Monday, May 15, 2017

Contemplating Mothers Real and Fictional

Annamaria on Monday

My head is so completely occupied with my work in progress that I can hardly tear myself away from the manuscript to fix myself a meal and keep my regular appointments.  The book is at that point where the arc of the story is in place, and I am cleaning up the language and adding a bit of vibrancy (I hope) to the imagery.  I love this part of my job so much that, right now, I don't want to be doing anything else.  But it is Sunday afternoon, which is blog production time here Chez Patrice.  It is also Mother's Day in the USA.  Hence:

Let's talk about mothers in fiction, it's safer that way.  A psychological truism, after all, is that mother-daughter relationships are the most fraught and complicated on the planet.

Disclaimer:  I am going to talk about my fictional mothers and Jane Austen's fictional mothers.  In no way do I mean, by this, to put myself in a class with Jane.  It's just that hers and mine are the fictional mothers I know best.

Let's start with hers.  They are, by and large, an unattractive bunch.  I mean as mothers.  They are all quite beautiful, but even the best of them leaves something to be desired.

Mrs. Bennet

Lizzie's mama is, to my way of thinking, the worst of the lot.  She is silly, crass, and negligent  of anything about her five daughters, except for their marriageability.  She has done nothing to inform her daughters' minds, to help them develop their talents.  Even by early Nineteenth Century standards, she leaves their education to chance and cares only about their clothes and good looks, and what kind of marriage bait they will grow up to be.  In Pride and Prejudice, even Lady Catherine de Bourgh comes across as a better mother than Mrs. Bennet.  Her two oldest girls turn out very well despite her bad example.   One wonders how they managed to blossom as they did under the tutelage of such a weak-minded woman.

Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price

The two mothers in Mansfield Park don't add up to one good one.  Lady Bertram hardly every stands up straight.  She is completely incapable of doing anything more complicated than petting her dog.  Her sister, Fanny Price's mother back in Portsmouth, has made a very bad choice of husband and spends the rest of her life suffering in poverty and slovenliness.  The best she can do for her daughters, two of them anyway, is to send them off to be raised by her sisters in Mansfield Park--the aforementioned shadow of a woman Lady Bertram and the otherwise childless and insufferable Aunt Norris.  Fanny, too, somehow grows up to be a reasonably stable adult woman despite the lack of a decent role model.

Mrs. Dashwood

The mama of the Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret is the best of the mothers Jane created.  Less than ideal, she is at least something approaching a functioning adult.  She sits, like her second daughter Marianne, squarely on the Sensibility part of the spectrum.   Her lack of practicality forces her eldest daughter, Elinor to grow up what today's psychologists would call a parentified child.  Were it not for Elinor 's good Sense (with a capital S) the family would not have survived much past the girls' father's death in the first chapter of the book.

Austen's other heroines--Emma Woodhouse, Ann Elliot, and Catherine Morland--don't have mothers at all.   Emma's and Ann's have died before the story begins.  I think Catherine's has too, but I have to admit that I have not read Northanger Abbey in enough years that I can't remember why the mother of the heroine in that story is absent.

All of this makes me wonder what Austen's own mother must have been like.    Perhaps it is unfair to judge her by her daughter's fictional mamas, but certain as I am that a novelist's characters come out of her unconscious, I am suspicious.

There are two mother-daughter pairs in my City of Silver, one in Invisible Country, and one in Strange Gods.  None of my fictional mothers is perfect, but even the most flawed of them--Inez's mother in City of Silver--has an understandable condition.  When I think about my fictional moms, I see, to some extent, my own mother and my grandmother in them--their strengths and their flaws.  Quite a number of my female characters have mothers who have died--perhaps because my own mom died, far too young, when I was only 36.

Most of my readers know that Annamaria Alfieri is my pen name and that I chose it because it is my mother's first name and her mother's maiden name.  My female forebears never had my opportunities.  They had their flaws, but I took their names to honor them and because I forgave them their shortcomings.

Here they are.  They made me what I am today.

Maria Sabina Alfieri

Annamaria Pisacane


  1. Happy Mother's Day! Thanks for this interesting post. I'm not a Jane Austen reader so I don't know much about these mothers, although I've seen plenty of movies based on her books.

    Yes, mothers and daughters' relationships are complicated in so many ways. It's true.

    However, it's wonderful that you chose the beautiful names of your mother and grandmother.

    If I combined my grandmother's first name on the Eastern European/Jewish side of the family and my great-grandmother's last name on the Irish side, my pen name would be Sophia Ryan.
    But I don't write fiction and don't need to do that. (And my Irish great-grandmother's first name was Sabina.)

    I'm sure there are incredible stories to go with the names. Certainly the photographs are impressive.

    1. Thank you Kathy, My mother and grandmother both lived difficult lives with quite a bit of grace. My mother left love in hearts of her children despite her difficulties. A lot of their problems stemmed from the difficulties immigrants have in adjusting to their new environment. Something the current troubled thinking about immigrants fails to take into account.

  2. Mothers: can't live with them, wouldn't be alive without them. I miss mine. As it should be.

    1. EvKa, I miss mine too. As I said above, she left too soon--way before I gained the wisdom to understand her as well as I do now. But before she passed, our love for one another outstripped all the other issues and, we had been at peace with each other for some years. I am incredibly grateful for that.

  3. We're siblings of a different mother, Sis, so I thought you might like to see what I wrote to friends on the passing of my mother just over twenty years ago:

    My mother never knew how to be anything but nice to everyone she ever met. She never thought it was anything special to be that way, she figured it was just part of who she was much like flames at night along the river just seemed to be part of the mill town skies of the Pittsburgh of her youth. But she was special, extraordinarily special.

    Mother wasn't much on words (except when delivered to one or more of her sons on certain deserved occasions at equally appropriate decibel levels), but boy was she ever big on deeds. Mother was always there with an embracing heart, steel will and much more for anyone who ever needed her; and heaven protect you if you said one unkind word about any soul in her protection.

    Mother's last years were not kind to her. Those of us who knew her and loved her didn't really question God's hand in this, because she would not have wanted us to. Rather, we prayed she would not be in pain, and in our separate ways thought we were preparing ourselves to accept her passing. But that was something we could never do; no more than we could prepare ourselves for the ending of warmth. As long as there remained one sweet ember of her life we felt the warmth of her soul still with us. Now gone, I can no longer feel, only remember. That makes me very sad and I miss her very much.

    But life goes on, and armed with the knowledge that no one could ever have had a better mother I'll just try to do what is necessary to make her proud. After all, when I get to see her and my dad again (assuming they'll be able to convince whoever is in charge to let me in), I want her to know that I tried my best to live my life following her teaching that unquestioning loyalty among family and friends is a treasure beyond value. That's why this thank you is for more than just your kindness in mother's memory, it's for your friendship and love. Thanks.

    1. My brother, you and your mother, I think, we're both very fortunate in each other. I know you don't have a sister (except for me :), but it seems that parents of the same sex have more difficulties between them then parents of the opposite sex. We won't get into a discussion of Oedipal longing here. I just congratulate you for having had the mother you had. I am sure that contributed a great deal to the man you have become.

  4. A very funny book,Jane Austen in Boca, by Paula Marantz Cohen, has a book discussion at a retirement community in Florida. The elderly women come down strongly - and hilariously- for Mrs. Bennet! Need I say, the professor leading the event is quite surprised. It is an interesting alternative point of view. :-)