Memorable Literary Mothers

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

Perhaps Marmee is too good, but she is memorable

Perhaps Marmee is too good, but she is memorable

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.

Mrs Bennet, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Mrs Bennet is melodramatic, fussy and often dismissed as shallow, in her eagerness to marry her daughters off to the most eligible suitor.

A misunderstood mother - Mrs Bennet (Alison Steadman) for the BBC's Pride and Prejudice

A misunderstood mother – Mrs Bennet (Alison Steadman) for the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice

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.

Fiona, About a Boy by Nick Hornby
In About A Boy, Fiona is the single mother of Marcus. She is bohemian, a vegan hippy who cuts her son’s hair into a bowl-cut and dresses him in dreadful, woolly jumpers, which get him bullied at school. Fiona suffers from depression and early in the book attempts suicide. Much of the storyline revolves around Marcus trying desperately to make his mother happy, so that she doesn’t want to kill herself. She doesn’t really understand her son and tries to do her best for him despite her own issues.

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.


One thought on “Memorable Literary Mothers

  1. Interesting take on this. Sigourney Weaver as the mother to the colonists daughter in the first and second episodes of the Alien’s trilogy sprang to mind as my fav. Literary in the sense that Ridley Scott and James Cameron chose to make strong references to Conrad’s Heart of darkness, expressing it in terms of feminist single parenting context in the midst of a colonial race war. My kind of momma!


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