Sense and Sensibility
The obvious mother-daughter Austen novel is Pride and Prejudice for Mrs. Bennet and her five girls, but I am extremely fond of Sense and Sensibility’s Mrs. Dashwood, who is equally maddening in a quieter, slightly more subtle manner as her eldest daughter, Elinor becomes preternaturally cool-headed and sensible. Here and elsewhere, Austen is wonderfully clear-eyed on devoted and respectful daughters who, nonetheless, must mother their mothers, and on mothers who could do with growing up a little.
I actually named the flame-haired, hot-tempered Gwen in my novel The Awkward Age after Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. Gwendolen’s relationship with her mother, Fanny Davilow, makes the reader wince. Mrs. Davilow’s devotion to, and fear of, her daughter is excruciating, and magnificently portrayed.
Digging to America
Anne Tyler’s mothers are always remarkable, but Digging to America is noteworthy as it explores motherhood with a slightly different genesis—babies who’ve traveled across oceans to find their families. Two different adoptive mothers meet at the airport on the day they welcome their new daughters; equally beloved, these little girls will grow up in very different homes, with very different mothers.
In a novel intended to restore a history to its silenced people, Beloved is a story of motherhood in extremis. Pregnant with her second daughter, Sethe escapes a life of slavery in 1870’s Kentucky and, upon their recapture, murders her elder daughter rather than allow her to return to the misery and degradation.
The Awkward Age
In my new novel, The Awkward Age, I wanted to write, at core, a love story between a mother and a daughter. For that relationship is a romance, of a sort, and seemed worthy honoring with exploration.
In my novel, Julia lost her husband and has been raising her teenager daughter Gwen alone for five years, living together with the volatile intensity of hostages long-held together. It has long been understood between them that Gwen is the center of her mother’s universe, and she offers up her life, interests and needs accordingly. Julia takes cares of Gwen, and Gwen takes care of Julia by allowing her mother to care for her. And then suddenly Julia falls unexpectedly, wonderfully, all-consumingly in love with James, a good man, a worthy man, a man who wants to care for both her and her child, and Gwen feels desperately betrayed.
The books here are very different portraits of mothers and daughters but their unifying theme is an understanding that between a mother and a daughter is a relationship replete with pathos, humor, heartbreak and beauty.