When my dear friend Hazel Davis started up her How To Be A Daughter website as research for her own book, she asked me if I’d be able to contribute something.
Initially, she asked me to write a piece about feminism, mothers and daughters; but then I suggested a feminist-slanted piece about mothers and daughters in literature instead.
And then that idea snowballed.
I dusted off some of the books I read for my degree, dug out books that I loved as a child, and revisited them with grown-up, literary critic eyes, putting together pen-portraits of some of the best mother characters in fiction – and quite often wondering why they’ve had such a poor deal from many readers and reviewers.
For instance, Capulet’s wife – I mean, we’re always reminded how young Romeo and Juliet are, but it’s easy to overlook just how young Capulet’s own wife is. She was fourteen when her daughter was born, making her only around 27 or 28 during the play – very young to be dealing with the grief of losing all her children – and married to a man who’s many, many years older than her. Her life cannot be a lot of fun, and when her teenage daughter starts being disobedient, it’s no wonder that she’s so angry (16th-century parents would have expected unquestioning obedience from their offspring, and a good beating, such as the rage we see from Capulet, would have been seen by many as justified).
And Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – modern critiques mock her for her single-minded determination in wanting her daughters to get married to financially well-off husbands, but since when does that make her a bad person? By the standards of Jane Austen’s time, there was little else for the matriarch of a gaggle of girls to do.
And then there’s Bridget Jones’s mother, whose continued insistence on setting her daughter up with eligible bachelors is annoying, but she does have her best interests at heart. It’s not as if Bridget is happy being single – she clearly wants a boyfriend – and although one could argue that a good course of psychotherapy might be of more benefit, trying to find her a nice chap isn’t a bad thing to do. She tells Bridget right from the start that the quest for “the perfect man” is simply unfeasible and ridiculous, because everyone is flawed. And she keeps telling her that if she’s going to have a decent relationship with a man, she is going to need to compromise – but it takes a heck of a lot of drama for her to understand the value of the advice.
So five months later, what was a little blog is now a book – Mothers in Fiction: The marvellous, the mean and everything in between. There are 20 light-hearted (mostly humorous) sketches of characters viewed through a feminist lens. You may disagree in places – and to be honest I’d be disappointed if you didn’t – but in the meantime, who do you think are the best mothers in fiction?