The Blagger's Guide To...fiction's best and worst mums

Mummy dearest: Embarrassing, selfish, violent

Sunday 03 April 2011 00:00

Medea – from Medea, by Euripedes, and Greek myth. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, as Jason (of Argonauts fame) found when he dumped his wife Medea for a younger princess. No sooner has she killed his new bride with a poisoned dress than she murders their children to teach him a lesson. Not recommended by divorce lawyers.

Gertrude and Jocasta – from Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, and Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles. Closely followed by Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, the eponymous heroines of the novels by Leo Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert. Sulky teenagers beware: your melodramatic mother could be an awful lot worse.

Mother – from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. Most teenage girls rebel against their mothers at some point. Many have good reason. But it's a rare girl who puts up with as much as Winterson's heroine, Jess. She is subjected to two exorcisms, beatings and was locked in a room for three days without food. That's worth anyone's slammed door.

Sophie Portnoy – from Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth. "'Alex, I don't want you to flush the toilet,' says my mother sternly. 'I want to see what you've done in there'." Feminists, Jewish women and mothers of all persuasions have objected to the portrayal of Alexander Portnoy's mum, an object lesson in how not to bring up boys.

Dora – from You, by Joanna Briscoe. In a canon that is noticeably short on exciting mother characters, the modern novelist Joanna Briscoe stands out. Her 1994 novel, Mothers and Other Lovers, set the tone, and her next book You, to be published in July, promises another fraught mother-daughter relationship. "Cecilia is obsessively in love with her teacher ... Mr Dahl," says the blurb. Meanwhile her mother, Dora, wants Mr Dahl's wife.

Mrs Bennet – from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. So you think your mother is embarrassing? Showing your new boyfriend your baby photos? Straightening your tights in public? Trying to fix you up with the local nobility? Mrs Bennet is literature's most mortifying mother. Her heart's in the right place, though. Probably under the antimacassars.

Ma – from Room, by Emma Donoghue. Fiction's most put-upon mother must surely be "Ma" in Donoghue's Booker shortlisted 2010 novel, who lives in a tiny cell with her five-year-old son, Jack, the result of almost-nightly rapes by the man who has kidnapped her. A tribute to all that is tough and tender about motherhood, Ma is the epitome of making the best of a bad job.

Margaret 'Marmee' March – from Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. Charitable, hard-working, kind, loving and morally wise, Marmee March seems too good to be true, but apparently she is based on Alcott's own mother: "A great heart that was home for all." It doesn't do for a mother to be too perfect, though; a sly gin and tonic at lunchtime would have made Marmee a far more rounded character.

Nanny Ogg – from Discworld, by Terry Pratchett. As talented as Granny Weatherwax, but more likeable, Nanny Ogg is a mother figure to just about everybody in Discworld. She has 15 children, and is the go-to girl for witchery and wise counsel. The way she eats a pickled onion, though, is enough to bring tears to the eyes.

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