Updated: Aug 5, 2021
We celebrate this special day with a whistle-stop tour of the best mums in English Literature!
It’s Mother’s Day! A day to make a fuss of all the mother-figures in your life and thank them for putting up with you. To celebrate, we’ve collected some of the kindest, strongest, and most loving mothers in literature. There just aren’t that many great mothers in fiction – a happy family doesn’t make for a very compelling story. But there are a few exceptions, mainly in children’s literature, and they are wonderful. Here’s a few of my favourites:
1. Mrs March/Marmee, Little Women
Working as a single parent, with her husband away at war, raising four daughters and trying to cope with fairly abject poverty, Margaret March has every reason to be stressed, grumpy, and harried. Instead, she constantly shows patience, love, and understanding, helping her children fix their mistakes, teaching them the importance of hard work, justice, and independence, and guiding them to be strong, individual, generous human beings, rather than just decorative, mindless women. Marmee gets quite a lot of criticism for being too saintly, but Louisa M. Alcott takes pains to show the work that’s gone into her calmness and positivity – we get occasional glimpses into the effort she puts into keeping her temper and staying hopeful, which makes her believable enough to love and admire.
2. Molly Weasley, Harry Potter
I will defend to the death (almost) my right to call Harry Potter literature, and there certainly are fewer exceptional mothers than Molly Weasley. Despite Harry first turning up at her house at the crack of dawn, unexpected, in an illegal flying car, she immediately makes him feel welcome and one of the family. Knowing how terrible his own family are, she turns up at his milestones, invites him to every family occasion, and never forgets his birthday. And as for her biological children, she’s a pro at keeping abreast of each child’s ambitions, plans, and worries, and yelling at them when needed. And let’s not forget her finest moment: grieving the loss of one of her sons, she still leaps into action and destroys the woman threatening the rest of her family. Gentle, loving, and cuddly, but fierce and powerful in the face of her children being hurt, there’s nobody I’d rather have on my team.
3. Helen Graham, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is less well known than most of the other books by the Brontë sisters, but it is an exquisite piece of writing. Helen Graham, the tenant of the title, marries, against her better judgement, the dissolute Arthur Huntingdon. He is an alcoholic, abusive, and cruel husband, but she only flees when his corrupting influence starts to affect their son. Not only does she break social norms by leaving her husband, and earning an independent living as an artist, she’s actually breaking the law: married women had no legal existence apart from their husbands, so she was legally kidnapping her child. Helen risked societal isolation, and the potential of being found, and either domestically or legally punished, to protect her son.
4. Mrs Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
This one may raise a few eyebrows, and believe me, I’m the first to admit that Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is one of the most exceptionally, violently irritating characters in all fiction. With her complaining, her fussing, her terrible decision-making, and poor judgement, she’s made it on to several lists of the worst mothers in literature. However: despite her dreadful execution, with her meddling often making affairs much worse, she is absolutely dedicated to her daughters’ wellbeing. All her activity is centred around making them happy, and getting them settled for life. Today, it seems horribly patriarchal that she works so hard to see them married, but with their home entailed away from the girls, their future happiness and safety was at serious risk. I feel that her tireless exertions on their behalf, her desire to make them happy, and her willingness to forgive them and always welcome them home, earn her a place on the list, for effort if not for achievement…
5. Miss Honey, Matilda
Motherhood comes in all shapes and forms, and doesn’t have to be biological to be brilliant. Mrs Honey is a fantastic example of a wonderful adoptive mother. Stepping in to help neglected and confused Matilda, Miss Honey feeds her literally, mentally and emotionally, caring for her when nobody else will. She pushes through her own terror for Matilda’s sake, confronting her fears and failings to make a better life for her child. She gives Matilda the home she craves, makes sure she’s educationally stimulated, and juggles work and parenting magnificently.
If you’re a mother and this list is feeling a little saccharine, saintly, unachievable, and overwhelming, please accept my apologies, and my disclaimer that it’s infinitely easier to be a perfect parent if your children are fictional, you are fictional, and nothing happening to you is real… Then go and read about Mrs Wormwood in Matilda, Mrs Durbeyfield in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Maria Delaney in The Parasites, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, as well as Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Medea… you’ll feel much better about your parenting afterwards!
This is an entirely subjective list of mothers that I love reading and rereading about, and I really wish there could be more stories about great working mothers, single mothers, long-distance mothers, foster mothers, and otherwise awesome mothers across classical fiction. But these will have to do for starters, and if you can think of any more please do comment and let me know!
Blog Post Crafted by Rebecca
Background: Rebecca is one of our most popular tutors, with a degree in English from the University of Cambridge and hundreds of hours of private tuition experience in 7+, 11+, English and Maths. She is also an assessor for Titanium Tutors, observing the mock lessons taught by potential tutors and deciding whether or not they meet the high standards of the agency.