform through acts of mothering. These mother figures, or motherers, encompass both biological mothers as well as non-traditional figures such as siblings who perform the maternal role within their family. It is through exploring these various iterations of maternal agents that I examine the impossibility of Victorian mothering. Children's literature of the period in particular provides a space for authors to challenge these impossible social expectations by considering maternal figures both within and without traditional constructions.

Alongside incorporating theories of gender performativity and Victorian gender studies, I explore both canonical literary authors like E. Nesbit and her novel The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) alongside lesser known texts, including the domestic novel A Flat Iron for a Farthing (1873) by Julianna Ewing, waif stories like Hesba Stretton’s Jessica novels (1866) and Brenda’s Froggy’s Little Brother (1875), as well as the fantasy work At the Back of the North Wind (1871) by George MacDonald. I conclude that these texts represent the ongoing development of, and challenge to, social expectations of Victorian mothering and demonstrate that mothers cannot, must not, be rigidly confined to a particular model.


Available for download on Thursday, January 01, 2071