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Sarah Vaughan on her Favourite Bad Mothers in Fiction

Posted on 28th February 2021 by Mark Skinner

Sarah Vaughan's compelling thriller Little Disasters take a disturbing yet sensitive peak behind the facade of seemingly perfect motherhood. In this exclusive piece, Sarah highlights her favourite malicious, malevolent and muddle-headed mothers in literature. 

Little Disasters, my new novel about the darkest reaches of motherhood, begins with a mother overwhelmed by her screaming baby and the sense that this is more than she can bear. The novel explores how the loneliness of early motherhood can fracture a woman’s identity and cause even experienced mothers to risk danger. Much of it is written from the point of view of Jess, an affluent mother-of-three, who is struggling. While I hope the reader is sympathetic, it’s clear her mothering is less than ideal…

It turns out I’m exploring fertile ground. Competent mothers don’t make for compelling literature, while flawed and morally ambiguous ones speak to our darkest fears. If they’re negligent or cruel, it seems we can’t stop reading about them, and if they dare to be sexually active or voracious, we’re even more intrigued and judgmental. Here, for Mother’s Day, are some of the worst mothers in literature.

Mrs Wormwood in Matilda by Roald Dahl

The role of mothers in children’s literature is largely to be dead or preoccupied (think Harry Potter, Danny the Champion of the World, Swallows & Amazons, Alex Rider, the Young James Bond) so that the main characters can get up to adventures undeterred. Alternatively, they can be so cruel our child protagonist has to break away. Nose-picking Mrs Wormwood views her intelligent daughter as a “scab” she can’t wait to throw away. Dahl reveals a strong strain of misogyny in his depiction of fat, bingo-playing, platinum blonde (with dark roots) Mrs Wormwood who “doesn’t encourage reading books” and resorts not just to TV dinners, but ones bought from the chip shop. When Miss Honey offers to bring up Matilda, she agrees with alacrity.

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A darkly hilarious tribute to the joys of reading, fizzing with invention and imagination, the tale of book-loving Matilda Wormwood’s quiet revenge against her grotesque guardians possesses real emotional depth.
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Mrs Bennet in Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

While Mr Bennet is equally weak in contracting out the pursuit of his daughters’ suitors to his wife, Jane Austen is most savage in her caricature of Mrs Bennet. “A woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” obsessed with the financial necessity of getting her five daughters married without a care for their future happiness. (How exactly would Mr Collins and Lizzy work out?) Snobbish and vulgar, she ensures Jane becomes ill by sending her out in the rain to snare Bingley. But it’s her indulgence of headstrong Lydia that is seen as the most reprehensible since it threatens to bring shame on the family and means the youngest Bennet sister is stuck with caddish Wickham forever.

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Impeccably crafted in flawless prose, the delightfully witty courtship of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy is brimming with Austen's characteristic playfulness and comic irony.
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Mrs Winterson in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

“My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.” So begins Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. Zealous and hypocritical, Mrs Winterson beats the young Jeanette when her real mother comes to find her and locks her in the dark with no food for 36 hours when she discovers she’s gay. She then kicks her out with the words: “You’ll have to leave. I’m not having demons here.”

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Tackling expansive themes with tenderness and acuity, Jeanette Winterson’s beautifully nuanced and wickedly funny autobiographical novel takes a rueful look at dogmatic religion and burgeoning sexuality.
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Adèle in Adèle by Leila Slimani

Leila Slimani’s eponymous heroine, like Anna in Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, has been seen as a modern Emma Bovary. But Adèle is far more narcissistic and her addiction to often dangerous sex with strangers – she ends up asking two drug addicts to smash her genitals – means she is all too ready to abandon three-year-old Lucien. “Lucien is a burden, a constraint that she struggles to get used to… Adele isn’t sure where her love for her son fits in among all her other jumbled feelings: panic when she has to leave him with someone else; annoyance at having to dress him; exhaustion from pushing his recalcitrant buggy up the hill.”

