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New Ways to Kill Your Mother

Writers and Their Families

About The Book

Novelist and critic Colm Tóibín provides “a fascinating exploration of writers and their families” (Entertainment Weekly) and “an excellent guide through the dark terrain of unconscious desires” (The Evening Standard) in this brilliant collection of essays that explore the relationships of writers to their families and their work.

Colm Tóibín—celebrated both for his award-winning fiction and his provocative book reviews and essays—traces the intriguing, often twisted family ties of writers in the books they leave behind.

Through the relationship between W. B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, Jane Austen and her aunts, and Tennessee Williams and his sister, Tóibín examines a world of relations, richly comic or savage in their implications. Acutely perceptive and imbued with rare tenderness and wit, New Ways to Kill Your Mother is a fascinating look at writers’ most influential bonds and a secret key to understanding and enjoying their work.


New Ways to Kill Your Mother
Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother

In November 1894 Henry James set down in his notebooks a sketch for the novel that became The Wings of the Dove, which was published eight years later. He wrote about a possible heroine who was dying but in love with life. “She is equally pathetic in her doom and in her horror of it. If she only could live just a little; just a little more – just a little longer.” In his outline James also had in his mind a young man who “wishes he could make her taste of happiness, give her something that it breaks her heart to go without having known. That “something” can only be – of course – the chance to love and be loved.” James also noted as a possibility the position of another woman to whom the man was “otherwise attached and committed . . . It appears inevitably, or necessarily, preliminary that his encounter with the tragic girl shall be through the other woman.” He also saw the reason why the young man and the woman to whom he was committed could not marry. “They are obliged to wait . . . He has no income and she no fortune, or there is some insurmountable opposition on the part of her father. Her father, her family, have reasons for disliking the young man.”

This idea, then, of the dying young woman and the penniless young man on one side and, on the other, of father, family and young woman with no fortune circled in James’s fertile mind. There was no moment, it seemed, in which the second young woman would have a mother; it was “her father, her family” that would oppose the marriage; over the next five or six years James would work out the form this opposition would take, and who exactly “her family” would be.

In her book Novel Relations, Ruth Perry looked at the makeup of the family in the early years of the novel. “Despite the emphasis,” she wrote, “on marriage and motherhood in late eighteenth-century society, mothers in novels of the period are notoriously absent – dead or otherwise missing. Just when motherhood was becoming central to the definition of femininity, when the modern conception of the all-nurturing, tender, soothing, ministering mother was being consolidated in English culture, she was being represented in fiction as a memory rather than as an active present reality.”

In nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction, the family is often broken or disturbed or exposed, and the heroine is often alone, or strangely controlled and managed. If the heroine and the narrative itself are seeking completion in her marriage, then the journey there involves either the searching for figures outside the immediate family for support, or the breaking free from members of the family who seek to confine or dictate. In creating the new family upon marriage, the heroine needs to redefine her own family or usurp its power. In attempting to dramatize this, the novelist will use a series of tricks or systems almost naturally available to Jane Austen and the novelists who came after her; they could use shadowy or absent mothers and shining or manipulative aunts. The novel in English over the nineteenth century is filled with parents whose influence must be evaded or erased to be replaced by figures who operate either literally or figuratively as aunts, both kind and mean, both well-intentioned and duplicitous, both rescuing and destroying. The novel is a form ripe for orphans, or for those whose orphanhood will be all the more powerful for being figurative, or open to the suggestion, both sweet and sour, of surrogate parents.

It is easy to attribute the absence of mothers in novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the large numbers of women who died in childbirth, as high as 10 per cent in the eighteenth century. The first wives of three of Jane Austen’s brothers died in childbirth, for example, leaving motherless children. But this explanation is too easy. If it had suited novelists to fill their books with living mothers – Jane Austen’s mother outlived her, for example – then they would have done so. In Novel Relations Ruth Perry takes the view that all the motherless heroines in the eighteenth-century novel – and all the play with substitutions – “may derive from a new necessity in an age of intensifying individualism.” This necessity involved separating from the mother, or destroying her, and replacing her with a mother-figure of choice. “This mother,” Perry writes, “who is also a stranger may thus enable the heroine’s independent moral existence.”

Thus mothers get in the way in fiction; they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality, and by something more interesting and important as the novel itself developed. This was the idea of solitude, the idea that a key scene in a novel occurs when the heroine is alone, with no one to protect her, no one to confide in, no one to advise her, and no possibility of this. Thus her thoughts move inward, offering a drama not between generations, or between opinions, but within a wounded, deceived or conflicted self. The novel traces the mind at work, the mind in silence. The presence of a mother would be a breach of the essential privacy of the emerging self, of the sense of singleness and integrity, of an uncertain moral consciousness, of a pure and floating individuality on which the novel comes to depend. The conspiracy in the novel is thus not between a mother and her daughter, but rather between the protagonist and the reader.

Jane Austen’s last three novels have motherless heroines. Austen, however, does not allow this to appear as loss, or does not let this expose the heroine, or take up much of her time. Rather it increases her sense of self, it allows her personality to appear more intensely in the narrative as though slowly filling space that had been quietly and slyly left for that purpose.

In Pride and Prejudice there is a mother, but there are also two aunts, Elizabeth Bennet’s Aunt Gardiner and Mr. Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It is an aspect of Austen’s genius that, while the novel dissolves the power and influence of the mother, neutralizes her in ways both comic and blunt, the two aunts are painted in considerably different shades, one allowed a calm, civilizing subtlety, the other given a histrionic sense of entitlement. But none of the three older women in the book has any actual power, although two of them seek power and influence; power instead is handed directly to the heroine and this power arises from the quality of her own intelligence. It is her own ability to be alone, to move alone, to be seen alone, to come to conclusions alone, that sets her apart.

When Jane Austen’s niece herself became an aunt she wrote to her: “Now that you have become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great Interest whatever you do. I have always maintained the importance of aunts as much as possible, & I am sure of your doing the same now.” Austen was close to her own nieces and nephews, looked after some of them after their mothers died, and seemed to have been remembered fondly by all of them. She also lived in the hope of an inheritance from her mother’s brother Mr. Leigh-Perrot, who was married and lived in Bath. The Leigh-Perrots were childless and not amusing, but they had to be kept sweet. Her uncle’s will, which in 1817 left Austen and her siblings a thousand pounds only after their aunt’s death, did not help Austen as she herself was ill and died soon afterwards.

In Pride and Prejudice the two aunts also represent a changing England. Mrs. Gardiner’s husband, who is Mrs. Bennet’s brother, lived from trade. He was, we are told, “greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education” and it is pointed out that the Netherfield ladies, Mr. Bingley’s sisters, superior and snobbish and alert to class difference, “would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could have been so well bred and agreeable.” His wife “was an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman, and a great favourite with all her . . . nieces. Between the two eldest and herself especially, there subsisted a very particular regard.” It is to her house in London that the sisters repair in that hushed interregnum in the book when both Bingley and Darcy have disappeared and with them the prospects for Jane. It is while travelling with her aunt and uncle that Elizabeth renews her relations with Darcy. It is via them that she discovers that Darcy has rescued her sister Lydia. In other words, the Gardiners in Pride and Prejudice offer stillness, unforced opportunity, vital information, none of which is available from their mother, or indeed their father. This idea that the sisters have to be removed from the family home for the novel to proceed makes the role of their uncle and aunt essential in the book, but also natural.

Austen feels free, on the other hand, to make Lady Catherine de Bourgh imperious and comic, her wealth and power serving to make her ridiculous rather than impressive. She is an aunt who does not prevail; her presence in the book succeeds in making Darcy her nephew more individual, more himself and less part of any system. His aunt’s function is not merely then to amuse us, or to show us an aspect of English manners that Jane Austen thought was foolish, but to allow her nephew, who refuses to obey her, a sort of freedom, a way of standing alone, that will make him worthy of Elizabeth and worthy too of the novel’s moral shape. Its suggestion that only those who are prepared to move outside their family’s arena of influence, to move out of the sphere of blood and inheritance as the centre of control, towards the autonomous and the personal, will become important in other areas of English life as the nineteenth century proceeds.

Austen understood, however, the strange dynamic of an extended family and how much could be made fluid and uncertain, detached and semi-detached, within its boundaries. Within their family, both Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra, as Marilyn Butler has pointed out in “Jane Austen and the War of Ideas,” “played a key role as travellers between the households [of their brothers] and assiduous correspondents . . . Jane somewhat closer to and more preoccupied with two of her younger brothers – Henry, said to have been her favourite, who lived in London, and the sailor Frank, who reported to her from various war fronts . . . The sisters made good aunts and friends to the next generation.”

