When Sweet Violets Sicken: Sick Mothers in GO Fiction
This is about the ways in which the illnesses of mothers affect GO heroines. “It is the mother, always the mother, who makes the home,” wrote Enid Blyton in The Story of My Life published in 1952. The ideal mother in children’s fiction is like Mrs Walker, mother of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows or Gwenda Grey, Tamzin’s mother in the Romney Marsh books by Monica Edwards. They are capable, outdoor types who are never ill and whose children only worry about worrying them by their own hair-raising activities. Not all fictional children are so lucky. Mother may be dead, or disabled in some way; she may suffer a sudden illness from which she recovers or endure a slow and inexplicable decline into invalidism.
‘Gone before…’: missing mothers
Some GO mothers influence their daughters from beyond the grave. Drina instinctively longs to dance, despite being told nothing of her mother’s fame as a ballerina. (Ballet for Drina, Jean Estoril 1957 & others.) Kit Haverard (The Lark in the Morn, Elfrida Vipont, 1948), knowing that her own mother had been a singer, resists family pressure and pursues her dream. Sorrel Forbes remembers her mother but is unaware that she was ‘the lovely Adeline Warren’. Once she appreciates that she is as much ‘a Warren’ as her talented cousin Miranda, Sorrel begins to believe that she too can become an actress. (Curtain Up, Noel Streatfeild 1944.)
‘Do the task that’s nearest…’: sacrifice
Readers of the Girls’ Own Annual during its Flora Klickmann years will be familiar with her articles exhorting girls not to indulge in fantasies of becoming vaguely ‘famous’ but to look around them for ways to be genuinely useful. Her book The Path to Fame (1925) develops this theme and ends with the advice to ‘ask yourself if you would be equally willing to … go and look after some invalid relative … living a bright unselfish life in a home’ That many women did make this sacrifice can be shown by a quick scan of the author biographies in The Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories (Sims & Clare, 2000). Nancy Breary, in the 1920s, ‘was…running the Breary household as her mother was an invalid’. Mary K Harris received no higher education because she was ‘required to look after her mother’, a demanding semi-invalid. Ierne Plunket ‘gave up her academic career to look after her ailing mother until the latter’s death’. Other examples are given and it is no wonder that many girls in GO fiction are called upon to follow the same path.
Elinor M Brent-Dyer, who made a home for her own mother for many years, was fond of using a mother-emergency as a plot device. Just three examples are: Elfie Woodward (in Shocks for the Chalet School, 1952) being forced temporarily to give up school and training college because of the unexpected death of her stepmother; Peggy Bettany sacrificing two terms at school in Switzerland (Bride Leads the Chalet School, 1953) after her mother’s operation; Mary-Lou Trelawney giving up Oxford to look after her mother. In the Trudy books by Mary Alice Faid (published between 1949 and 1970) mother is a strong person and it is father who is ill. After his death, however, mother takes to afternoon rests and suffers from headaches. There is no suggestion that she might get a job: it is Trudy who makes the sacrifice of giving up school and the hope of teacher training college so that her brother can continue at art school. (Mother later becomes her old self.) There are examples in non-GO books, as well. In Malcolm Saville’s Christmas at Nettleford (1953), Elizabeth’s form mistress, ‘the Hambone’, tells the girls that she will not be returning to the school as she has ‘other duties at home’. The way of duty is plain for the single girl or woman.
‘Mother…has to rest all day…’: disability
Katy Carr and Cousin Helen are two of the most famous invalids in children’s fiction. Katy recovers, Helen doesn’t; neither is a mother and both bear their trials too well to require sacrifices others are not willing to make. Katy’s schoolfellow Louisa Agnew, however, seems fated to look after her invalid mother for life, although both she and her mother are cheerful about the situation. In Clover (1888) Louisa writes to Katy that coming to Katy’s wedding is impossible for “a person who, like myself, has a house to keep and two babies to take care of.” However pleasant Mrs Agnew is, it seems selfish of her to have babies for Louisa to look after.
GO invalids don’t necessarily make demands on their children. Despite her disability, Mrs Halford, in Pamela Brown’s The Swish of the Curtain (1941) has produced three children and runs her home from her bed or wheelchair with the help of two maids. Although “ father has old-fashioned ideas about a woman’s place being in the home”, daughter Vicky never seems to feel she should help her mother in any way, even by providing companionship. It is the mother here who makes the sacrifices, insisting to her husband that she will not go abroad for treatment “if it means Vicky giving up her dancing.” In contrast, the perfectly fit Mrs Fane would like Sandra to stay at home, saying, in Blue Door Venture (1949), “I don’t think you need to look for anything else to do. You’re really very valuable to me about the house.”
Another self-sacrificing invalid is Mrs Lanyon, in Mrs Henry Clarke’s The Ravensworth Scholarship (1894). Widowed Mrs Lanyon is described by strong minded Miss Deane as “One of Thackeray’s women – I believe her name is Amelia.” It is never made clear exactly what is wrong with her, just that “Mother never goes anywhere…She is not strong enough,” and she rests in the afternoons. Ruth, who is in Miss Deane’s care, is slaving for a scholarship, although she is not academic. The author, herself a scholar, praises the ‘dainty housewifery’ of Mrs Lanyon and it is the quiet invalid, rather than Ruth’s teacher sister Rhoda or progressive Miss Deane, who sees that Ruth is making herself ill through overwork. There is a nice irony in the scene where she insists that a doctor is called. Miss Deane is busy with an essay on “Womanly Ideals”, while Mrs Lanyon personifies them. The moral is that each person should do the task they are best fitted for. Cicely Lanyon, who is clever, wins a scholarship and Ruth turns to needlework instead of books. Mrs Lanyon will not stand in the way of her daughter’s future academic success, although it will mean loneliness for her.
‘I’m afraid it’s serious…’: crisis
The disruption of a normally happy family life by the sudden illness of the mother is a useful plot device for testing character and for sorting out the heroines from the selfish little madams who need to learn a lesson. In Enid Blyton’s The Family at Red-Roofs (1945) the Jacksons and their four children move to a lovely new home and their future happiness seems certain. Then Mr Jackson is sent to America on business. No sooner is he crossing the Atlantic than Mrs Jackson who, ominously, has been looking ‘tired’ from the start of the book, is rushed into hospital for one of those mysteriously urgent operations which require a long convalescence (a hysterectomy, perhaps?). The family rallies round with the help of their newly acquired but faithful maid Jenny Wren until news comes that Mr Jackson’s ship has sunk and he is presumed dead; this has to be kept from his wife so as not to hinder her recovery. Molly, who is seventeen, leaves school, gives up her plans to train as a kindergarten teacher and gets a job. Needless to say, Mr Jackson is not dead, his wife recovers and all comes right. This is one of Blyton’s better books and the trials of housekeeping, the fears for the future and the sacrifices made by the two elder children are all well described and contrasted with the behaviour of Molly’s spoilt, rich friend. Prudence goes to pieces when her father becomes bankrupt and deserts his family. Moving in with the Jacksons, poor Prudence learns the benefits of hard work, loyalty and true family happiness.
-- Barbara Dryden
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