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An erotic and daring story - with electrically clear writing - this masterclass in wire-taut literary terror from the author of the chilling Lullaby will captivate readers with its exploration of addiction, sexuality, and one woman's quest to feel alive.
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Eleanor Melrose in the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn

Drugged-up, distant, self-absorbed, and incapable of standing up to her sadistic husband, Patrick’s mother turns a blind eye to her five-year-old son being raped by him, despite having been raped by him, herself. That night, Patrick sits on the stairs waiting for her to come up, but she bows to her husband’s belief he shouldn’t be “mollycoddled”. Her “desperate affection” sounds “like a long-distance telephone call”, and when Patrick is cut by glass, she feels “impaled...while she considers the horror of her position.” In old age, Eleanor, whose favourite charity is Save the Children, disinherits him, giving estate to a New Age charlatan. As Patrick laments, in Mother’s Milk, “She was always a lousy mother, but I thought she might take a holiday at the end of her life, feel that she had achieved enough by way of betrayal and neglect.”

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A tour de force of multi-layered characterisation and whip-smart, withering prose, the Patrick Melrose books are epic in scope yet profoundly intimate in their richly observed humanity.
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Lydia Fitzsimons in Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

Reclusive, mercurial, obsessive, snobbish, and obsessed with appearances, Liz Nugent’s monstrous mother manipulates her son, Lawrence, to such an extent she even drugs him to control him. “Motherhood is not a game” she proclaims at one point, and, chillingly, “I gave birth to him, and therefore he is mine.”

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A pulsating, truly chilling novel about maternal manipulation and control, replete with monstrous characters and a relentless ratcheting up of tension, Nugent’s gothic thriller is a wildly enjoyable ride.
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Martina Lamb in The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Martina Lamb in Lisa Jewell’s number one bestseller The Family Upstairs is “not the best mum, but not the worst”, and yet she is brainwashed into allowing the charismatic David to take over her Cheyne Walk mansion, siphon off her family’s assets, and inflict violence. As she explains to her incredulous son, Henry, when he questions how long the cultish leader will stay. “It’s, well, it’s about me I suppose. It’s about how I feel about myself and how I’ve felt so sad for so long and how all of this,” she gestured around her grand bedroom… “doesn’t make me happy, it really doesn’t. And then David came and he’s shown me another way.”

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A textbook example of meticulously crafted plotting and incremental dread, The Family Upstairs unspools its labyrinthine story of mystery and intrigue in set-piece reveals of the highest calibre.
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Mother in Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

The mother in Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange only appears in flashbacks and yet her waspish comments weigh heavily on her repressed daughter, Frances. Bedridden and controlling, Mother pinches her hard enough to leave a mark when she thinks she’s eating too much; and Frances wears her constricting underwear as a reproof. But it’s the blame cast for the failure of her marriage that’s most poisonous: “Mother used to say her stretch marks were my fault; that I had ruined her body, and if it hadn’t been for me she would have been unscarred and tight like her childless sister, and Father wouldn’t have strayed.”

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Set during a sultry summer in 1969, Bitter Orange evokes lazy, sun-dappled hedonism punctured by jealousy and deceit, in a skilfully woven tapestry of rich, sensual prose.
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Mariah in Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

In Lucy Atkins' forthcoming literary thriller, Magpie Lane, Mariah, a Danish beauty with a “hard-won instinct for preservation”, is a reluctant stepmother to nine-year-old, mute and bereaved Felicity, who she makes little effort to understand. Dee, the narrator, is increasingly appalled by her self-absorption - it’s telling that Mariah’s career involves restoring old wallpaper; something superficial that papers over cracks. But pregnant Mariah might have her comeuppance. As Dee notes: “A colicky infant can turn even the most glamorous Scandinavian into a ragged lunatic.”

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Making the very most of its evocative Oxford setting, the latest psychological thriller from Lucy Atkins features a mysterious disappearance, an unorthodox residence and a nanny who may not be all she appears.
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Comments

Irene Broughton

An excellent, informative article. Good suggestions for future reading. Thank you. View more

Irene Broughton
12th March 2021
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Alison Sales

I enjoyed reading this and it gave me some good ideas about what to read next. View more

Alison Sales
5th March 2021
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