Offred in The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale explores motherhood from a number of different angles. The Handmaids’ lives are reduced to a single function – to bear children. They are denied the chance to be mothers to their children once they are born. Offred is herself a mother to a nameless child who has been taken from her, and she grieves her deeply. She also grieves her own mother, a feminist and an activist whom Offred was often embarrassed by as a teenager, wishing for a more conventional upbringing.

‘Despite everything, we didn't do badly by one another, we did as well as most,’ Offred reflects. ‘I wish she were here, so I could tell her I finally know this.’

Marmee in Little Women

Louisa May Alcott’s Margaret ‘Marmee’ March is one of the most celebrated mothers in fiction. Warm, kind and loving, Mrs March puts her daughters’ happiness before anything else. As liberal and forward thinking as Marmee is, this was still a time when marriage was considered to be the ultimate goal for any young woman.

‘I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send.’

Helen Graham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Brontë’s utterly gorgeous novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is widely considered to be one of the very first feminist books. Helen Graham escapes an abusive marriage to an alcoholic husband, arriving at Wildfell Hall with her young son to pursue a career as an artist. In 1848 such actions were unheard of, and indeed Helen soon falls prey to rumour, becoming a social outcast for the unconventional choices she has made to protect her son.

‘And why should I take it for granted that my son will be one in a thousand? – and not rather prepare for the worst, and suppose he will be like his – like the rest of mankind, unless I take care to prevent it?’

The mother from 'The Bloody Chamber'

The mother (we are never told her name) in Angela Carter’s terrifying, visceral and frankly essential short story 'The Bloody Chamber', from the collection of the same name, is nothing short of a badass. When the beautiful teenage narrator finds herself about to be beheaded by her mass-murdering Marquis husband, her mother appears and saves the day:

‘You never saw such a wild thing as my mother.’ They all live happily ever after.

Gertrude Morel in Sons and Lovers

D. H. Lawrence wrote much of Sons and Lovers during his mother’s illness and the book is very much a reflection of her life as he saw it, and a response to his relationship with her. Lawrence adored his mother and felt that her life had been unhappy and indeed ‘wasted’ by her marriage to his unstable, difficult father. Gertrude Morel’s love for her sons, and indeed their love for her, is a painfully tender meditation on love between mother and son;

‘Something in the eternal repose of the uplifted cathedral, blue and noble against the sky, was reflected in her, something of the fatality. What was, was. With all his young will he could not alter it. He saw her face, the skin still fresh and pink and downy, but crow's-feet near her eyes, her eyelids steady, sinking a little, her mouth always closed with disillusion; and there was on her the same eternal look, as if she knew fate at last.’

Gertie Nevels in The Dollmaker

Harriette Arnow’s 1954 masterpiece The Dollmaker is a lesser-known classic but an absolute favourite within the VINTAGE team. The book opens with Gertie Nevel struggling down a Kentucky mountain on a mule with her deathly sick baby boy in her arms. Desperate to get him to a doctor, she flags down a car and persuades the driver to take her. On the way she has to perform a tracheotomy on the infant to stop him from suffocating. This fierce display of protective mothering instinct is so much a part of Gertie. She gives up everything to keep her family together and to give her children the best possible start, moving from the mountains to Detroit. Of her children Gertie says,

‘What was the good of trying to keep your own if when they grew up their days were like your own – changeovers and ugly painted dolls?’

Annie Lee in Cider with Rosie

Laurie Lee’s enchanting memoir Cider with Rosie is the story of his childhood and adolescence in the Cotswolds just after the end of the First World War. His mother Annie faced constant adversity in her life and raised Laurie, along with six other children, single-handedly after her husband walked out on them. Laurie said of Annie:

‘Her flowers and songs, her unshaken fidelities, her attempts at order, her relapses into squalor, her near madness, her crying for light, her almost daily weeping for her dead child-daughter, her frisks and gaieties, her fits of screams, her love of man, her hysterical rages, her justice towards each of us children – all these rode my Mother and sat on her shoulders like a roosting of ravens and doves.’

All the mothers in Herland

Herland is a thought experiment in novel form – an imaginary utopian society led and populated by women. Reproducing simply by developing a feeling of ‘child-longing’, the women raise their children in a collective fashion:

‘child-rearing has come to be with us a culture so profoundly studied, practiced with such subtlety and skill, that the more we love our children the less we are willing to trust that process to unskilled hands – even our own.’

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was radical in her own approach to motherhood, and reviled for it – she left her own daughter to be raised by her ex-husband when work consumed her. Herland is her answer to much of the criticism she weathered.

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