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But what will mother say?

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Essay | 14 minute read
The maternal ‘home’, between the world wars, was a site of suffocation and stagnation for many young women. How did these daughters free themselves?

‘You’re quite free except in your own imagination, and your mother is not ill except in hers . . . naturally she’ll depend on you as long as you let her. But I say to you, don’t let her, she’s little short of a vampire! Well, let her vampire herself for a change . . .’

Radclyffe Hall, The Unlit Lamp (1924)

‘So vampire-like and vast in her demand for my entire attention and sympathy . . . Lord, lord, how many daughters have been murdered by women like this!’

Virginia Woolf, Letters (29 September 1930)

‘Every day a host of human vampires drain the life blood of those who are their nearest and should be their dearest . . . the most usual species is the widowed mother with a daughter of any age from 20 to 50.’

Letter to The Times, (May 1914)

Something quite extraordinary took place in fiction written by women between the two world wars of the early twentieth century. Separated by geography, by class, by experience and by the years themselves, many women who didn’t even know of one another’s existence, let alone what each was writing, were nevertheless producing novels with a single theme in common: the battle between mothers and daughters.

In books by women as diverse as Edith Wharton and May Sinclair, Radclyffe Hall and Antonia White; from the Anglo-Irish ‘Big House’ of Molly Keane to the elite Boston homes of Olive Higgins Prouty, all the daughters fought, and some fought even to the death. They fought to express themselves freely; they fought to create their own identities. Sometimes they fought just to be allowed to leave ‘home’.

A ‘home’ that was presided over by inhuman ‘vampires’ and ‘demons’; ‘despots’ and ‘tyrannical’ matriarchs; passive-aggressive invalids who wouldn’t let their daughters leave, or who resented the daughters they never wanted in the first place. Even a convent run by a ‘Mother Superior’, supposed to care but determined instead to ‘break the will’ of her charges, was a dangerous place for girls. The maternal ‘home’, in its many different guises, was, for many young women caught between the wars, a site of suffocation and stagnation.

That it should have such power is perhaps surprising to us. After all, the First World War had seen women take up war work like ambulance driving and nursing whilst living alone in apartments or boarding houses. The post-war decade, the ‘Roaring Twenties’, was a ‘Jazz Age’ full of ‘flappers’ epitomised by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy, of The Great Gatsby, who shortened their dresses and drank cocktails. Even the Great Depression of the Thirties encouraged women out of the home, if only to go looking for work when their husbands or fathers fell unemployed, just as impoverished and newly abandoned wife Mildred Pierce went searching, in the pages of James M. Cain’s eponymous 1941 novel.

Yet the freedom to work, and the freedom to behave and dress and move as they liked, wasn’t granted to every woman, or to every woman writer. For many white, middle-class, female protagonists in novels, written by white, middle-class women for the very same audience, none of these freedoms were permitted. And the person refusing permission was none other than the protagonist’s – and in some cases, the author’s – own mother.

May Sinclair’s 1919 experimental and semi-autobiographical novel, Mary Olivier: A Life, was perhaps the first to explore this theme. Sinclair’s biographer, Suzanne Raitt, claims that the author once admitted that this novel ‘was the story of her own life’. If so, it was a devastating critique of Sinclair’s relationship with her mother. Mary Olivier, like Sinclair herself, is the only daughter amongst four siblings, and is supremely conscious growing up that her mother prefers her sons to her; that nothing she does will ever be good enough:

‘Her thoughts about her mother went up and down. Mamma was not helpless. She was not gentle. She was not really like a wounded bird. She was powerful and rather cruel. You could only appease her with piles of hemmed sheets and darned stockings. If you didn’t take care she would get hold of you and never rest until she had broken you and twisted you to her own will.’

Mary Olivier is intellectually gifted, which her mother resents; she reads philosophy and poetry, which her mother discourages; she has a crisis about religion, which her mother forces upon her. Suzanne Raitt suggests that Sinclair’s mother’s coldness towards her was possibly the result of losing another daughter, born a few years before Sinclair. ‘However she hard she tried [though], it was difficult for her to act like the demure and obedient shadow-self her mother wanted her to be.’ Even after her mother has died, her brothers are gone and her lover married to someone else, Mary Olivier observes, ‘If only she could dream about Mark. But if she dreamt of any of them it was always Mamma . . .’

