BookendsSunday Salon

10 literary mothers – the good, the bad and the ugly

It’s Mothering Day in the UK today – or to give it its secular name, Mother’s Day. A day when we are asked to show our appreciation for the women who brought us into the world. Mothers in books, just as they do in real life, come in all shapes and sizes. Some epitomise wisdom; love and thoughtfulness; others, well shall we say, reflect less desirable qualities.

To mark this day here’s a list of the good, the bad and the decidedly horrid mothers in literature.

Role model mothers

Mrs March: Little Women by Louisa M Alcott

Idealised motherhood as seen in this 1949 film version of Little Women

If you’re looking for a vision of maternal perfection, look no further than Mrs March (also known as Marmee) in Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. She’s left to look after the home and her four daughters while her husband goes off to provide religious comfort to troops in the American civil war. Using a mixture of common sense and homilies she nurtures the girls to adulthood and encouraging them to be fine, upstanding young women of whom their father would be proud. The saccharine levels in this novel are at maximum setting but if you can get beyond that, it’s easy to appreciate a woman for whom there can be “no greater happiness” than to see her daughters happy and fulfilled in life.



Helen Graham: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

The obstacles Mrs March had to overcome to realise her dreams for her daughters, are as nothing compared to the obstacles facing Helen Graham, the mother figure in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Her escape fromArthur Huntingdon, her womanising, alcoholic husband, wasn’t simply going against every standard of behaviour at the time, it was illegal. Bronte’s first readers would have been well aware that Helen, as a married woman had no independent existence in English law. She had no right to enter into contracts unless under her husband’s name; no right to sue for divorce and no rights over the control and custody of her children. When Helen thus decides to leave her husband to protect her son from his father’s corrupting influence, she exposes herself to the threat of arrest as a kidnapper.

Ma: Room by Emma Donoghue

Protection of  her son is also foremost in the mind of the mother in Emma Donoghue’s Room. Ma lives in a small space with five-year old Jack, the child born from repeated rape by her abductor. All Jack has ever known is Ma and Room; he has no concept of the world outside except what comes via their television set. It takes every ounce of courage and resourcefulness to protect and nurture her son, making the best of  the limited resources at her disposal.

Questionable behaviour

Paula Hook: Tomorrow by Graham Swift

Late at night a mother mentally rehearses a conversation that will take place the following morning when her husband will reveal a secret that’s been kept hidden for sixteen years. Paula traces the history of her marriage, from the time when as students in Sussex she first met the biology student Mike. She holds nothing back – tomorrow will be a revelation that might destroy their family so she believes her children need a full understanding of the background. Her marriage has been a very physical relationship she imagines telling 16-year-old Nick and Kate. And then goes onto provide the kind of details  I suspect most teenagers simply don’t want to know about their mother.

Mrs Bennet: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennet in BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

Austen portrays Mrs B as “a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper”. She’s made a comic figure, a gossip who has a habit of putting her foot (or in her case her mouth) in it to the detriment of her elder daughter’s hopes of marrying an eminently desirable wealthy young man. But despite her flaws, it’s difficult to be too harsh on this woman. Her actions, as crass as they are on times, are driven by economic necessity.  She has five daughters and lives in an age where, if they do not secure a good marriage, they will be reduced to earning their own income as seamstresses or governesses.  Faced with that precarious existence, even marriage to a scoundrel like George Wickham is better than spinsterhood in her eyes.

Lady Arabella Gresham: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Another mother who plots and schemes to get her offspring married. Lady Gresham is married to a squire whose estate is in a precarious state so it’s imperative that the heir Frank Gresham, marries a wealthy woman. It matters not to his mother that his heart is set on a sweet young lady from the village. She will do everything possible to see that Frank comes to his senses and puts his own family’s needs ahead of his own interests. This is a woman who risks alienating her son, her husband, her medical adviser as a result of her determination.
Emma Bovary: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Does Emma deserve sympathy or condemnation? Is she simply a hopeless romantic who yearns to escape marriage to one of the dullest men on earth? Or a manipulative little minx who runs up debts because she can’t stop spending money on frivolities?  Whichever way you choose to look at Emma’s character, the reality is that her frustrations with the banalities and emptiness of her provincial life  have a long term impact on her daughter Berthe. Left an orphan, the young girl is taken into the care of her grandmother. But when she in turn dies, Berthe is despatched to live with an impoverished aunt who forces her to work in a cotton mill; exactly the kind of life Emma was desperate to avoid.

Beyond redemption? 

‘The Mother’: Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Pity the girl who has this woman for a mother. Ostensibly a devout woman of her fundamentalist religious community, this is a woman whose zeal disguises a lack of compassion and goodness. Having adopted Jess she plans to make her a servant of God. But when the girl doesn’t conform to the required behaviour is locked in her room without food and subjected to physical assault. Later when the girl discovers she is a lesbian she is publicly condemned by her mother and forced to go through two lengthy exorcisms.


