When you start thinking about it, there are an awful lot of absent mothers in literature.
So many heroines in classic novels seem to be without a mother which is not surprising given the mortality rate during childbirth in the 19th century.
Let alone the lack of prenatal and antenatal care around in the days of multiple pregnancies – not to mention a slight disregard for pain relief and hygienic conditions …
I mean think of them: orphans Jane Eyre, Bathsheba Everdene and Eustacia Vye. Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot dependent only on paternal influence. And Henry James seems equally sparing of maternal characters, depriving both Catherine Sloper and Isabel Archer of mothers to steer them through the difficulties of growing up.
And perhaps that’s the point. With a loving and thoughtful mother in tow, the fates of these young ladies may well have been very different. Any mother of Jane Eyre would have sussed those random noises in the attic very early on. Bathsheba’s infatuation with Sergeant Troy would have been pointed out as just that and Eustacia would have swiftly been brought into line under a watchful maternal eye. And don’t even get me started on how different Catherine Sloper’s life would have been if not overshadowed by the stories and no doubt inflated memories of her late mother’s brilliance and beauty. As for Anne Elliot, deprived of marriage to the lovely Captain Wentworth on his first proposal – a living mother would have dismissed the snobbery of the rest of the family, quickly named the day and paid a call on the dressmaker that same afternoon.
So a living mother would have brought our heroines greater contentment and peace of mind – but run entirely rough shod through any sense of suspense and dispensed entirely with the writers’ plots and intentions.
Even the mothers that are granted life tend to be dubious. I mean Mrs Bennet is hardly the sort of woman you would want to reward on Mother’s Day for another year of quiet, supportive service. And for Hardy, if a mother isn’t actually dead, she tends to be feckless and ineffectual. Poor Tess hardly has the best start in life in the Durbeyfield household with a mother who seems more childlike than her wiser daughter.
Of course the contrary is also true. Some literary mothers are simply too good to be real. Marmee in Little Women is annoyingly perfect – untiring, patient, loyal, moral and religious into the bargain.
Then there’s Gertrude Morel in Sons and Lovers. I always feel sorry for Mrs Morel, a mother who has been labelled as oedipal, obsessive and the rest. For so much of the story she struggles with deprivation, tragedy, disillusionment and gives so much to Paul to encourage and lead him into having a better life for himself. No wonder she has some pretty firm ideas about his girlfriends ….
Away from literature, though, most mothers are remarkably similar to each other – living life sentences that are poised between perpetual pride, fear, hope and anxiety – with all these elements sewn firmly together by love. Utterly and unfailingly unconditional love.
Happy Mother’s Day to all of you!