Friday, 28 March 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Bad Mothers in Books



Is she perhaps neglecting her children?




Today’s entry appears at Guardian Books Online. This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the UK, and I thought it might be refreshing to take a turn round some rather imperfect parents in fiction - this is how the Bad Mothers' literary litany starts:




Mrs Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is always Exhibit A – but her real crime seems to be that she embarrasses her sensitive children. Read it as a teenager and you wince for poor mortified Lizzy and Jane, thinking perhaps of times when our own mother said the wrong thing. The older reader - more robust, a parent - can think it is the positive duty and pleasure of a mother to embarrass her child from time to time, stop them getting on their high horse. And, as apologists of Mrs B have pointed out, at least she is trying to do something about the family’s woeful situation, she appreciates the poverty and misery that will face them all if marriages are not made. Perfect Papa Mr B – so lovely, so witty at the expense of his family – appears not to give a toss about what will happen to his daughters.  
Charles Dickens had an extremely difficult relationship with both his parents – they were feckless, and he felt they let him down badly - and mothers do not come off well in the books. His picture of his own mother is Mrs Nickleby – mother to Nicholas and Kate – and is quite painful. She is incompetent, foolish, and no good in a sickroom – ‘coming into the room with an elaborate caution, calculated to discompose the nerves of an invalid rather more than the entry of a horse-soldier at full gallop’ – very unhelpful given the amount of illness and nursing occurring in the oeuvre. Mrs Copperfield, horribly, fails to protect David from his stepfather, while Bleak House’s Mrs Jellyby lets the children fall downstairs and get their heads stuck in railings because she is so busy with her charitable works….
READ MORE AT THE GUARDIAN BOOKS BLOG HERE



-- where the list moves on through the works of blog favourites such as Marilynne Robinson, Nick Hornby, Philip Hensher, Denis Lehane, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh and many others. 



Is Brenda Last thinking about child or lover?
The Jezebel.


To see all the blog pieces featured at the Guardian, click on the tab above.





9 comments:

  1. Great post Moira. I had forgotten about Lehane's GBG book/film. Condon's book sits on the shelf unread as yet.
    Brain freeze over here - struggling to think of any examples myself.

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    1. The Lehane is one of my favourites. Forget everything you read about the Condon: Guardian and I severely taken to task in the comments for spoilering....

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    2. I did read down some of the comments.......perhaps I can treat this book as read? You've saved me a job.....ha ha.....by the time I get around to it, I will no doubt have forgotten anyway! (I'll apologise in advance for teasing)

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  2. Moira - What a fascinating topic! And there are so many to choose from too. It seems to be a topic people really do explore. There are all sorts of bad mothers in crime fiction, too. Maybe I'll do a post on that at some point...

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    1. Oh please do, Margot - I haven't even skimmed the surface of bad mothers in crime books, and would love to read your take on it... And then there's fathers, and other family members.

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  3. Moira, this is an interesting post, indeed. I've never quite thought of mothers in fiction and now that you mention it, I want to read (and reread) some of the classics you highlighted, especially DAVID COPPERFIELD.

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    1. Thanks Prashant - David Copperfield is a wonderful book, and stands a lot of re-reading....

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  4. Very interesting article, Moira. I had never thought about so many bad mothers in fiction, although now that I do it doesn't surprise me. I think my mother was probably very wonderful in comparison and I have plenty of baggage in that area. And about my father and my siblings. Families are fodder for resentments.

    In principle I agree with the comments on the spoiler except that some books (especially ones made into two movies) are so well known.... and have been around so long... that you cannot really expect not to hear about the plot. So the complaints seem silly to me. Oh well. I have watched both movies and like both a lot, and sometime this year I hope to read the book for the first time and also do a post about one of the adaptations.

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  5. I thought that particular book, and its plotline, was so widely-known that it didn't seem so terrible. But I supposed it wouldn't hurt to be even more careful. Anyway, so glad you enjoyed the piece, and thanks for the kind words. There is no end to the fascination and trouble in families....

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