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Mum's the Word: Good Mothers in Fiction

Posted on 16th February 2021 by Anna Orhanen

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.

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Part ghost story, part profound reflection on the evils of slavery, Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning masterpiece synthesises myriad themes and ideas into a scorching, emotionally devastating narrative.
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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.

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One of our greatest living novelists resurrects the short life of Hamnet Shakespeare, the Bard’s only son, in a profoundly moving account of grief, family and genius in an era where life was ever precarious.

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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.

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A nuanced meditation on the loss of identity and the transience of the self, Ogawa’s dystopian fable presents a future society where memory is malleable and recollection can vanish in an instant.
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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.

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A searing yet highly compassionate novel about confinement, isolation and boundless maternal love, Donoghue’s acclaimed novel possesses the power to transform readers’ views on the world and humanity.
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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. 

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Hogwarts, Muggles, Diagon Alley, Quidditch; the magical journey that launched a billion young readers feels just as fresh, fun and meticulously rendered as it did over twenty years ago, as a wide-eyed young wizard is sucked into an old-fashioned battle between good and evil.
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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. 

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A touching and idiosyncratic fable of truly global popularity, Hwang’s uplifting tale of fowl freedom and motherhood in the wild is a great feel-good read with a warm and welcome message.
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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.

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One of the pioneering novels of the Black female experience, Petry’s classic work centres on a young single-mother desperately trying to combat racial injustice and misogyny in 1940s New York, in order to build a better life for her son.
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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.)

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A compelling family drama set in the shadow of the American Civil War, Little Women’s titular sisters continue to influence and inspire a century and a half after Louisa May Alcott created them.
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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?

 

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Austen’s first published novel is a charming, ironic delight, rich in shrewd observation about love and loss, as the two Dashwood sisters navigate romantic entanglements in Regency England.
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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.

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A classic of children’s literature whose vibrant energy, playful humour and emotional warmth endure to this day, the charming misadventures of Ann Shirley in her adoptive town of Avonlea are a delight from start to finish.
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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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Witty and entertaining, the first instalment in Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series serves up a sparkling romance set in the world of Regency London’s powerful and beguiling elite.
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