My bookworm mother, Mavis Matthews, would have been ninety on May 30th, so my present to her memory is to consider some fictional mothers and daughters and link them to the real ones she worked with. Our relationship was much better than the ones in The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard, but Mavis recommended her books to me and I’ve only just got around to them. She was absolutely right (as so often). The story starts in the 1950s and works back twenty five years. Antonia Fleming’s daughter Deirdre has a problem which I’m sure most women can infer, so I’m not going to apologise for any spoilers. Antonia is a privately liberal (for her time and social position) and fairly empathetic though critical mother who in dealing with Deirdre is nevertheless constrained by realities and conventions, and who has been hampered by only having received a cold, detached model of motherhood herself – “alternately maternal and conciliatory” is about as good as it gets. We collide with that appalling relationship, arguably no longer possible today, when the story travels back to her ignominious girlhood. But Howard, and the forewarned reader, blast any idea that wedded bliss will be a rescue package. Antonia’s ability to cope with one or more hurtfulnesses at a time with incremental, practical self knowledge show why she reacts as she does to her daughter (trying dutifully to help but insisting on her daughter’s independence) and her future daughter-in-law, for whom all she can provide is the space to make her own mistakes. (“She was a nice, ignorant, repressed, unimaginative girl, designed perfectly to reproduce herself…“) Meanwhile with regard to her son, she just shrugs.
We also see, briefly, the daughter-in-law’s relationship with her own mother – and the repeated theme of marrying to get away from either a mother’s stifling cruelty or her indifferent abuse. Plenty of men appear in the novel, part of which is written from their more single minded points of view, but the most rounded and subtle psychological portrait is of Antonia throughout her life so far, going back from the worse than mid life crisis of her marriage to her girlhood, with a merciless examination of all the insecurities and discoveries in between. As she experiences them she’s always multi tasking, to use a modern term Elizabeth Jane Howard might have sniffed at but was certainly familiar with. Antonia is busy simultaneously with trivia and with love, death and life, and until middle age she functions mainly in relation to the influence of others – either her father, her lover, her husband, or, the only woman who could have such power over her, her mother, “wondering whether a woman could ever continue to be mistress of herself,a man and a situation.”
Just after finishing The Long View, I saw my good friend Charlotte Keatley’s play “My Mother said I Never Should” (Methuen drama) which may and ought to go on tour now that the London run has ended, for everyone should see it. In another story that moves between the generations, here again are the grandmothers, mothers and babies, being run away from and run back to, separated and united, empathetic and at odds. Here are the illegitimate children, hinted at, disguised, admitted to and celebrated, as a doll they’ve all played with is symbolically played with, discarded, buried and partially unearthed. At the centre was a nuanced, witty, daunting and sometimes disillusioned or sad but never pathetic performance by Maureen Lipman. Behind the scenes, I hear, Maureen Lipman who celebrated her 70th birthday during the run, mothered the three younger actresses with warmth and professionalism when an unusual number of difficulties including cast and audience sickness beset the ultimately triumphant production. I saw this play with my partner(childless); the widower of my best friend (two daughters in their 20s), another retired friend (mother of one childless daughter), and my own daughter and son, also in their 20s. From each perspective we found our own deeply moving, sometimes overlapping resonances. This production was a revision of the original 1988 play, so in a sense all four actresses were daughters to the original cast.
Men are referred to, offstage, waiting in the car or deceased, with affection and contempt, desire, hurt and disappointment – although they are less present than chez Howard. But the mothers and daughters are similar to Howard’s – complex mixes of jealousy, misfiring attempts to show love, bids for independence, practical instruction, feeble dependence, assertiveness, misunderstanding and occasional joy. I was touched to find characters pegging out washing as this has always struck me as an ageless, universal image – the technology was much the same for my great grandmother as for my daughter so our gestures, our sensations and our thoughts as we did or do it must be more similar than they would be for many other seemingly mundane acts (dressing a baby, or bringing home shopping for instance). And how we all share that multitasking ability to miss the important things in life!
