A brief history of mothers in fiction, Carrie Dunn

A brief history of mothers in fiction: The marvelous, the mean and everything in between by Carrie Dunn. Published by Crooked Rib publishing which is one woman, feminist Sian Norris who is based in Bristol. This collection began life as blog posts and if you want to critique, disagree or comment you can go to the How To Be A Daughter website at www.daughtersnet.com.

To my mind, there is something quite clever about examining the role of mothers in books throughout the years, decades, centuries. It’s like the scene in Austin Powers where we segue to the henchman’s family and friends waiting for him. No one thinks about the henchman, we are told. In that same vein, does anyone think about the mothers?

Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t apparently. The role of mothering is not consistent and as Dunn starts from Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare c1594, detours via Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables to the more recent Tony Parsons, Marian Keyes and Nick Hornby we are introduced to varying roles of mothers.

But to what purpose? There aren’t enough examples to allow a pronouncement about any particular time period even though she writes “Romeo and Juliet is also a tragedy about loss, bereavement and parenting. The fact that this element is often overlooked is indicative of the way the parent-child relationship is neglected by critics, writers and readers.”

You only have to look at Hamlet (Google, 11,700,000 search results) and King Lear (Google, 99,800 search results) by the same author to realize that this isn’t true.

Nevertheless, there is a useful point about Juliet’s mother – namely that she was probably only 27-28 years old herself and had probably gone through the same experience as her daughter at being married off to an older richer man. She also suffered the loss of her only child. This is a great example with which to start the book because for one, it points out a rather sad redundancy to women as mothers when it comes to love. This is the time when a child looks away from the parent to fulfil his or her sense of being whole. I hate the term ‘other half’ but here we have a great example of a mother’s influence disappearing and the new loved one being drafted in as adviser and measure.

Some case studies were familiar to me while others are a little more obscure and needed more explanation. A summary of the story was infrequently included in the commentary. Dunn made a lot of assumptions about her readers’ knowledge: the plots, mothering stereotypes, literature critiques, and other narrative styles. I would have liked to have seen this fleshed out a bit more. Often she was answering a criticism, about a character, that she neither explained nor referenced which is a huge shame as I would have enjoyed the greater depth.

In the more modern section about mothers, Dunn writes about Tony Parsons’ work being considered a breakthrough novel, I have no idea to what she is referring. When she writes about Anne Shirley Blythe (better known as Anne of Green Gables) as a mother, she neglects to mention the whole series of literature that Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote and based around Anne herself. She is more than a mother and more detail would have added a lot to our understanding of both Anne and motherhood. Maybe even Montgomery.

This is a clever idea and Dunn makes it look deceptively simple. There must have been a lot of work that went into doing these 20 case studies. However, the limited number of stories and examples of motherhood leave me not only wanting a lot more but wanting it a bit more structured and a bit more meaningful.

Why are we reading about these mothers? What does our new understanding add to our understanding of what it means to be / have a mother? The colloquialisms, particularly the sarcasm, which work well on casual publishing formats such as blogs could maybe be augmented to thoughtful questions and insights which involve the reader.

This is a great idea and the writing is at times a pleasure to dip into but it still feels rough around the edges and too short. Hopefully we will be treated to more at some point in the future.

A Brief History of Mothers in Fiction

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