Ahead of Mother’s Day, we look at some of the best mother-daughter relationships in literature.
Mother-daughter relationships – in their fractious, complex, touching and life-changing glory – are having their moment in the cultural spotlight, largely courtesy of Academy Award nominee Lady Bird. The film follows a year in the life of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson, with much of the film focusing on her relationship with her mother, Marion.
But depicting relationships like this are not new – in fact, mother-daughter relationships have been beautifully illustrated in multiple literary guises.
Here, members of the Stylist.co.uk team share their favourite mother-daughter relationships in books – from the complex and difficult to the sweet and touching.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith is a very fine writer. Too fine for me to try to encapsulate in a single limp sentence. Just know that Swing Time – her most recent work of fiction – says a lot of piercingly true things about several of Smith’s favourite subjects; race, class, sexuality: the usual suspects.
Swing Time is primarily a book about seeking one’s place in the world. But a strand of the novel revolves around the impersonal relationship between the unnamed mixed-race narrator and her intelligent, ambitious Jamaican mother, who eventually ends up sitting on the benches of the Houses of Commons. Something about Smith’s depiction of that bond feels very important.
It’s not that the narrator’s mother doesn’t love her; she does, fiercely. But Smith’s portrayal of motherhood is a reminder that mothers are human beings, with their own desires and aspirations that becoming a parent may well have been an obstacle to. And although the relationship between the pair is not a desirable one (it fractures to the point that the narrator doesn’t realise her mother is dying for months) it’s honest in showing not all women are maternal. And not all women want to be defined by one facet of themselves. Being a mother is wonderful but it’s one kind of wonderful. Swing Time will prompt you to consider who your mum was before she belonged to you.
Picked by Moya Lothian-Mclean, Editorial Assistant at Stylist.co.uk
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel’s books never shy away from difficult topics, particularly when it comes to family. Her most famous book, Fun Home, deals with her relationship with her closeted father – which is not always easy – as well as sexuality, suicide, gender and more, often through the lens of literature.
And the companion book, Are You My Mother? does the same for Bechdel’s relationship with her mother. Again, it’s not always easy, with Bechdel exploring her repressed mother’s distinct lack of warmth and the impact this had on her – all via complex concepts from psychoanalysis.
It’s a beautiful (and beautifully illustrated) look at the complexity and dysfunctionality of family through a unique lens – and frames things in such a way that you can’t help but re-examine your own relationships, too.
Picked by freelance writer, Emily Reynolds.
Nanny Ogg from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels
“Nanny was someone’s mum. It was written all over her. If you cut her in half, the word ‘Ma’ would be all the way through…”
Everyone always says that Little Women’s Marmee is the best literary mum – but my heart will always belong to Nanny Ogg. Why? Because she’s just so real, and imperfect, and brilliant. She opens beer bottles with her teeth. She stamps around in red boots. She sings inappropriate songs (mostly about hedgehogs). She shuts down misogyny on almost every page. She recalls incredibly detailed stories about her teenage sexcapades, much to the horror of those around her (suffice to say that embarrassment comes as naturally to Nanny as altruism comes to a cat). And she – just like real world mums – offers unsolicited advice about relationships, household chores, raising babies, politics, religion and the like.
Trust Terry Pratchett to take the Mother stereotype of the Triple Goddess myth and transform it into someone so utterly fantastic and approachable. Trust me: fifteen minutes into any book with Nanny, and you won’t just know her, you will love her - every last bit of her, from her drinking and her swearing to her uncanny knack for getting people to share their deepest, darkest fears with her. You’ll want to ring her after a bad night out, for a little cry and some of her no-nonsense advice. And, even though she isn’t really real, you will hear her voice in your head – and booming in your heart, too.
Picked by Kayleigh Dray, editor at Stylist.co.uk
The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
All of Jaqueline Wilson’s books resonated with me as a child, but none so much as The Illustrated Mum. Like lots of Wilson’s tales, it tackled slightly harder to swallow subjects and focused on a family that was far from the stereotypical ‘norm’.