May Sinclair’s real-life relationship with her mother was, Raitt observes, an ambivalent one, for ‘in spite of her resentment of her mother, [May] longed for her approval and some token of affection.’ Radclyffe Hall, by comparison, whose debut, The Unlit Lamp, appeared in 1924, four years before her scandalous autobiographical novel The Well of Loneliness, was not motivated by quite such a personal experience, but rather by the sight of two women in a hotel: ‘the gentle tyrant mother, and virgin daughter, withering on her stem . . .’ She wrote the novel, Zoe Fairbairns writes in her introduction to the 1980 Virago edition, ‘because she was moved, as a novelist, by a glimpse of a human predicament.’ In The Unlit Lamp and the story of Joan Ogden, the bright young mathematician who tries and fails to escape the tendrils of her clinging, needy mother, perhaps Hall was also indulging in the nightmare route her own life might have taken, had she not had the courage to strike out on her own.

For Mrs Ogden is truly a monstrous mother. Stuck in an unhappy marriage with a husband whose lovemaking she finds brutal, she seeks comfort and solace in her boyish daughter that almost borders on sexual desire:

‘There were days when the desire to produce an effect upon someone became a positive craving. She would listen for Joan footsteps on the stairs, and then assume an attitude, head back against the couch, hand pressed to eyes . . . Then Joan’s strong, young arms would comfort and soothe, and her firm lips grope until they found her mother’s; and Mrs Ogden would feel mean and ashamed but guiltily happy, as if a lover held her.’

This troubling desire prevents Joan going to Cambridge and prevents her living with the young governess, Elizabeth, who loves her; prevents her having any kind of independent life. Even when Mrs Ogden finally dies, it’s far too late: Joan, in an ending as heart-breaking and nightmarish as anything Thomas Hardy could conjure up, finds the only avenue open to her is caring for yet another needy, difficult, elderly invalid. In their different ways – Mrs Olivier by not loving her daughter enough, and Mrs Ogden by loving her daughter too much – both mothers damage their daughters irreversibly.

And even when a woman isn’t a biological mother of daughters, she still manages to inflict pain and suffering. Edith Wharton complicates the issue in her 1924 novella, The Old Maid, when Delia Ralston takes in her cousin’s illegitimate daughter, Tina, causing her to turn against her actual biological mother, Charlotte, who has become a nasty, prudish spinster. And in Antonia White’s 1933 autobiographical novel, Frost in May, her heroine, Nanda Grey, who has been sent to a Catholic boarding school, just as White was, and hankers after popularity amongst the schoolgirls as well as the approval of the nuns, is warned by Mother Radcliffe during a crucial confrontation:

‘“You are very fond of your own way, aren’t you, Nanda?”

“Yes, I suppose so, Mother.”

“And do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely? Broken and reset in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?”’

Nanda doesn’t heed the Mother Superior’s warning. She writes a romance novel in secret and when it is discovered, Mother Radcliffe waits until Nanda’s birthday before calling her parents to have her expelled. Nanda’s father disowns her as Mother Radcliffe tells her, ‘“I once told you before that every will must be broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God’s will . . . I am only acting as God’s instrument in this. I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed.” Nanda glanced at the nun’s face. It was pale and controlled as usual, yet lighted with an extraordinary, quiet exaltation . . .’

This description of Mother Radcliffe at her most cruel might also work as a description of the Virgin Mary, that most idealised mother, and it is possible to argue that the depictions of these mothers by Sinclair, Hall and White, whether autobiographical or not, perhaps function more as different representations of patriarchy: firstly, a patriarchal society that disapproves of the kind of independence young women got to enjoy during wartime, and which starts to clamp down on them once the men come home and take up their jobs again, and secondly, a patriarchal religion that prefers an idealised maternal figure who doesn’t threaten any real power. In other words, it is not mothers whom these daughters fear and fight; it is the patriarchal order they reflect.

This argument is complicated, however, by the difference between ‘patriarchal mothers’ and ‘resisting mothers’ as developed by E. Ann Kaplan in her 1992 study Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Cinema. The ‘popularised Freudian type of mother’ is one she sees in Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1941 novel, Now, Voyager, which was also made into a hugely successful film starring Bette Davis the following year. Charlotte Vale is a dowdy spinster daughter, ruled by a matriarchal terror who insists her daughter wears glasses she doesn’t need, grows her eyebrows, wears sensible shoes and doesn’t attract the attention of a potential husband, all the better to remain at home and look after her in her old age. When Charlotte suffers a breakdown and her sister-in-law Lisa engineers an assessment by psychiatrist, Dr Jacquith, which allows Charlotte to swap the confines of her mother’s Boston home for Cascades, a more gentle prison in the form of a mental institution, Charlotte’s recovery can only go so far:

Now, Voyager, starring Bette Davis (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

‘“But what will Mother say?” she had asked Lisa weakly, gazing dubiously at the furs. “You know very well she will think they are too showy for me. And they are! Why, if I should suddenly appear in these even the maids would be shocked.”’

