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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?

 

Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Dr Thorne by Anthony TrollopeIs there no place to hid from news of (alleged) election shenanigans. First we had allegations of  voter fraud and wire-tapping in the US presidential race. Then came claims the British electorate was misled about the impact of the referendum on future membership of the EU. And now we have accusations about misuse of public funds against one of the candidates in the French presidential elections. Surely if I buried my head in Anthony Trollope’s Dr  Thorne, a novel set in a quiet English country village, I would be free from such issues?. Not a chance….  Mr Trollope had a surprise up his sleeve.

Dr Thorne is the third of the Chronicles of Barsetshire series. In the first two – The Warden and Barchester Towers  Trollope concerned himself with the insular ecclesiastical world of a cathedral town.  In Dr Thorne we move to the countryside and an entirely different pillar of society- the landed gentry in the shape of Squire Gresham and family. They’ve lived at Greshambury Park as the foremost citizens of this part of the county of Barsetshire for many generations but these are precarious times for the Greshams. They are beset by financial difficulties, most of which originate with the Squire’s wife Lady Arabella. As a descendant of the aristocratic De Courcy family she firmly believes she has a certain status in life that must be maintained. This means she absolutely must have a house in London so she and her daughters can enjoy The Season. And of course the said property has to be refurbished to the standard befitting her position. Her most damaging measure however was to encourage the Squire to seek election to Parliament. Now after two unsuccessful bids, both of which involved the outlay of vast sums of money, the Squire is having to sell off part of his land and take out a loan.

The family’s only hope for the future lies in the son and heir Frank. There is no doubt at all in Lady Arabella’s mind but that  “Frank must marry money’” if they are to avoid the unthinkable, the loss of the estate. There is just one obstacle in the way of her determination to find him a rich heiress as his wife: Frank is in love Mary Thorne, the niece of the local doctor. Though she’s been hitherto welcomed at Greshambury Park, she is considered totally unsuitable as Frank’s wife. Not only doesn’t she have a bean to her name, she comes with the taint of illegitimacy and murder. What the Greshams don’t know – and neither does Mary – is that she’s an heiress to a large fortune.

Most of the novel is concerned with the romantic problems of Mary and Frank. Will Frank remain true to his childhood sweetheart or will the needs of his family prevail? it’s a story line that enables Trollope to weave in themes of class and lineage versus integrity and loyalty. Which matters most asks Trollope – to marry someone who is inherently good and honest even if they don’t have the right family credentials or to marry someone with money and breeding but without love? Lady Arabella’s view on this is quite clear and she’s prepared to take drastic action and sacrifice everything – her son’s happiness, Mary Thorne’s reputation and even her own medical treatment – to get her way. Her husband is more inclined to hope Frank’s passion for Mary is just a phase that will pass so he adopts more of a ‘wait and see’ stance. Two of the Gresham daughters fare very differently in the ‘money or love’ debate. One of them is jilted by her fiancé when he sniffs a chance to cut a more lucrative deal with a wealthy heiress but her sister, though also hampered by a very small dowry, gets to the altar because her fiancé declares he wants her and not her money.

anthony-trollope

Anthony Trollope

It isn’t just the Greshams who are concerned with status. Some of the other characters are equally keen to rise up in the world, such as Sir Roger Scratchard. Once jailed for murder this humble stonemason became a wealthy man as the developer of ports and railways. Proving of invaluable help to the Government, he gets rewarded with a baronetcy despite his predilection for vast quantities of alcohol. But this title is not enough for him – he wants to be an even bigger Somebody with Influence – a member of Parliament no less. And so he throws his hat into the election ring, giving Trollope a chance to satirise the dubious electioneering practices used by the aspiring politicians of his day.  During the campaign, Scratchard’s opponents paint caricatures of him around the area, portraying him as a labourer “with a pimply, bloated face …  leaning on a spade holding a bottle in one hand” and throw a dead cat at him at one of the hustings. Unfortunately one of his election team sails too close to the wind when trying to secure a key voter, leaving Scratchard facing a prosecution for bribery.

Every kind of electioneering sin known to the electioneering world was brought to his charge; he had, it was said in the paper of indictment, bought votes, obtained them by treating carried them off by violence, conquered them by strong drink, polled them twice over, counted those of dead men, stolen them, forged them, and created them by every possible, fictitious contrivance; there was no description of wickedness appertaining to the task of procuring votes of which Sir Roger had not been guilty, either by himself or his agents.

Now you might very well draw some parallels between that situation and some more recent events. But in the vein of House of Cards “I couldn’t possibly comment. “

It’s good fun though Trollope is using the election campaign and Scratchard’s fate to counterpoint Lady Arabella’s belief that money is everything. Having been disgraced, Scratchard is forced to acknowledge that though he is still a wealthy man, this is of little comfort – what he has valued all along is to rub shoulders with the great and the good.

