Skip to Content


Inside Books: Mum’s the word

15 March 2012

8:20 AM

15 March 2012

8:20 AM

It’s Mother’s Day on Sunday and what could be a more thoughtful present for one’s mum than a good book? Especially a book that features a happy relationship between a mother and
her child. Surely it beats an overpriced, overcrowded Sunday brunch out somewhere, or a bunch of panic-bought, petrol-station flowers?

With this in mind, I have racked my brains and scoured the bookshelves for some good motherly books to recommend. But I’m sorry to say I’ve come up with very little. The shocking fact
of the matter is: literature seems to be nearly devoid of role-model mums.

At first I thought of recent books, alighting on The Blackwater Lightship by Colm
Tóibín and Hideous Kinky by Esther
Freud. Terrible mothers the pair of them. Lily in The Blackwater Lightship is mean, selfish and has utterly dysfunctional relationships with her two children, who barely speak to her. The
mother in Hideous Kinky might be a well-meaning hippy, but she is so negligent that she gets her daughters to beg for her on the streets of Morocco.

Going back a bit doesn’t help. Anyone fancy telling their mum they’re like Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennett? Or what about Euripides’ Medea?!! In literature, it appears that at
best mums are silly; at worst they’re murderers. Where have all the good ones gone?

Often, if there’s even a hint of a good mother in a novel, then the chances are she’s dead. There’s Mrs Craven in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, for instance. Since
her death, Misselthwaite Manor has been sunk in gloom. But it is her beloved rose garden — the secret garden — which Mary happily discovers thanks to the robin, and in which her son
Colin learns to walk. Her benign influence reaches out from beyond the grave. But giving your mother a book in which her counterpart is dead might be taken the wrong way.

One of my favourite literary mums is in another Edwardian children’s novel, E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. Mother does a
smashing job of holding everything together when Father is taken away in such dreadful, mysterious circumstances. She turns their financially-forced trip to Three Chimneys, a cottage in the
country, into an ‘adventure’ and she always makes time for her children, she’s never too busy ‘to talk to them, and read to them, and even to make a bit of poetry for
Phyllis to cheer her up when she fell down with a screwdriver and ran it into her hand’. Mother even gets herself a career of sorts, making a bit of money on occasion by selling stories. No
surprise then that her children are too perfect for words, saving lives with their petticoats, caring for injured boys and political exiles, and making that awful birthday tea for Perks the Station
Master. But there’s the rub. She’s too perfect, too saccharine, too sickeningly self-effacing. She is too much a character from a fairy tale, too idealised, lacking any believable flaws
which might allow the reader to empathise with her in the slightest. Do people like her actually exist? I fear a mother presented with The Railway Children might turn around and say,
indignantly, ‘Get real.’

There’s a similar set up with Mrs Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Again, here is a
perfect mother, caring for her children and husband above all else. Her overwhelming positivity opens the book, with ‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow.’ (Said to her son
James, who wants to go to the lighthouse.) But Woolf inserts a note of cynical criticism of this maternal figure, made all the more cutting as it is through the eyes of her daughters. We are told
that they dream of ‘a life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life, not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference
and chivalry’. Mrs Ramsay’s idyll of sacrificing everything for one’s husband and children is evidently not all it’s cracked up to be.

But really, these books are over a hundred years old. Has literature not given us any better mums in all this time? It is strange and sad that there are so few books about good mother-child
relationships — especially given that reading together is a seminal part of that bond. Think how many stories are told on mother’s knee, read by a mother to her child at bedtime.

At least when we look at stories for very young children — the ones read to them by their mothers — it’s easy to find some good maternal relationships. There’s Anthony
Browne’s My Mum, Emma Dodd’s I Love My Mummy and Jill Murphy’s Mother Knows Best to name just a few. I expect that
many newish mums will be receiving one of these as a present from an uncomprehending baby or toddler this Mother’s Day. Thanks can probably go to the father, who might be hoping for a
reciprocal arrangement when Father’s Day arrives in a few months’ time.

But once we get much past the age of five, it’s very hard to find a novel about a happy mother-child relationship. Is it really the case that as the relationship gets more complicated,
writers portray it as simply worse?

Well of course this is completely the wrong message for Mother’s Day. Luckily, publishers have cannily worked around this problem to come up with very straightforward Mother’s Day
presents from grown-up children. Keep Calm for
with its garish bright pink cover is an easy option. Classier, is Candlestick Press’s rather lovely pamphlet Ten Poems about Mothers.

Finally, for those of you whose mother might be thick-skinned enough to take a joke, Viking obviously saw the potential in Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship and have just published his latest book, New Ways to Kill Your Mother.

Emily Rhodes blogs at EmilyBooks and tweets @EmilyBooksBlog

Show comments