Pondering fictional mothers–and the lack of

Many moons ago, I had a question from a reader with regard to Lady Julia’s lack of a mother. It made for a good post topic, so I’m revisiting.

Last month a reader—whose name I have shamefully forgotten—asked me why Julia has no mother. She was intrigued by the fact that the March family is so large and so boisterous and yet missing this key component. And I told her, quite simply, mothers get in the way.

Very often in fiction, particularly fairy tales and children’s books, mothers are absent. It’s because they care too much. They are always checking to make sure you’ve eaten your vegetables and put on a sweater and don’t run off with dishy private enquiry agents to investigate your late husband’s death. So, my choice was either to make Julia motherless or to make her mother a very liberal sort who didn’t much care what Julia got up to.

The former was infinitely simpler. For starters, I’ve already got a complicated parent in Lord March. He is contradictory. Sometimes he meddles, other times he is benignly neglectful. He can act with a mischief that borders on the malicious where his children are concerned, but he can also retreat into firmly Victorian patriarchy when it suits him. He doesn’t make much sense to anybody but himself because he is the most thoroughly whimsical member of a very whimsical family. Creating a mother even MORE capricious than that was simply beyond what I wanted to do.

Choosing not to give Julia a mother set up an interesting complication that I didn’t even realize until I was in discussion with a book group. One of the members wondered why Julia seems to strike up so many relationships with women who are older than she is: Fleur, Rosalie, Hermia, Portia, and to a lesser extent Magda and Morag. I immediately blurted out that they were mother-substitutes. I tend to speak off-the-cuff when I’m doing these phone chats and just hope what I’m saying makes sense. In this case, it actually made profoundly good sense. Julia, bereft of a mother figure, is constantly seeking a mother replacement. This makes for a complex and more interesting character, even if it wasn’t my conscious intention at the beginning. (Yet another example of how your subconscious can do lovely things when you aren’t paying attention.)