DJ Taylor: Over-demanding parent Cecilia Jaggers is wholly unaware of the havoc she causes

 

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Cecilia Jaggers came late to motherhood. It was not until her mid-thirties that she finally settled on a man she deemed sufficiently intelligent to be the father of her three children, and the last of them was born in the week of her 42nd birthday.

It was a busy time in her life, and Mrs Jaggers put aside the manuscript of her article for the European History Review ("Early Italian Fascism: some materials for a bibliography") with a sigh before being taken by taxi to the John Radcliffe Hospital to get the business over.

A decade-and-a-half later, the Jaggers – both Mr and Mrs teach at the same Oxford college – are comfortably settled in lavish premises on Rawlinson Road. A tall, raven-haired and rather austere-looking woman, known for some reason to her students as "Lady Macbeth", Mrs Jaggers is determined to bring to the task of child-rearing all the punctiliousness that characterised her "definitive" study of Garibaldi and the Risorgimento. No one could accuse her of neglecting Perdita, Miriam and Thomasina; no one could deny the penetrating interest she takes in their activities, and yet…

The difficulty, alas, is that Mrs J has never been able to keep the attitudes of the seminar out of the nursery. It has never occurred to her that a child may not want the exact truth to be pronounced over its homework, or that parental punches are probably better pulled when reach has exceeded grasp. "To be perfectly frank, Miriam, I think Mrs Murdoch was right to give you a B- for that religious studies essay," she will pronounce, and Miriam, who admires her mother while longing, just once, for a conspirator who shares her estimate of Mrs Murdoch as an old bag who marks up her favourites, dutifully nods her head.

It is even worse when Mrs Jaggers' professional cronies are present. Some parents regard their infant geese as swans, but Mrs Jaggers knows them to be geese – wayward geese, too, who need constantly keeping up to the mark. "Poor Tommy," she remarked the other week to an expert in medieval church architecture, "you see, for all those lessons she takes, she really isn't very good at ballet." Hearing this at the half-open door, Thomasina went away to her bedroom, on whose walls hang the periodic table and a reproduction of the Bayeux tapestry, and wept for an hour. In Mrs Jaggers' slight defence, she is wholly unaware of the havoc she causes.

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