How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mothers: Guiding Star

I hope you and your mothers had a marvelous Mother’s Day. Mothers are celebrated so often in writing that I won’t attempt anything of my own that, at best, will be a reiteration of things we’ve already heard. But mothers are such a popular subject that they’ll make a good blog post subject as well, so I’ll take this opportunity to cover what other people have said about them -- all in celebration of motherhood. (And of course, you know, I have my own wonderful mom in mind.)

First off, a poem:

Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome
Has many sonnets: so here now shall be
One sonnet more, a love sonnet, from me
To her whose heart is my heart’s quiet home,
To my first Love, my Mother, on whose knee
I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome;
Whose service is my special dignity,
And she my loadstar while I go and come
And so because you love me, and because
I love you, Mother, I have woven a wreath
Of rhymes wherewith to crown your honored name:
In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
Of time and change and mortal life and death.

(Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems, 1881. This is the dedicatory sonnet that prefaces the book.)

This swirl of words, itself a thing of beauty, expresses some of my sentiments about my mother. A “loadstar” (line 8) is something that we use to guide our principles or behavior; and (lines 9-11) without my mom, I wouldn’t be writing or pursuing any other talent that I may have.

                                                         Auguste Reading to Her Daughter (1910). Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926). Impressionism. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

Considering mothers in literature, I see about three different kinds:

1) mothers that are admirable and amazingly supportive and loving (the type of mothers that the creator of Mother’s Day had in mind!)

2) mothers that are antagonistic or at least ridiculous

3) mothers that are absent or ineffective

Some of my favorite examples of (1) and (2) (I won’t include (3), because you can’t have a favorite character who isn’t there) are:

1) Marmee (Little Women), Caroline Ingalls, and Marilla Cuthbert

Marilla at first appears antagonistic, but turns out to be utterly valuable for Anne Shirley’s development. And anyway, I’ve just got to love her strict, no-nonsense ways that provide a great foil to Anne’s whimsicalness and conceal a heart that can love if touched by the right person. When the two of them do make their peace, their partly mother-daughter relationship is a beautiful sight.

2) Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Gibson (Wives and Daughters), and Katharine Comstock (A Girl of the Limberlost)

The latter two may need some explanation: Mrs. Gibson is the mother of Cynthia Kirkpatrick and the stepmother of Molly Gibson, the protagonist. She is a complex character -- as are all Elizabeth Gaskell’s characters -- and sometimes means well, but she is always out for herself. Mrs. Comstock either neglects her daughter Elnora or is at odds with her, but the root is pain -- she blames the girl for her husband’s death. Their eventual reconciliation is very satisfying.

And then we come to the two very different mothers in my novels: In Six Cousins, Marielle’s mother, Liv Austin, is her best friend and closest advisor. She’s cheery, energetic, hospitable, and outgoing. In The Wise- and Light-Hearted, Sophia’s mother, Caroline Edwards, is also to an extent close to her daughter, but very much opposes Sophia’s rejection of Stephen Brown as a suitor. The tension is terrible for Sophia, who loves her mother. Mrs. Edwards is reserved, elegant, and set in her ways, but she does not lack warmth for people she loves or approves of.

Do you give much thought to the mothers in your stories? If so, tell me about them! 

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