Harriet Walker: Rights, wrongs, and the loss of the mother-in-law's dominion

We tend to shut up in the face of anti-social behaviour. Which is why Carolyn Bourne has garnered quite so much support for her actions

Share
Related Topics

Come back Roy Chubby Brown, all is forgiven! And how about a public apology to Bernard Manning while we're at it? Why? Because the dreaded mother-in-law figure that they spoke of so caustically is alive and kicking – but unlike those comedians' crude caricatures, this time it's the daughter-in-law's mother-in-law who's doing the kicking. She is one Carolyn Bourne, 50, whose admonishments to her son's prospective bride, 29-year-old Heidi Withers, raised not only eyebrows but also questions about etiquette in the internet age.

"When you are a guest in another's house, you do not declare what you will and will not eat," Mrs Bourne wrote to Ms Withers in an email that was soon winging its way around the world. "You do not take additional helpings without being invited to by your host [and] ... you do not lie in bed until late morning in households that rise early – you fall in line with house norms."

"You should never, ever insult the family you are about to join at any time and most definitely not in public," Mrs Bourne continued. "I gather you passed this off as a joke, but the reaction in the pub was one of shock, not laughter."

These diktats are, for the most part, utterly fair enough. You don't drag up the little rascal – funny smells, smart-arse remarks and all – only for him to disappear into the sunset with someone who makes you want to eat glass.

Tensions between mums and their son's partners run high on both sides of the relationship. It's a tricky bond to negotiate, because each party judges the other on the same standards – that is, on simply being a woman. And, by default, the criteria that both are being marked on vary wildly, given generational divides and more immanent concerns. Your mother-in-law might take a dim view of your tattoo, for instance, but she hasn't taken into account the number of celebrities you've met and how good your manicure is.

But that's not to say that Mrs Bourne should have put the lot in an email and fired it off. That the entire diatribe has now become a public spectacle is, possibly, no less than both of them deserve. Dressing-downs, domestic ones particularly, are supposed to occur face-to-burning-face and behind closed doors, so that they can be forgotten about as quickly as possible in the name of bonhomie and a Sunday roast that doesn't turn to ash in the mouth.

It's a terrible catch-22 of falling in love with a Nice Boy: he's usually nice because he's been brought up well – but if he's been brought up well, his mother probably dotes on him. And that's when she starts emailing you about your slovenly habits. A friend told me about the time she and her fiancé announced their engagement and his mother wailed, "You're taking my son away from me!" (They divorced a few years later, and my friend resisted the temptation to say "Here you go – have him back!")

"Unfortunately for Freddie, he has fallen in love with you," Mrs Bourne added in her e-tirade. "If you want to be accepted by the wider Bourne family, I suggest you take some guidance from experts with utmost haste. There are plenty of finishing schools around."

This, quite clearly, is the stuff of nightmares – in a fluid society where eligible young men aren't simply packaged off at birth to the pallid daughter of the neighbouring estate, mothers-in-law have lost some of their dominion. And for any woman entering the household of an older, wiser, redoubtable matriarch, pitfalls abound.

Meanwhile, the pleasure of going home to one's own parents is the fact that they dote on you and you don't have to lift a finger; when visiting the in-laws, this should be applied inversely: do everything, eat everything (but don't ask for more), and be generally helpful, but not obsequious. Suppress all natural reactions to the point where even your boyfriend wonders who on earth he has brought home with him. And don't mention money – or if you do, gauge your in-laws' attitude to it first. Do not, as Ms Withers did, assume that they have similar tastes to you.

"You regularly draw attention to yourself," Carolyn Bourne continues. "Perhaps you should ask yourself why. No one gets married in a castle unless they own it. It is brash, celebrity-style behaviour."

Four easy tips that would have helped Heidi out: it's the "sitting room" not "the lounge"; taking your shoes off as soon as you get through the door is common; always leave your knife and fork at quarter to four on your plate; and don't be fussy, obnoxious or lazy. Simple enough, really.

But does the "monster-in-law" of popular myth – the jealous, protective, imperious Gorgon at the head of the table – actually exist? Well, not really. It's much more a misogynistic construct built around the fact that women, supposedly, find it terribly hard to get on with other women. In fact, the likelihood is that a mother-in-law will welcome her son's girlfriend with open arms (anything less, by way of reverse psychology, will drive him further into the arms of the vacuous young flibbertigibbet) and befriend her (all the better to gang up on him about cutting his hair or doing the washing up).



From the nervous first meeting and that ingrained urge to impress, to the birth of one's first child and the elaborate paraphrasing of "shove your advice where the sun don't shine" into something more delicate, mothers- and daughters-in-law are bound to rub each other up the wrong way at times. It happens in any close relationship – it's just that you can tell your mother/sister/best friend to bog off and they won't be offended.

And Mrs Bourne's email – while flagging up the importance of manners more generally – certainly contravenes what most people would think of as a dignified response; we're far more likely to put up and shut up in the face of anti-social behaviour, which is why the outspoken doyenne has garnered so much support for her actions. There is clearly a fervent but subliminal feeling out there that yobs too often get away with their antics, without being told what's what.

But the Venn diagram of legend – warring women either side of a baffled young man – is a cartoon that simply doesn't exist in households that get on with each other. I just hope my future mother-in-law, whoever she may be, isn't reading this column. And if she is, she hopefully won't understand email.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace