Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale explores motherhood from a number of different angles. The Handmaids’ lives are reduced to a single function – to bear children. They are denied the chance to be mothers to their children once they are born. Offred is herself a mother to a nameless child who has been taken from her, and she grieves her deeply. She also grieves her own mother, a feminist and an activist whom Offred was often embarrassed by as a teenager, wishing for a more conventional upbringing.

‘Despite everything, we didn’t do badly by one another, we did as well as most,’ Offred reflects. ‘I wish she were here, so I could tell her I finally know this.’

Sethe in Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

Beloved is perhaps Toni Morrison’s best-loved work, the iconic winner of the Pulitzer Prize with high-profile fans including Bernardine Evaristo, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 

In this tale of brutality and enduring maternal love, Sethe, who has escaped from slavery, is fiercely desperate to secure a different future for her own children, even when that means going against everything that society says a mother should be. Living with her surviving youngest daughter, Sethe is haunted by the spectre of her eldest girl – an unnamed child known only by the epitaph on her headstone, ‘Beloved’. Year’s after the baby’s death, a young woman turns up at Sethe’s home, introducing herself as Beloved. 

‘Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing.’

Marmee in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

Louisa May Alcott’s Margaret ‘Marmee’ March is one of the most celebrated mothers in fiction. Warm, kind and loving, Mrs March puts her daughters’ happiness before anything else. As liberal and forward-thinking as Marmee is, this was still a time when marriage was considered to be the ultimate goal for any young woman.

‘I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send.’

Mum in The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991)

Ben Okri’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road, is narrated by the spirit child Azaro; a boy who exists between life and death, but who chooses to stay in the land of the Living with the parents he loves. While Azaro tells us that many mothers would fear such a child, Mum is proud of his powers, seeing them as miraculous. She works hard every day, hawking items at the market to provide for her son and family.

‘I went about the market confused by many voices that could have been Mum’s, many faces that could have been hers, and I saw that her tiredness and sacrifice were not hers alone but were suffered by all women, all women of the marketplace.’

Helen Graham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (1848)

Anne Brontë’s utterly gorgeous novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is widely considered to be one of the very first feminist books. Helen Graham escapes an abusive marriage to an alcoholic husband, arriving at Wildfell Hall with her young son to pursue a career as an artist. In 1848 such actions were unheard of, and indeed Helen soon falls prey to rumour, becoming a social outcast for the unconventional choices she has made to protect her son.

‘And why should I take it for granted that my son will be one in a thousand? – and not rather prepare for the worst, and suppose he will be like his – like the rest of mankind, unless I take care to prevent it?’

Gertie Nevels in The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow (1954)

Harriette Arnow’s masterpiece The Dollmaker is a lesser-known classic, but no less brilliant for it. The book opens with Gertie Nevel struggling down a Kentucky mountain on a mule with her deathly sick baby boy in her arms. Desperate to get him to a doctor, she flags down a car and persuades the driver to take her. On the way, she has to perform a tracheotomy on the infant to stop him from suffocating. This fierce display of protective mothering instinct is so much a part of Gertie. She gives up everything to keep her family together and to give her children the best possible start, moving from the mountains to Detroit.

‘What was the good of trying to keep your own [children] if when they grew up their days were like your own – changeovers and ugly painted dolls?’

Zala Spencer in Those Bones Are Not My Child by Toni Cade Bambara (1999)

Written over the span of twelve years,Those Bones Are Not My Child is Toni Cade Bambara’s magnum opus, based on the real-life Atlanta Child Murders of the early 1980s.

Zala Spencer is just scraping by on the edges of Atlanta’s booming economy, when she wakes one morning to find that her teenage boy, Sonny, has disappeared. Her son is among the many cases of missing children beginning to attract national attention. In the face of coldly indifferent authorities, Zala embarks on an epic search, refusing to give up hope.

‘For nearly a year mothers had been put off and trivialized in in-house memos as female hysterics.’


Mrs Ramsay in To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)

To The Lighthouse is one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century, as well as an intensely autobiographical portrait of Virginia Woolf’s feelings towards her deceased mother. Upon reading it, Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister, wrote that ‘it is almost painful to have [our mother] so raised from the dead.’

The narrative of To The Lighthouse follows the middle class Ramsay family as they holiday at their summer house in Skye, flowing in and out of the minds as they reflect on one another – and not least upon Mrs Ramsay, the perfect mother who is nevertheless somehow unknowable.

‘What was the reason, Mrs Ramsay wondered, standing still to let her clasp the necklace she had chosen, divining, through her own past, some deep, some buried, some quite speechless feeling that one had for one’s mother at Rose’s age. Like all feelings felt for oneself, Mrs Ramsay thought, it made one sad. It was so inadequate, what one could give in return; and what Rose felt was quite out of proportion to anything she actually was.’

All the mothers in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

Herland is a thought experiment in novel form – an imaginary utopian society led and populated by women. Reproducing simply by developing a feeling of ‘child-longing’, the women raise their children in a collective fashion.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was radical in her own approach to motherhood, and reviled for it – she left her daughter to be raised by her ex-husband when work consumed her. Herland is her answer to much of the criticism she weathered.

‘Child-rearing has come to be with us a culture so profoundly studied, practiced with such subtlety and skill, that the more we love our children the less we are willing to trust that process to unskilled hands – even our own.’

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