Thanks, Mom!: Memorable Mothers in Fiction

mothers-day-4Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and my sister and I spent it trying to give our mom a day to enjoy. So there were flowers, a movie, a special dinner (broiled citrus-glazed salmon, rice pilaf, and haricots vert), and for dessert, an apple pie from The Apple Pan(which to my mind is the best you can get if you don’t make it yourself).

Naturally, the occasion got me to thinking of fictional mothers whose devotion to their families merit the flowers, the candy, the special dinners, and the love.

Rather to my surprise, I found fewer than expected in the romance genre, possibly because so many heroes and heroines are orphans or the victims of abusive, selfish, or neglectful parents. Dysfunctional families bring the drama, after all! Spreading the net wider yielded better results, and revived some of my fondest memories as a reader.  So here is a list of 10 Memorable Mothers in Fiction. They may not occupy center stage, but without them, their children would a) not exist, and b) not accomplish nearly as much as they do.

(Note: It wasn’t easy to rank these women, given their overall awesomeness, and the order boils down to my personal preference. Also, in so much as I can be said to have used specific criteria while making my choices, they all had to be series characters whose parenting style spread over multiple books).

10. Anne Shirley Blythe (L.M. Montgomery): We first get to know Anne as an eleven-year-old orphan and follow her through adolescence, adulthood, marriage, and motherhood, which she attains in Anne’s House of Dreams. Overall, Anne’s domestic life is fairly idyllic: she is a loved and loving wife and an affectionate, nurturing mom whose six adoring children would do anything for her (including walk through a graveyard at night). We don’t see much conflict between her and the kids, though there are a number of lovely moments where Anne recognizes some of her own foibles and flaws in them–i.e., the aforesaid graveyard incident.

9. Rose O’Byrne Belford (Lenora Mattingly Weber): During the 1940s and 1950s,  Weber wrote two series (which would probably be marketed as YA today) about single-parent families, the Malones (deceased mother) and the Belfords (deceased father). The protagonists of the latter are the Belford daughters, Katie Rose and Stacy, but their mother, Rose, is a major character. After her beloved husband dies in a car accident, Rose works hard to provide for her six children, supporting them by playing piano at the local Italian restaurant, making their clothes or finding them secondhand, and accepting less than perfect groceries at bargain prices so she can afford to feed them all. In one book, Katie Rose, who secretly yearns for a more orderly, gracious life, comes to appreciate her mother’s efforts much more, after Rose must tend to a sick relative and leaves her in charge of the household.

8. Violet Bridgerton(Julia Quinn): Possibly the best-known and loved mother in Regency romance. Like Rose, Violet is a widow whose beloved husband dies too young and who must raise their large brood alone. Warm, gracious, and generous, Violet is determined to see her children happily married to worthy partners, and, despite their frequent grumbling about her interference in their lives, the young Bridgertons are all devoted to their mother, continually turning to her for advice and comfort. My favorite Violet moment may be the conversation she has with her widowed daughter, Francesca, about finding love again (When He Was Wicked). Significantly, Violet herself never remarries.

7. Gemma James (Deborah Crombie): Like Rose and Violet, Gemma is a single mom. Unlike them, she was left in that condition by a deadbeat ex-husband who bolted soon after the birth of their son, Toby. And in the earliest titles of Crombie’s Kincaid/James mystery series, ambitious but frequently stressed-out Gemma struggles to balance single motherhood with a challenging job as a police sergeant for the Met. As the series progresses, Gemma falls in love with her former “guv’nor” Duncan Kincaid, who also has a child from a former marriage, and together they build a happy, stable blended family that provides a warm counterpoint to the criminal violence they encounter in their working lives. Recently, the Kincaid/James brood expanded to include a half-Pakistani child, orphaned by a murder. Recently promoted, Gemma cultivates and maintains strong relationships with all three children.

6. Molly Weasley (J. K. Rowling): The mother of seven magically gifted children, Molly is fierce, fiery, loyal, and loving–quick to open her heart and home to neglected orphan Harry Potter. She’s also more than a little scary: a much tougher parent than her mild-mannered husband, Arthur, and a powerful witch in her own right. Her children may tease her–especially twins Fred and George–but they are also devoted to her and work hard to earn her approval. Molly, for her part, always has their back and will fight tooth and nail to protect them, regardless of the danger to herself. Most memorable moment: her climactic wand duel with sadistic, psychotic Bellatrix Lestrange, which yielded the immortal line: “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!”