Margaret: You can get pregnant the first time, you know.
Jackie: Thanks for telling me now.
Margaret: Well if you’d come to me and said –
Jackie: Well I did say I wanted to have a talk with you, actually, and you said “Tell me while we go round the garden centre”, don’t you remember? Anyway, you can’t scare me, because I’m on the pill, OK?
Margaret: Since when?
Jackie: Since before Neil and I went away at half term. But you know that because you’ve been reading my diary.
Never mind: a daughter can always get her revenge, provided the normal order of things is maintained, by reading her own mother’s diary after her death.
In The Infinity Pool, Maria’s mother has to cope with what happens in her own family, juggling her instinct to comfort and care for her daughter with her own need for social acceptance and the beliefs that have surrounded her all her life, so to Maria “a small amazement penetrated that her mother was being even as mildly pleasant as she was.” The preoccupations of fictional and real mothers seem to me more reflective of social change than those of male characters, as women’s lives have changed so much more radically in the past 200 years than men’s, or (like Maria’s island family compared to the British tourists who visit their cafe) vary so much more from one culture and location to another. For each generation this is so: for example, my grandmother knew nothing of how babies are born until she had a miscarriage six months after marrying; my mother didn’t have the freedom of the pill until after her children were born; I assumed that sexual harassment in the workplace was just one of those things you put up with; my own daughter can go online to find a safe flat share in a foreign city. But my grandfathers, my father and my ex husband went out to work in shops or offices, and paid all or most of the mortgage. Here we are in Copenhagen in 1972, second row, left to right, my grandmother, my mother, my sister and myself – with my father next to an unknown stranger in front of us, possibly asleep.
Unlike my grandmother, my mother certainly knew about pregnancy, wanted or not. Before her marriage she was a journalist, answering problem page letters for 1950s Glamour and Mirabelle magazines. Terrified examples arrived every day from pregnant young girls, but the postbag on this subject was never published. A few years later, social workers visited the maternity ward where I was born trying to persuade women to accept a new pro forma birth certificate without space for the father’s name and occupation. The idea was that if everyone had such a document, the stigma of illegitimacy would reduce. My happily married mother, with her strong principles, belief in human goodwill and insider knowledge of the problem postbag, volunteered to take one (I don’t know if she asked my father). Sadly, it was one of very few: they didn’t catch on.
I’m sure her mother never discussed birth control with her, but she tried to with us – as well as taking us along to sit with a book during her weekly volunteer sessions at the then “Family Planning Clinics” where women could obtain contraceptive advice and supplies. And she placed copies of The L shaped Room and The Weather in the Streets strategically on the bookshelves at home. Even so, it was all a bit oblique, compared with what my daughter can discuss with me – should she wish to. Somehow I’ve never pushed it and in that the generations may be more similar than I’d like to think.
My mother had two daughters, and much later, she nearly had her book too. It’s a collection of letters from adults to children. She wore her own wisdom lightly, and she appreciated adults passing on such wisdom – also lightly – to children. She worked on Dear Boy, Dear Girl so meticulously that she was overtaken by illness and it was only published after she died in 1998. To my joy I discovered you can still buy it online in elegant hardback.Your own mother would love it, I’m sure, for her birthday. Here’s a taster, from Louisa May Alcott’s mother Abba to her daughter, the author of Little Women, in 1843:
“Dear Louey, I enclose a picture for you which I always liked very much, for I have imagined that you might be just such an industrious daughter & I such a feeble but loving mother., looking to your labor for my daily bread. Keep it for my sake, & your own, for you and I always liked to be grouped together. Mother.”
There’s an enormous amount to be said on this theme, and I’m hoping to have a happy return to it every time a family female’s birthday puts the idea into my head. But for now, thank you and RIP to Mavis Matthews / Norrie, seen here with my daughter, her granddaughter, in 1992.
© Jessica Norrie 2016