Moving to the present day, several of Jacqueline Wilson’s books feature children who have to look after their parents. The best known is probably The Illustrated Mum (1999) about a single mother who is a manic depressive. She loves her girls but becomes unable to look after them, even leaving them alone and frightened at night. The younger daughter, Dolphin, is passionately loyal but Star is beginning to criticise. There is no happy ending and it is clear that the girls will always have a problem with their mother. Possibly, angry Star will find it easier to cope than distressed Dolphin.
‘Ah! what can ail thee…’: unexplained illness
Unlike earlier writers, Jacqueline Wilson is free to mention cancer by name (as in Lola Rose, 2003) and to discuss mental illness openly. The Senior Prefect by Dorita Fairlie Bruce might have been a very different book had this been the case in 1925; ‘nerves’ and ‘brain fag’ were the buzz terms then. ‘Tired’, ‘delicate’, ‘overworked’: these adjectives appear frequently in GO fiction. Even the heroically fecund and multi-functional Joey Bettany/Maynard needs periods of enforced rest in order to recover from the rigours of daily life. Hardly surprising, then, that less lively characters succumb completely.
A prime example of a mystery decline is the case of Mrs Shirley, the mother of Joan and aunt of Joy, the eponymous Abbey Girls. When Mrs Shirley is poor and struggling to bring up two girls, she manages very well. When the girls inherit money and status, she starts to shrink as a person. In the space of a few years she has become ‘old Mrs Shirley’, keeping to her room and being spared any shocks or unpleasantness. The poor soul eventually fades away completely and dies in her sleep during the last chapter of The Abbey Girls at Home (1929). Astonishingly, in this same chapter Miss Oxenham kills off ‘old Lady Marchwood’ and Ros’s mother. None of these women could have been over sixty. In addition, Jen’s mother dies before the book starts, Betty McLean’s mother, who ‘can’t stand very much’ is taken ill (so as to allow Betty to stay at the Abbey) and we learn that Lady Rennie-Brown, wife of the doctor treating Ros’s mother, is a permanent invalid with her future daughter-in-law Karen in attendance.
In view of all this, it is interesting that in the same book EJO warns against the dangers of invalidism. Jen and Mary are worried that Joy shows no interest in life and Jen says, “You don’t want her to turn into a whining invalid, pitying herself and expecting to be sympathised with and waited on, do you?” If kind friends treat the sufferers ‘like eggshell’, “They like it, and so they develop neuralgia, or nerves, or headaches or rheumatism, so that people will keep on sympathising and waiting on them.” Unthinkable for Joy, of course, but all right for Mrs Shirley, who is described later in the book as “like eggshell. Anything might be too much for her.” All of which serves simply to give the leading ladies something to mull over endlessly in their passion for ‘going deep’ into each others’ characters.
Mrs Shirley’s decline seems to date from the absence of worry in her life but in Meriel’s Choice by E L Haverfield (1933) it is money worries which bring on a nervous illness. Left a widow with responsibility for a fine old house in Stratford-upon-Avon, Mrs Nicholls turns part of the home into tea rooms to make ends meet. As a result, her daughter Meriel suffers from snobbery when she is sent to boarding school by her rich godmother, Aunty Fitz. Things get worse when Mrs Nicholls becomes seriously ill and is told that she must never work again as she has been doing: the shop must close and the old house be sold. Luckily, Aunty Fitz (Lady Fitz-William) solves an unlikely family mystery and all is saved, upon which Mrs Nicholls recovers. “Needless to say, the good news that all her money worries are at an end has acted like a tonic.”
It would be tempting to suggest that the ill health suffered by the mothers of so many GO heroines resulted from married women’s confinement to the role of homemaker and their lack of independent means. Such a case does not stand up. Many GO mothers seem happy enough and the more bracing GO authors have no truck with invalidism. Angela Brazil, for instance, gives short shrift to the invalid Mrs Hardy in At School with Rachel (1928). Most of the mothers in Jacqueline Wilson’s books have jobs but this does not make them happy or healthy. The one constant is that most girls love their mothers, however inadequate they may be, and that the fear of loss of a parent is one of childhood’s greatest dreads. Illness will therefore always be a staple plot tool for writers who want to stir the reader’s emotions.
-- Barbara Dryden
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