Mother’s Day has just passed and offers us a good excuse to look at literary mothers. I threw the topic open to the whole Writers Anon group and we had an interesting discussion, over the week. What we discovered is a surprising dearth of literary mothers, outside certain genres. Of course, children’s fiction throws up a few, however, fathers are still more likely to come to mind; Atticus Finch, Jean Val Jean, Magwitch e.t.c. Literary mothers tend to be tortured; think Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Urbevilles, Angela, in Angela’s Ashes or Katherine Earnshaw. Literary mothers are either dead before the story begins, die at a suitably dramatic moment or one of their children dies to serve the story.Being largely dominated by male authors, literature prefers to focus on women when they’re young and unmarried. Well, it’s easier to fantasise about a footloose and fancy free young thing, isn’t it?
So, Writers Anon put their heads together. We’ve sifted through the wicked stepmothers, paragons of virtue and martyrs to motherhood to create our list of memorable literary mothers:
Margaret “Marmee” March, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Marmee is the female equivalent of Atticus Finch, just without the social stature and career, but we can’t have everything. She is the moral and emotional rock for the March girls. She is central to the novel and I think it’s telling that the Wikipedia entry for this novel has Marmee way down the cast of characters. Mothers are sidelined at every turn, even one as good and patient and loving as this one.
Marilla Cuthbert, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Marilla is the reluctant mother of a girl, as she thought they were getting a boy from the orphanage, to help on the farm. She wants to send Anne back, but Marilla’s brother, Matthew, is charmed by the red-haired girl with a highly romantic outlook on life. Marilla is the hard, disciplinarian, who doesn’t have time for Anne’s flights of fancy. She’s there to try and shake some sense and practicality into the girl. Sometimes she’s tough on Anne, but ultimately she grows to love her and is proud of the woman Anne becomes.
Marisa Coulter, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Lyra Belacqua’s mother from Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Mrs Coulter is, for the greater part of the Dark Materials, the antithesis of the good mother. She is driven, mercurial, distant and predatory, her love is powerful and has a potent destructive effect on her daughter and her daughter’s young companions. Yet, despite her cruel failings and ambitions, Mrs Coulter eventually finds a form of redemption and reconciliation.
However, as a mother of five daughters, with no inheritance coming their way, Mrs Bennet is only too aware of the risk of waiting for love, rather than marrying for security.She just wants to ensure her daughters don’t end up poor, leaving them with even less independence and social voice, at a time that wasn’t kind to women. Meanwhile, Mr Bennet is often seen as the loving, sensible one, when really he seems fairly unconcerned by the fate of his daughters, if they don’t marry well. So, perhaps history has been unkind to Mrs Bennet – perhaps she’s the most practical of the two and just wants the best for her girls.
Charlotte O’Keefe, Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult
Charlotte is the mother of a child with brittle bone syndrome. Set in the US, the story tells of Charlotte’s desperate struggle to afford good medical care for her child. She discovers that if she can stand up in court and convince them that she would have terminated her pregnancy, if she had known about her child’s condition, then she could get a large pay out. The money could cover medical costs for years to come and give her daughter a better life. For this, she risks her relationship with her daughter (amongst others) in order to attempt to make her daughters life better. She is a mother determined to do absolutely anything for the love of her child, even though others don’t always understand her actions.
Which literary mothers would you add to the list? Who have we forgotten? Chastise and remind us below.