5. Millie Chant (Diana Wynne Jones): Some mothers are domestic goddesses–but Millie is, literally, a goddess: an enchantress so powerful that, as a young girl, she serves as the living aspect of the Goddess Asheth. As an adult, Millie is no less formidable, married to the nine-lived enchanter Chrestomanci and the mother of his two children, Julia and Roger. Less outwardly combative than Molly Weasley and deceptively ordinary in appearance, Millie is kind, gracious, loving . . . and still so powerful that her presence can make all the difference in a magical battle between the forces of good and evil. In Charmed Life, Chrestomanci–no magical slouch himself–struggles to hold back an attacking army of witches and warlocks, and can barely contain his relief when Millie suddenly materializes on the battlefield, looking taller than usual but “as kind as the end of a long day.”

4. Sybilla Crawford (Dorothy Dunnett): Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles introduces one of the most compelling heroes in historical fiction: brilliant, multifaceted, and frequently infuriating adventurer and soldier Francis Crawford of Lymond. But one delicious irony of the series is that nearly all of the hero’s major influences are female, beginning with his mother, Sybilla. Like her son, Sybilla is quick-witted, incisive, and resourceful, with a will of iron . . . that might just be stronger than his. And while Lymond is frequently enigmatic–much to the exasperation of those who follow him–it is his mother’s secrets that lie at the heart of his ongoing quest for his identity. And his mother’s indomitable will that literally pulls him back from the brink of death in a searing encounter in Checkmate, the final book in the series.

3. Amelia Peabody Emerson (Elizabeth Peters): Amelia would probably be the first to claim that motherhood ranked a distant third to her passions for Egyptology and her husband, Radcliffe Emerson. And certainly she’s nobody’s idea of a doting Victorian mum, which is understandable given that the Emersons’ precocious only son, Ramses, is hell on wheels as a child (though he grows up very nicely indeed). Bossy, opinionated, and managing, Amelia frequently bemoans the various scrapes Ramses lands himself in, as well as the dubious skills he acquires along the way, sometimes wondering why she must have such an unconventional, unruly offspring. But her complaints mask a deep pride in Ramses’s intellect and resourcefulness, and when her boy is menaced by the various villains the Emersons encounter on their continuing adventures, she defends him like a lioness protecting her cub, at one point launching into a berserker rage and beating one of his attackers bloody with her parasol.

2. Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan (Lois McMaster Bujold): Brilliant, driven, hyperactive Miles Vorkosigan owes his life to his mother Cordelia in more ways than one. Exposed to a toxic gas grenade while pregnant, Cordelia approves a risky procedure to transfer her unborn baby into a uterine replicator, his only chance for survival. Later, when the replicator is kidnapped during a political coup, Cordelia infiltrates the Imperial Palace to get her son back–and incidentally ends the coup in the process. And when Miles is born with severe birth defects, Cordelia and her husband, Aral, fight the social stigmas of Barrayar–Aral’s far from enlightened home world–to give their son every possible chance at a good life. Further down the road, Cordelia opens her heart to Mark, a clone-child created from Miles’s stolen DNA, and accepts him as her son as well. Special-needs moms have it harder than most, and Cordelia may be the ultimate special needs mom, whose parenting choices impact not only her family but ultimately the “backwater dirtball” that became her home when she married Aral.

1. Demelza Carne Poldark (Winston Graham): Graham’s hero, Ross Poldark, is a dashing renegade with radical sympathies, but I have long suspected that Ross’s wife, Demelza, was Graham’s favorite character. Born in squalor as a Cornish miner’s daughter, Demelza ascends the social ladder after marrying Ross, eventually becoming one of the most admired and respected women in the county. Throughout the series, she is depicted as a loving, committed wife and a hands-on mother, closely involved in raising her children, rather than leaving them to a nursemaid’s care. Far from being seen and not heard, the Poldark children enjoy plenty of “stage time” even before they grow old enough to play starring roles in the books. And even as adults, the young Poldarks rely on Demelza’s guidance, support, and particular wisdom–much as their father does. For her part, Demelza learns that the hardest part of being a parent is letting your grown children make their own choices, especially when those choices take them away from you–but time and again, she finds the courage and unselfishness to do just that.

Who is your favorite fictional mom?




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