Corinne Dollanganger: Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews 

Few readers get to the end of this novel viewing Mrs Corrine Dollanganger as anything but a horror figure. Ok so she is left in debt when her husband, the father of her four children, is killed in a car accident. Understandable that, with no skills of her own to help her get a job, she moves in with her estranged wealthy parents. But when her mother Olivia, insists the children must be hidden from their grandfather, and confines them to an attic wouldn’t you think any self-respecting mother would say no way? Not Corinne. But then what mother would abandon her children for weeks and then poisons them so she can keep her inheritance.?  And what kind of grandmother is this that no only colludes in this horrific behaviour, but is one of the main perpetrators?

Medea: Medea by Euripides

If only Corinne and Olivia were the worst models of motherhood it would be possible to imagine. But we have only to look back a few centuries to find a figure of equally horrific proportions. I wonder if William Congreve had Medea in mind when he wrote:

“Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” (The Mourning Bride)

When Medea discovers her husband Jason has abandoned her for a younger model, she unleashes her fury on his new bride, sending her a dress soaked in poison. Jason reproaches her but she’s having none of it and in revenge kills their two sons. Medea’s rationale is that when a woman “is wronged in the matter of love, no other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood.”  Now you’d think this would be the kind of behaviour guaranteed to make the Gods extremely angry with her. What they actually do is to send a chariot to pick her and and transport her to a new life in Athens. I wonder what the Greeks in the audience thought of this benevolent outcome?



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

35 thoughts on “10 literary mothers – the good, the bad and the ugly

  • I love that you mention Helen Graham from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall!! The courage and determination she had to raise her son well, to care for his soul and mind as well as his body – for her, ‘future prospects’ wasn’t all about finance, but character – that despite the difficulty and the obstacles and discouragement, she leaves a domestic violence situation for the sake of her son.

    • Sorry, I posted too soon there.

      I meant to say that Mrs. March was a fabulous mother. What a great choice.

      And Corinne Dollanganger was so terrible. I was legitimately angry with her the first time I read Flowers in the Attic.

      • Mrs M has some interesting ways of teaching her daughters – I like the way she decided to take a day off and so made them understand what was involved in running a house

  • I enjoyed this… Balzac is full of mothers, either saintly or manipulative, nothing in between!

    • I’d like to read more Balzac, so far I’ve only read one though loved it

  • I loved this blog entry, although I think that Madame Bovary should be demoted. And Charles Bovary’s mother is no prize! There are so many already dead mothers in Victorian novels! Trollope has a few living mothers who are good, but none of them are really major characters if I recall correctly.

    I love the mothers in _White Teeth_ by Zadie Smith. They are not without flaws, but they are wonderful characters–Clara Jones and Alsana Iqbal. Joyce Chaffinch is a nurturing mother, although over the top sometimes.

    • You’ve given some good food for thought here – I’d forgotten about the original Madame Bovary.

  • thehungryreader

    Love the idea but no Anna Karenina here? Surprised by that 🙂

    • I was hoping people would think of other mothers so thanks for adding to the list. It’s so long ago that I read AK that I’d forgotten about her in the context of motherhood.,

  • Love this list! Maybe the Greek men in the audience for Medea thought twice about trading in their wives for younger ones after seeing the play! 😉

  • Flowers in the Attic – I’d forgotten about that mother. I was obsessive about those books when I was a teenager. Great post!

  • Great list – The Mother in Oranges are not the Only Fruit – horribly unforgettable.

  • Great post! Some of these made me laugh. 🙂

    • it’s very kind of you do that Marit. Of course I don’t mind – I’m delighted!

  • Love this post. Medea surely is the most terrible of all mothers. Although I do love to loathe Mrs Bennett. Helen Graham from The Tennant of Wildfell Hall is a heroine to me.

    • Mrs B makes me cringe – especially during that scene at the ball where she boasts about how Jane is going to be hitched to Bingley. But I also have a soft spot for her

      • Now that is one I have on the shelf, I’m pleased to say!! Saving it for August, for my #WomenInTranslation reading.

  • Reblogged this on Bøgernes labyrint and commented:
    Det er tilsyneladende Mors Dag hos vore engelske og irske broderfolk. I den anledning har min kollega på Bookertalk publiceret denne liste over bøger, der portrætterer gode – og ikke så gode mødre. God fornøjelse ❤

  • Love this post! What a great idea for mothers’ day.

  • Ah, yes, mothers in books and in real life do come in all varieties, don’t they? I always wanted Marmee as mine, but in later years, I thought she was a little “preachy.” LOL.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • i appreciate she is doing everything out of love but yes a bit too preachy for me also


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