Mothers and Daughters in Fiction

Posted on 15th March 2015 by Kate Hamer
Kate Hamer, author of The Girl in the Red Coat, discusses mothers and daughters in fiction.

In The Girl in the Red Coat the novel's narrative is told by the twin voices of a mother and daughter – Beth and Carmel. When their bond is cruelly broken apart the book tries to explore what it means to be both a mother and a daughter. I think it's great fictional territory as it throws light on one of the most scratchy, loving, complicated, enduring and interesting relationships going. It can be a push-me pull-you. It can be all out rows or sulks – it can be guilt inducing. Sometimes I feel mothers are castigated for not being perfect visions of saintliness – in other words we want them to be some ideal and not a living, breathing women in their own right with their own flaws and frustrations. In the book Carmel sometimes complains about her mother and even as a young girl has begun to feel urges to be her own person. But I think it’s a sort of yo-yo relationship, despite everything you nearly always end up coming back. Elsewhere in fiction the mother daughter relationship ranges from the loving, the annoying to the downright terrifying! These are some of my favourites.

Mrs Bennet and Elizabeth in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Mrs Bennet fusses and manipulates, desperate to have all her daughters married off to her own satisfaction. Elizabeth coolly resists and it strikes you how often mothers and daughters in stories are about a battle of wills. I love the way Elizabeth 'manages' her mother in the novel and at the same time finds her own path.

The one that touched me most recently is Edna O'Brien's The Light of Evening. O'Brien is such an extraordinary and gifted writer and when she writes about mothers it just flies off the page with searing honesty and truth. I think it's the letters from the mother in this book that moved me most, the detail – the embroidery worked over to send to her daughter across the seas from Ireland to London, the fretting and frustrations of an intelligent woman. The loss and need to connect to a beloved daughter who is inextricably linked to family yet has the desperate need to forge her own identity. This is from the heart - stunning.

For a real battle of wills you don't have to go any further than Jeanette Winterson's coming of age novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit. I love this quote from it: 'Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn't matter what.'

Actually this relationship is not so much a battle as a full out war as her mother attempts to bend the young Jeannette to her own religious vision. When Jeannette naturally rebels and at the same time begins to discover her sexuality – everything unravels.

I love mid-twentieth century writers and one of my favourites is Elizabeth Jenkins. Her novel Harriet was published in 1934. It's a devastating novel about a mother and daughter that was based on a true story that went through the courts in the late nineteenth century. Harriet is a woman with learning difficulties who is carefully looked after by her mother. When a man targets and marries Harriet for her money we witness Harriet move from being a beloved grown up daughter leading a comfortable and cared for life to an abused and neglected wife. As a reader you witness the transition together with Harriet's mother and feel so acutely her powerlessness and anguish as the story unfolds and her daughter becomes a victim of cruelty and neglect. Heart-rending but brilliant.

You don't get a much more terrifying mother figure that in Stephen King's first published novel Carrie. The novel features Carrietta 'Carrie' White. The book shows Carrie's mother – Margaret White – as a both highly unstable and emotionally destructive mother. As a religious fundamentalist Carrie is barred from most normal teenage activity – listening to rock music, having friends who are peers and is both locked up, beaten and made to pray for 'sins' that most would regard as normal teenage behaviour. What I really love about this novel is how this terrible toxic relationship and Carrie's repressed anger leads in the end not to being beaten down, but with the ability for acts of destruction that have the power to lay waste to her community. Stephen King's book On Writing for me is a must have for anyone who's wanting to write. I love 'Carrie' for the circumstances of its creation as well – after writing three pages and crumpling them up into the waste paper basket it was only due to the fact that his wife Tabitha rescued them and urged him to continue that the book ever got written.

Two books where the mothers are totally three dimensional, real selves catches are Jane F. Kotapish's novel Salvage and Emma Brocke's memoir She Left me the Gun which is subtitled 'My Mother's Life Before Me.'  The second book is about Emma Brocke's quest to find out the real story of her mother's life after her death from cancer – there'd always been mysterious hints of a very different existence to the one Emma knew in the English countryside – a life in South Africa that her mother had chosen to leave for reasons that were unclear. What follows is not only the discovery of a new country and family, but of the story of her mother's extremely troubled life. 'Salvage' by Jane F. Kotapish is a beautifully written book  – the thirty-seven year old narrator decamps from her Manhatten life and moves near her mother. What follows is a kind of dance between the two as fight to accept each other as real people.

Finally, in The Secret Life of Bees Lily Owens mother is dead and the circumstances of her death are mysterious. Lily longs for her and in a wonderful journey of escape in racially torn 1960s South Carolina she finds – as a fourteen year old white girl – a whole wonderful, eccentric clan of surrogate mothers in the black Boatwright family and their idiosyncratic religion The Daughters of Mary.


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