Pre-teen Dolphin and her older sister, Star, live with their creative, kooky and free-spirited mum Marigold, in a small London flat. In her good moments, Marigold is electric. She’s a talented artist, wears vivid, rock star-style tattoos all over her pale, white skin and has long, auburn ringlets that (along with her youthful dress sense) set her apart from the other mums at the school gate. Together, the three of them feel like an unstoppable sisterhood, like three musketeers; it’s Marigold and her girls against the world.
I’m an only child from a single-parent family and I immediately related to the sense of sisterhood that the protagonist Dolphin feels with her mum. Like Marigold, my mum is a little on the quirky side, and has always felt like more of a companion and ally than my senior.
Unfortunately, the schools in the area that I grew up in were known for gun crime and violence between students, so I was able to pass under the radar and got into the posh church school which was an hours bus ride away – a journey I did every morning and provided me with ample time to do forgotten home work.
Looking around at the perfectly polished, middle-class mums dropping their kids off to school in Range Rovers definitely felt intimidating in my first few months of Year 7. But The Illustrated Mum reminded me that I wasn’t the only person to have a mum who favoured spending all evening painting our hallway midnight blue so we could design a skyscape on the ceiling until the early hours, over cooking a delicious Sunday dinner or keeping our house in pristine condition.
Sadly, Dolphin’s childhood was much more difficult than mine as, in the book, Marigold also suffers from bipolar disorder and a drinking problem. Thankfully my mum doesn’t resemble Wilson’s character remotely in these ways, but the introduction to a mother figure who wasn’t typically mumsy and shared a different kind of relationship with her daughters was something that made me feel included in a time and place that could have been isolating.
Picked by Megan Murray, Digital Writer at Stylist.co.uk
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility is my favourite of Austen’s novels, so how could I not have a soft spot for Mrs. Dashwood? 1811’s ‘Mum of the year’ she is not - but I like the dynamic she has with her daughters.
When we are introduced, Mrs. D is an emotional wreck: newly widowed and unceremoniously evicted from her home by a foul daughter-in law. Mrs D. heavily relies on her eldest daughters Marianne and Elinor to find their new home, and establish a new life in the countryside. She’s frazzled (a mainstay of Austen’s daughter-burdened mothers) – but also a romantic. Key evidence: she pauses plans to move so Elinor can get her flirt on with the dreamy Edward Ferrars.
She also irresponsibly encourages Marianne into an attachment with Willoughby, who old-school ghosts her. But hey, no one saw that coming. Mrs D. speaks with her daughters frankly, and as her equals – a ‘close’ mother by Edwardian standards.
Picked by Sarah Lakos, Social Media Editor at Stylist.co.uk
The Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro
Lives of Girls and Women is set in the Forties and written from the perspective of Del Jordan, who lives on the edge of an isolated Canadian town with her parents and brother. Del is eight when we first meet her, but each chapter of the book picks up at a different point on her journey towards and through adolescence.
Del’s relationship with her mother fascinated me. While Del herself is a reasonably familiar young female protagonist (gutsy, curious, clumsy, one eye on escaping her boring hometown), Ada Jordan is unlike any other literary character I’ve come across. Born to a relatively poor country family, she has worked hard to educate herself, and makes her own money selling encyclopaedias to farmers.
Ada isn’t likeable exactly: she can be judgemental and awkward, and for much of the book she and Del circle one another at a distance, neither quite understanding how the other works. But she’s also politically progressive, religiously agnostic and sharply outspoken at a time when it wasn’t the norm for ‘nice’ women to be any of those things. She knows that her intellect and ambition could have taken her much further than Wawanash County, Ontario, and she wants more for Del - yet she’s also aware that Del will still be constrained by gender norms. In one of the book’s more quietly devastating moments, she tells her daughter: “There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women… But it is up to us to make it comes.” Then she adds, matter-of-factly: “You will want to have children, though.”
Almost like Lady Bird, Lives of Girls and Women is a subtle portrait of a mother and daughter growing into one another. As soon as I finished reading it, I ordered another copy to send to my mum.
Picked by Moya Crockett, Women’s Editor at Stylist.co.uk
Images: George Pagan / Unsplash / Transworld / Rex Features