In an interview, Davis claimed that she received an overwhelming response from female fans who wrote to tell her they had a mother just like Charlotte’s. Kaplan argues that ‘Mrs Vale’s possessive, controlling behaviour served as a displacement for social anxiety at the very moment when the United States’ entry into the Second World War entailed women’s entry in to the work force in large numbers.’ It was ‘fear of the mother’s power, spilling out into the public sphere and not safely confined within the home . . . that fed into the production of the hated, controlling figure.’

In this reading, daughters are merely dupes of the patriarchal oppression they are trying to fight, by making their mothers into ‘hate figures’. Kaplan cites Prouty’s earlier bestseller, Stella Dallas, published in 1923, as a more ‘resisting’ novel in its depiction of a mother who, far from over-identifying with her daughter and punishing her or limiting her, gives her up so that she may have a better life. Her act of ‘resistance’ is an act of self-sacrifice.

What we must ask, is why these women writers chose a mother to represent patriarchal oppression, and not a father. Prouty, Hall and Sinclair were all well aware of Freud; they knew about the Electra complex; they knew what they were doing in their novels. Were they indeed simply carrying out a patriarchal, Freudian fantasy of mother-hate? In Molly Keane’s Anglo-Irish novels of the Thirties, perhaps the reason for their choice of mother-hate as opposed to father-hate figures is clearest. Both Full House (1935) and The Rising Tide (1937) are dominated by mirrors and reflections. In Full House, for instance, Lady Bird likes to see herself in her daughter, Sheena: ‘she took a keen delight in buying her lovely clothes and seeing her virginal triumphs. In thinking to herself: So was I once. So I loved and schemed.’

But Sheena isn’t like her mother and doesn’t want to be. There is a hallway mirror that Sheena, ‘though she was as vain as a peacock, paid no more attention to her reflection than a swan might with other matters to occupy its silly mind.’

Yet it’s her mother who holds the key to her happiness. Sheena is engaged to a man she loves but when she realises that she has an ancestor on her father’s side who went mad, she calls off her engagement for fear of what future children might inherit. Only her mother knows the truth: that Sheena is the product of an affair her mother had. That information could restore Sheena to the man she loves, but Lady Olivia withholds it.

In The Rising Tide, Lady Charlotte is a ‘shocking despot’ with a ‘strange sense of her own power’ and ‘as much authority over her own children as any prison Governor.’ She is mistress of the great Garonlea who forces one daughter, Enid, to marry a man she doesn’t love and who will beat her, and controls the lives of her other two daughters, Muriel and Diana, to the great detriment of both young women. When her son, Desmond is killed, her daughter-in-law Cynthia inherits Garonlea but crucially, she is unable to prevent herself turning into another Lady Charlotte: ‘They were both taken aback by the reflection of (Cynthia’s) face which they could see in the mirror. It looked grotesque with her pretty hair and her strong assured shoulders coming out of her beautiful lilac and pink dress. Perhaps it was only the reflection . . . distorted in the glass. But was that haunted, hungry face the real Cynthia, or the smooth bare back and strong pretty neck and quick able hands more like her?’

The reflection in the mirror is of what the daughter fears she will become: her mother. The daughter doesn’t fear turning into the father because that would involve a change of sex. It’s the mirroring that is important. And why should a daughter fear turning into her mother? Because these mothers are unloved. In almost every novel, the mothers are unloved by their husbands and children, or they are indulged by men who don’t understand them and by children who know how foolish and frivolous they are. And it’s love that the daughters, both as authors and protagonists, crave. Love with women, or love with men, is the kind of love that leads to freedom, and it is set up in opposition to the kind of mother ‘love’ that leads only to suffocation.

In this respect, the women writers here slip out from under the charge of being mere ‘dupes’ of patriarchy. By resisting what patriarchy tells them they will become – just like their mothers – they fight against a limited and limiting future. They turn the focus away from a patriarchal mother and back on to themselves when they fall in love; they claim a different kind of future. In Now, Voyager, for instance, Olive Higgins Prouty shows Charlotte Vale choosing to be a different kind of mother. She gives her lover’s child a home, but eschews marriage to him. She embraces the daughter, but doesn’t suffocate or control her.

The novels written by women between the wars weren’t simply depictions of a problematic present they witnessed or endured themselves. They were visions of a nightmarish future they knew they had to avoid at all costs. For they could see too clearly not just how hard-won women’s freedoms were – after all, it took a world war to give women in the UK the vote for the first time – but also how short-lived some of those freedoms might prove to be. They were daughters who knew that they had to be a different breed of mothers, if they chose to be mothers in the first place. And that such a choice would only be possible after the hardest battle of all.