The Grieving Mother as Landscape Gardner

Christie Margrave

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


This paper examines how grieving mothers were portrayed in women’s fiction at the turn of the nineteenth century, and shows, through close textual analysis of Mme de Krüdener’s Valérie (1803) and brief comparison with Mme de Genlis’s Adèle et Théodore (1782), how fictional mothers cope with the emotional turmoil of losing a child.

Forming a stark contrast with the indifference displayed by mothers during preceding centuries, the mother figure of the New Regime was to be loving and caring, and must nurse her child personally. This paper explores the effect of the New Regime’s vision of a maternal ideal upon the mother who is unable to live up to it through no fault of her own. It examines the image of the grieving mother as a landscape gardener who physically moulds natural space in an attempt both to communicate her emotions, and to come to terms with them.

I explore how she employs features of the natural world as a means of communicating her love to the lost child, and her emotional turmoil at losing it. In order to appreciate better the notion of nature as a means of discourse, an exploration of floral and arboreal symbolism, coupled with a study of theories of ‘garden language’ proffered by McIntosh (2005) are applied to Krüdener’s novel in particular.

Altering the natural landscape also enables the mother to stave off pathological grief and allows her emotional wounds to heal. To demonstrate this, I conjoin the study of two theories which explore grief coping mechanisms: that of maintaining a ‘continuing bond’ with the deceased loved one (Field 2008; Klauss & Kennell 1976), and the notion of identifying ‘linking objects and linking phenomena’ with the dead (Volkan 1981). ‘Continuing bonds’ – which take the form of the act of creating gardens in the case of Krüdener’s and Genlis’s fictional mothers – allow the bereaved to process the death and to begin to move on with life, whilst recognising that the deceased has been internalised within them. The physical moulding of the natural world plays a vital role in a mother’s ability to achieve the nesting process denied to her. The created garden then becomes a permanent ‘linking object’; according to Volkan’s theory, patients typically select an inanimate object which represents the dead person. In Valérie and Adèle et Théodore the very garden itself forms a symbolic bridge between the worlds of the living and the dead, creating a psychological meeting place for both mother and child, and thus enabling the mother to come to terms with her loss.

Examining the depiction of nature aids in our interpretation of the emotions explored within these texts. In a world in which the new motherhood ideal engendered a mourning process unlike those of the past, Krüdener and Genlis illustrate a novel way for the bereaved mother both to express and to deal with her emotions.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2014


  • women's writing
  • motherhood
  • grief
  • nineteenth century
  • French literature
  • landscape

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