BOOK REVIEW / Call of mother nature: The Great Umbilical - Rachel Billington: Hutchinson, pounds 17.99

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The Independent Culture
MOTHERS are tougher on daughters: they set them higher standards than their sons, indulge them less and demand that they grow up sooner. This is not one of the insights in Rachel Billington's first non-fiction book, though it could well have been: the book is a compendium of anecdote, poetry, observations from novels, sociological research and psychiatric theory, all tossed together in an attempt to prove that the line of heredity and learning through mothers and daughters, so long publicly undervalued, is crucial. Property and name may have passed through the male line but, Billington believes, it is the line through mothers and daughters that conditions much of our conduct and dealings with each other, and so the world we inhabit.

The possibility of a matrilineal society in Britain or America has never been stronger: in many inner cities, where single motherhood is the norm and men live on the fringe, it already exists. This is not an insight which makes it into Billington's book either. Her method appears to have been haphazardly to cull views of the mother-daughter relationship and then stir the ingredients up. Anecdotes gleaned round kitchen tables are given equal weight with major pieces of research - which wouldn't necessarily matter if Billington had a real argument, other than an assertion that the mother-daughter relationship is important.

This lack leaves her open to the criticism of having left out things which might be more interesting: why didn't she consider that question of higher expectations of girls which so bothers me? Why didn't she look at what is happening to women and their daughters in areas of high male unemployment? Her indiscriminate way with evidence means that lines by the 19th-century parlour poet Elizabeth Akers ('Mother, O mother, my heart calls for you] . . . No love like mother love has shone') are adduced with the same gravity as Sylvia Plath's poem 'Mum: Medusa', or a description by Maya Angelou of the day she left home. Reading the Angelou excerpt - direct, particular and acute - made it impossible not to wish for more, and for fewer of Billington's sentimental generalisations. 'Take a 16-year-old for a walk in the country, and she can still bound like the lambs in the field,' Billington writes, in Godfrey Winn mode. 'In the kitchen, she progresses beyond Turkish delight to chocolate pecan fudge or even something more interesting like vegetarian chicken soup - the chicken is made of specially sculpted parsnip.'

Billington too often relies on her own experience (the mysterious sculpted parnsip must, presumably, be a real incident: no one would bother to make it up). There are endless references to her sisters and nieces, leaving the vague impression that all mothers and daughters are writers. Her own happiness in her relationship with her mother, Lady Longford, and her two daughters shines through, unfortunately sometimes colouring the prose a rather yukky pink. I found myself longing for a harder edge.

There are interesting snippets here, such as a description of an experiment in which a mother refused to disclose the sex of her baby, but they draw to no conclusion. This is a pity, because although the mechanics of motherhood have never been more discussed, what we understand by it remains curiously unexplored. In our century, women have been hurried into the workplace when it has suited, and herded back into the home when their work has got in the way of male employment, theory trotting dutifully after expediency. Motherhood is still, like apple pie, one of those things we are all in favour of, but we may all have different ideas of what it should be, or even is, for other people. This book will not clarify the matter.

(Photograph omitted)

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