Good Mums in Fiction
Last year I gave the novel 'The Book Thief' to my dad. I gave it partly because it's a stupendous story, and one that I knew would have an emotional soul like my father in bits, as it did me. But I gave it mostly because the dad figure in that novel - in fact, a foster dad - is the sort of character that makes we warm and fuzzy inside: an accordion-playing, story-telling, book-loving, warm-hearted handyman who cherishes his new ward in spite of the fear and chaos that surrounds them.
Soon after, I realised that there are lots of superlative fathers in literature. Fathers who are brave and loving and straight-talking and unconventional and loyal and affectionate and down-right fun. I'm thinking of the dad in 'Danny the Champion of the World' - 'the most marvellous and exciting father a boy ever had'. I'm thinking of Otto Frank, who not only has the courage and resilience to protect his family from the Nazis, but retains his humanity and humour in the face of adversity. I'm thinking Atticus Finch who, at least until the recent release of 'Go Set A Watchman', has always been an icon for raising children to be strong, independent, open-minded and decent. Then there's Jean Val Jean, a pillar of courage and moral virtue to his adoptive daughter, Cosette. Caractacus Potts, in 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' is the archetypal exciting, eccentric, adoring dad who knows adventures are really more important than education.
Even slightly complex dads are often idealised a little by authors. We can't bear the hysteria and skewed priorities of Mrs. Bennet in 'Pride and Prejudice', but somehow Mr. Bennet's entirely irresponsible parenting can be overlooked, because he's sweet and witty and he loves his girls. Absent fathers can be beloved too: Cinderella would have been nurtured and cared for by her dad, if he had not passed away and left her to the whims of his malevolent second wife - just as Jane Eyre's stand-in father would surely have looked after her well, had his death not left her in the heartless clutches of Mrs. Reed.
I am writing a children's novel - and what does it feature? A good dad. A great dad. A dad who understands fun and imparts wisdom. And also, a complicated mother.
I'm about to become a mother myself (due date today... I'm sitting on the birth ball as I write). Now I am starting to question - where are all the wonderful mums in books? I can think of Marmee in 'Little Women' and Mama from 'The Railway Children'. Both are upstanding and admirable but don't offer that charismatic blast of sheer wondrousness that you get from the dads mentioned above. In 'The Book Thief' the mum, while ultimately supportive, is strict and aggressive. Anne Frank's mum (and of course, this is truth, not fiction) is a bundle of difficult emotions: controlling, vulnerable, angry, and unable to relate to her youngest daughter. In Shakespeare, mothers are largely missing altogether, save for the power-hungry Gertrude and baby-brain-dashing Lady Macbeth, who hardly provide maternal inspiration.
I've rolled through a number of my favourite adult novels. Emma Bovary: appalling, unfeeling mother. Catherine Ames in 'East of Eden': evil prostitute murderess. Bridget Jones's mum? Nightmare. This is before we even get to the Greek myths - or the wicked stepmothers.
I recently re-read 'The Grapes of Wrath' and found in it one mother I can look up to. The loving and protective Mrs. Joad morphs into a kick-ass warrior of a woman as her family and country suffer the worst brutality imaginable. I love her - but given the context and plot of the book, she hardly leaves me feeling comforted and cosy about motherhood.
Why the imbalance then? Is it because the the old-fashioned view of the mum as the main carer has always attracted authors to off-beat, indulgent dads? Is there a genuine impression that child-mother relationships are more complex and brittle than child-father bonds? Or are we just too influenced by the evil stepmother tropes of myth and fairy-tale?
Go on: send me some suggestions for books featuring fun, energetic, strong, determined, humorous, unfailing, eccentric super-mums. I'd like to read them in the birthing centre, please.