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Joanna Trollope on her Favourite Mothers in Literature

Posted on 19th February 2020 by Mark Skinner

Joanna Trollope returns with her 24th novel, Mum and Dad, another keen-eyed observation of family dynamics written with a lightness of touch that many other authors can only dream of. In this exclusive piece, Joanna highlights the literary mothers, both real and fictional, that have fascinated and entertained her.   

Mothers. We all have one, don’t we.....In fact, if we didn’t, we wouldn’t exist, would we? And of course those mothers vary in personality, and aptitude for mothering, as much as we do ourselves. That variety is reflected in fiction in precisely the way that it happens in real life, so that there are some wonderful mothers in books, just as there are some others who are less good at it, and some who are downright destructive. If you want a portrait of an almost perfect mother,you can’t do much better than Marmee in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But if you are after a rather more nuanced portrayal of motherhood, then I would recommend the following:  

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud 

Hideous Kinky is a novel describing, really, what it is like to be dragged around as a child by a hippy mother in Morocco in the sixties - which Esther Freud describes as extremely eccentric and unexpected, but certainly never dull…..The novel is plainly autobiographical, and is an affectionate portrait of a very random upbringing.

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A wonderfully evocative trip (in both senses of the word) into the mindset of the 1960s hippy counterculture, Esther Freud’s autobiographical novel sings with bohemian mysticism and wry humour. Packed with gleefully eccentric characters and richly comic incident, Hideous Kinky is terrific literary entertainment.

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A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson 

A House Full of Daughters is a non fiction account of Juliet Nicolson’s own extraordinary heritage, which starts with Vita Sackville West’s - she was Juliet’s grandmother -  own grandmother, Pepita, ( a famous Spanish dancer, the mistress of Vita’s grandfather) and goes on to chronicle Juliet's own relationship with her mother, and then with her daughters. It’s a remarkable and candid read.

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Tracing her family line through seven generations of women, Juliet Nicolson’s absorbing group biography ranges through time and place with a remarkable sense of assurance. From 1830s Malaga to twenty-first century England, A House Full of Daughters is a hymn to a family of formidable females.
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Mansfield Park by Jane Austen 

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen is both the darkest and probably the least popular of her books. It is shadowed by the horrors of the slave trade, but also involves, in the figure of Lady Bertram, one of the idlest, most spoiled, and infantile mothers in all literature. But you have to remember that Lady Bertram lived in a period well before the Pill was even dreamed of, and had a classically hypocritical husband.

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With typically piercing insight into social position and the confines of class, Mansfield Park moves beyond the comic irony and lighter themes of Austen’s early work to ask searching questions about a number of weightier issues. Fanny Price’s uncomfortable residence at the titular country house is handled with sensitivity and depth by an author ever more assured in her craft.
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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, is both short and quietly devastating as a novel. The teenage heroine endures a very modern situation, of an increasingly controlling father and a passive, helpless mother. It’s gripping, as well  as beautifully written - and will take you no more than two hours to read. 

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A masterclass, from bestselling author Sarah Moss, in the art of the short, unnerving novel; a story of forbidden borders, haunted landscapes and bodies in danger. A chilling narrative of past secrets, violence and ritual, building to a harrowing climax.

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My Mother, Myself by Nancy Friday   

My Mother Myself is probably the classic study of mothers, what it means to be have one and to be one. It was written by the late Nancy Friday ( she died in 2017) as long ago as 1977, and is a serious non fiction examination, including interviews, with every aspect of being either a mother or a daughter. The book slides into sentimentality every so often but it is extremely thorough and worthwhile.

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A deft, insightful examination of motherhood from all angles, Nancy Friday’s groundbreaking analysis still retains much pertinent comment and argument over forty years after its original publication. Wide-ranging and accessible, My Mother, Myself is an undeniable classic of the genre.
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