Money had given him nothing but the mere feeling of brute power; with his three hundred thousand pounds he had felt himself to be no more palpably near to the goal of his ambition than when he had chipped stones for three siblings and sixpence a day. But when he was led up and introduced … when he shook the old premier’s hand on the floor of the House of Commons, when he heard the honourable member for Barchester alluded to in grave debate as the greatest living authority on railway matters, then indeed, he felt that he had achieved something.

Trollope packs a lot into his novel. Dr Thorne is consequently rather baggy, especially when it deals with the backstory of the Gresham’s declining financial situation. Trollope was so aware of this that he apologises to his reader for the fact the novel begins with “two long dull chapters full of description”.  He also acknowledges that readers might find the young, energetic Frank more interesting than the real hero, the middle aged country Doctor. Yet Dr Thorne is one of the two most interesting characters in the novel for me. He acts as the novel’s moral compass, confronting a personal ethical dilemma (should he reveal the secret of Mary’s impending fortune) with fortitude and refusing to instruct Mary in how to deal with Frank’s continued declarations of love, preferring instead that she work out for herself the best course of action. Even in the face of insults from Lady Arabella and Sir Roger’s wayward son, he shows great forbearance. Essentially he is an all round good egg. 

But pride of place as a character has to go to Lady Arabella Gresham. She’s a magnificent portrait of a thoroughly selfish woman, so imbued with notions of her status that she cannot see the damage she causes through her manipulative treatment of her daughters, her son and even her husband. The one person who is more than a match for her is the doctor. Despite her best endeavours to break off the relationship between him and the Squire, it’s the doctor to whom her husband turns for support and with whom, ultimately, she herself has to find a compromise. How would Lady Arabella fare when confronted with Trollope’s other superb harridan – Mrs Proudie the Bishop’s wife last seen in Barchester Towers. Now that would be an encounter I’d love to see……

Footnotes

The Book: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope was published in 1858 as the third in his Barchester series. According to Ruth Rendell in the introduction to my edition, the idea of the plot was suggested to Trollope by his brother.  A television adaptation by Julian Fellowes (scriptwriter for many classic adaptations) was broadcast in the UK in 2016.

The author:  In addition to giving the world two series of best-selling novels, Anthony Trollope left a permanent mark on British society with his introduction of the Royal Mail pillar box in 1874. These were painted green initially but changed twenty years later to the red that exists today on every post office collection box in the country. Trollope was working as a civil servant at the Post Office at the time – an occupation he continued until 1866. More information about his career and writing can be found at the Trollope Society website. 

Why I read this novel: I enjoyed The Warden and Barchester Towers so much I decided to read all of the Chronicles of Barsetshire novels in order. Dr Thorne is one of the titles on my Classics Club list.

 

 

Snapshot November 2015

It certainly didn’t seem like the first day of November today. Roses are still in bloom in the garden and there are still some blossoms on the fuschia bush. The reading on the car temperature gauge said 15C which is extraordinary for this time of the year in the UK. If you ignored the colour of the trees, the skyline today had more of an impression of June. I overheard someone say that Indian summers are often the herald of harsh winters. Hope that prediction proves to be inaccurate since I hate cold weather.  Enough of this, what am I up to on this fine day?

Reading

the little red chairsI just managed to finish  my Classics Club spin by the deadline of October 31, reading the final few pages yesterday afternoon. It was the second time I’ve read Adam Bede by George Eliot and the re-read was even more enjoyable than the first experience. I also finished Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs which is her first novel for 10 years. It begins in a small community in Ireland when a stranger arrives and sets up in business as a faith healer. the village is enthralled, until they discover he is a notorious war criminal on the run from justice. But for one local woman the stranger’s attraction has devastating consequences.  I’ll be doing a review for the next issue of Shiny New Books so will hold back from commenting on it here except to say that O’Brien’s novel has a very contemporary feel because it gives a voice to   immigrants and refugees from violence.

Having finished these two novels, for my next read I’ll either turn to Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover which is due for publication on Nov 5  or I’ll pick up the threads once again of The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. This is part of my Booker project but I’ve been reluctant to start reading it until now because I’ve not had a great experience with Murdoch in the past. The Sea, The Sea however has been a pleasant surprise.

Listening

I’ve had an old favourite on the car audio system for the past week, The Warden by Anthony Trollope. Its the first book in his Chronicles of Barchester series and although it’s familiar, its still highly enjoyable. I’m planning on progressing to book two, Barchester Towers,  in preparation for reading the third book in the series Doctor Thorne.

Watching

Tonight there is a treat in store with Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellan in a TV adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser, which tells the story of the relationship between “Sir” – the manager and star of a grubby, third-rate touring theatre – and his personal assistant. The play was a huge success when it was staged first in 1980 and went on to become an equally successful film staring Tom Courtney as the dresser and Albert Finney as “Sir” .  With actors of the calibre of Hopkins and McKellan I’m sure this is going to be a performance to savour.

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