Mum's the Word: Good Mothers in Fiction
There are few words that pack more emotion and memories than 'mother'. From ever-green children's classics to contemporary masterpieces, novels have always been a rich territory for exploring the joys and challenges of being someone's mum. We have picked ten memorable mothers in fiction, each of whom must face their own unique challenges but who all share one thing: being a good mother.
Sethe in Beloved by Toni Morrison
Inspired by the real-life story of Margaret Garner – a woman who escaped slavery with her family in 1856 and was re-apprehended with tragic consequences – the protagonist of Beloved makes the most unimaginable sacrifice to save her infant daughter from life as a slave. Immensely resilient and guided by deep love for her children, Sethe remains haunted by her traumatic past, forever carrying the physical and psychological scars of enslavement.
Agnes in Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
An enigmatic maternal figure par excellence, Agnes is a gifted herbalist and healer, who roams the forests with a kestrel on her arm, as well as the free-spirited wife of the famous bard who remains unnamed. When they lose their 11-year-old son Hamnet to the plague, Agnes’s grief emerges at once exquisitely singular and universal, whilst the tragic loss leads her husband to write his greatest play. O'Farrell creates a startlingly evocative portrait of motherhood, a marriage brought to its greatest test, and of the woman who's been obscured and maligned by history.
Mother in The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
A young novelist lives on an island where things vanish – not just physically but from memory too. An unknown power causes the islanders to collectively 'forget' objects and concepts – birds, perfume, ferry tickets, harmonicas, and eventually novels – and the Memory Police sees to their removal. Still, some people cannot forget, and the novelist’s mother is one of them. A sculptor with a true appreciation for the form of things, she has been taken away by the Memory Police but has left a special legacy to her daughter. She's gone, silenced, and yet she is everywhere, still giving form to the past.
Ma in Room by Emma Donoghue
Told through the eyes of 5-year-old Jack, Room explores the power of a mother’s love in one of the most challenging contexts imaginable. Within the contours of one small room, they live in a private world that Ma fills with stories, songs, routine, and play. The safety and love provided by Ma grows ever more striking as we learn how they came to be in the room, and why the world outside has become so alien.
Mrs Weasley in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
The inimitable super mum of Harry’s best friend Ron and his six siblings, Mrs Molly Weasley first delights us with her formidable presence at King’s Cross Station, when she kindly advises Harry how to cross the barrier through to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, for the Hogwarts Express. Wonderfully loving and kind, not to mention funny, this magnificent mother can also turn into a ball of fire when circumstances so demand.
Sprout in The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang
Sprout, the delightfully rebellious protagonist of this heart-warming fable, is a hen who is tired of producing eggs only to have them snatched away and sold on. As her ambitious plan to hatch an egg takes her far from the trite humdrum of the henhouse and into the wild, an inspiring, big-hearted and courageous heroine emerges.
Lutie Johnson in The Street by Ann Petry
Having divorced her good-for-nothing husband, Lutie Johnson moves to 1940s Harlem with her 8-year-old son, determined to turn their life around and secure him a bright future. Strong and independent, Lutie is a firm believer in the American dream and idolises Benjamin Franklin, but in a neighbourhood full of racism, misogyny and hatred, the odds are stacking against her – not least because she is deemed as too beautiful to be 'decent’. An arresting depiction of maternal love, crystallised in the unforgettable character of Lutie.
Mrs March in Little Women by Louisa M Alcott
Bringing up her four ‘little women’ in the shadow of the American Civil War, Margaret ‘Marmee’ March epitomises many of those qualities most desirable in a parent: kind, generous, compassionate and just. Some might say she’s almost a little too perfect, but we won’t hold it against her. (She might ask you to donate your Christmas breakfast to your starving neighbours, though.)
Mrs Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Perfect she may not be, but Eleanor, Marianne and Margaret Dashwood’s mother certainly has the best intentions. Whilst there is little doubt who Marianne takes after in her deeply passionate but naïve outlook on life, it is worth bearing mind that Mrs Dashwood has just lost her husband and been ousted from her home by the male relative. Is it any wonder that as soon as she spots a promise of happiness for her daughters, she is desperate for it to be fulfilled?
Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
The development of an unbreakable bond between orphan girl Anne Shirley and her adoptive mother – stern and intensely private Marilla Cuthbert – is a central, touching thread in this ever-green children’s classic. Despite the orphanage sending her a vivacious girl when she’s expecting a boy who could help out on the farm, Marilla grows to love Anne with all the affection and warmth she uses so sparingly on others.
Lady Violet Bridgerton in The Duke and I by Julia Quinn
The warm and generous matriarch of the close-knit Bridgerton clan, Lady Violet is something of a Regency England rarity – a woman who married for love. Long after her husband’s sudden passing, she still mourns for him daily, and dedicates herself to treasuring their offspring.
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