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May 7, 2012

Bad Mothers, Good Books

Ceri Radford grew up in Britain and lives in France. She has since written about books, TV, society, male strippers and many other things besides for publications including The Daily Telegraph and Red Magazine. A SURREY STATE OF AFFAIRS is her first novel.

Re-reading Mansfield Park (I have something of a Jane Austen fixation) yet again in the run-up to Mother’s Day, I was struck by its harsh portrayal of mothering. The main character, Fanny Price, is transplanted as a little girl from her own family to live with rich relations. This gives her two substitute mother figures in the shape of her aunts: one, Lady Bertram, is a supine imbecile more concerned with her foot cushion than her niece; the other, Mrs Norris, a malicious harridan intent on waging psychological warfare on the downtrodden heroine. Even when Fanny is finally reunited with her real mother towards the end of the novel, it’s not exactly a restorative encounter with true maternal love: Mrs Price is careworn, crabby, and borderline indifferent towards her long-lost daughter.

Absent or inept mothers crop up repeatedly in Austen’s novels, reaching a comic pinnacle in Mrs Bennett, the cringe-inducing, husband-repelling matriarch of Pride and Prejudice. In fact, many of my favourite classic novels – from pretty much everything Austen ever wrote through Jane Eyre to Cold Comfort Farm – feature dysfunctional or simply non-existent mothers. Why do bad mums make such good books? Colm Tóibín offers a persuasive explanation in his recent work, the tellingly titled New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, suggesting that: “The conspiracy in a novel is not between a mother and a daughter, but rather between the protagonist and the reader.” Personally, I find there is something endlessly fascinating in the tale of the determined heroine making her own way without the guidance or support of an effective parent.

The dynamics are somewhat different in my own first novel, A Surrey State of Affairs, which is written as the blog of a well-intentioned but hopelessly deluded 53-year-old mum. She is neither a shining example of a good mother, nor a bad one: she wants the best for her children, it’s true; but she thinks that this can be achieved by writing an online dating ad for her son or attempting to persuade her daughter of the merits of regular blow-dries with a soft, rounded brush.

Luckily, my own mother has a robust sense of humour, and no time for literary theory which speculates about writers’ matricidal urges. When she recognises certain elements of herself in my main character, such as a shared weakness for hats, she reacts in the same way she did when we used to watch Mrs Bennett’s mad antics together in the TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice: by laughing. Literary inspiration may be a hazy affair, but I know that I inherited my love of comic writing from my mother.