Drawing-rooms are always tidy

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton by Gloria Erlich
    California, 210 pp, £13.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 520 07583 8

Among the hot items at my local video store these days is a recent Hollywood thriller called The hand that rocks the cradle. A successful instance of what might be called the yuppie nightmare film, this particular contribution to the genre also manages to exploit a tear that must trouble every mother who has temporarily handed over the care of her children to another woman – not the dread that the caretaker will harm or neglect them, but the anxiety lest she win their love away. An early scene of the film adroitly converts one kind of anxiety to the other, as the audience watches the new nanny, pillow in hand, threateningly approach the baby’s cradle as if to smother him, only to discover that she is intent instead on a secret session of breastfeeding. At the climax of the film, mother and nanny battle to the death in the attic (‘It’s my family!’ the heroine exclaims), while the man of the house lies immobilised with a broken leg three storeys below. The hand that rocks the cradle capitalises on several sources of female anxiety: the entire chain of events begins when the heroine reports her obstetrician for having sexually abused her during an examination, while before the elaborate plot has run its course, it also feints with the threat of the other woman in the more familiar sense, in the guise both of the husband’s former girlfriend and in that of the nanny herself, who repeatedly attempts to seduce him. But the real horror of the film clearly emanates from the nanny’s insidious campaign to supplant the biological mother in the affections of her children.

Not surprisingly, some viewers saw the film as further evidence of the widely discussed ‘backlash’ against feminism. Though its female screenwriter denied that she had any such idea in mind, The hand that rocks the cradle does manage to suggest that letting someone else care for your children (or, for that matter, complaining about sexual abuse) can have pretty terrifying consequences. The fact that the obviously well-off heroine hires the nanny merely because she wants to build an elaborate greenhouse on her property may be meant to sidestep the issue of working mothers, but this implausible plotting only makes the act of employing a surrogate seem all the more arbitrary and self-indulgent. Each time the camera lingers lovingly on another tasteful detail of the family’s upper middle-class home, we wonder whether we are expected to fear for the heroine or resent her.

Gloria Erlich’s new study of Edith Wharton also traces the dire effects of a mother’s reliance on a nanny. Though Erlich begins with a cautious disclaimer, suggesting ‘not that surrogate nurturing is a negative practice with predictable or measurable consequences, but merely that it is likely to make some difference in the child’s inner world,’ her argument quickly takes a more melodramatic turn. A few pages later, she cites authorities who fore see inevitable loss and trauma, and warns darkly that a child who learns to divide its affections between a biological mother and a caretaker ‘will retain in its soul this early bifurcation’. For the most part, the book speaks of split psyches rather than bifurcated ‘souls’, but the solemn tone is characteristic. The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton presents its subject as a woman who heroically struggled ‘with lifelong gender problems’, nearly all of which began when the cool and remote Lucretia Jones handed over the daily care of her young child to a warmly nurturing nanny.

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