Since two of her brothers, Frank and Charles, went to sea and were away from home for long periods of time, it is easy to see the intensely tender and constant feelings that Fanny Price in Mansfield Park has for her brother William, also away at sea, as being a fundamental part of Austen’s emotional world. The novel itself begins by breaking a family, by taking Fanny Price from her own impoverished family and handing her, almost as a changeling, to the care of her two aunts. The fact that she is penniless leaves her unprotected and requires her to be timid and passive.

Since the opening of the novel has all the bearings of a fairy tale, it must have been tempting for Austen to make Lady Bertram, the aunt in whose house Fanny will live, an evil ogre and make Mrs. Norris, the aunt who lives nearby, into the kind and watchful aunt. Or make them both ogres. What she decided to do was to hand all the badness to Mrs. Norris. It is Mrs. Norris who emphasizes Fanny’s precarious position as someone who is inside the family enough to be given shelter but outside it enough to be regularly insulted. When Fanny refuses to take part in the play-acting, for example, her aunt Norris emphasizes her isolation and vulnerability: “I shall think her a very obstinate girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her – very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is.”

The reader is thus free to dislike Mrs. Norris for her cruelty and to admire Fanny for her forbearance. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees Mrs. Norris as “one of the great villains of literature”; the critic Tony Tanner as “one of Jane Austen’s most impressive characters and indeed one of the most plausibly odious characters in fiction.” All this is clear, at times rather too clear. What is not clear is what the reader should feel about the other aunt, Lady Bertram, the mistress of Mansfield Park. Tomalin dislikes her: “Fanny’s experience at Mansfield Park is bitter as no other childhood is in Austen’s work. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is virtually an imbecile; she may be a comic character and not ill-tempered, but the effects of her extreme placidity are not comic.” Tanner takes a similar view:

Lady Bertram is a travesty of those values [of quietness and repose]. She is utterly inert, unaware, and entirely incapable of volition, effort or independent judgement. She is of course an immensely amusing character; but she also reveals the Mansfield values run to seed. In effect, she never thinks, moves, or cares: amiable enough in that she is not malicious, she is, in her insentient indolence, useless as a guardian of Mansfield Park and positively culpable as a parent. And it is her sofa-bound inertia which permits the ascendancy of Mrs. Norris. Lady Bertram does not represent quietness and repose so much as indifference and collapse.

In his essay on Mansfield Park, Lionel Trilling has another reading of Lady Bertram, claiming that she is a self-mocking representation of Jane Austen’s wish to “be rich and fat and smooth and dull . . . to sit on a cushion, to be a creature of habit and an object of ritual deference.”

It is possible to argue, on the other hand, that Lady Bertram, rather than being merely a piece of self-mockery, is one of Austen’s most subtle, restrained and ingenious creations. This probably requires a different attitude to the novel than that displayed by Tomalin and Tanner, or indeed Trilling. The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgements on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place. This is not to insist that a character in fiction is merely a verbal construct and bears no relation to the known world. It is rather to suggest that the role of a character in a novel must be judged not as we would judge a person. Instead, we must look for density, for weight and strength within the pattern, for ways in which figures in novels have more than one easy characteristic, one simple affect. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.

Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park in this context is easy to read; her role in the pattern of the book is obvious. She is not good, she performs no good or kind act that matters; nor is she bad, since, in turn, she performs no bad act that matters. But she is there in the book, in the house, in the family. Fanny has already lost one mother, who effectively has given her away. Aunt Norris plays the role of wicked aunt who appears now and then. Lady Bertram has four children of her own, and with the arrival of Fanny she has a fifth. Since there is something in Austen’s imaginative system that tends to resist mothers who have an active energy, Austen has a problem now with Lady Bertram. If she makes her merely unpleasant, Fanny will have to respond to this in scene after scene because Lady Bertram is, unusually, an aunt in residence rather than an aunt who comes and goes. This then will become the story of the book, a simple story of cruelty and resistance to cruelty. If Lady Bertram is actively cruel to Fanny, then how will she treat her own children? If she treats them with kindness and cares for them, then the intensity of their agency will be diluted. If she is cruel to them too, then the singleness of Fanny, her solitude as a force in the book, will not emerge.

It would really make sense to kill Lady Bertram, or to have her not there, allow her to be one of those unmentioned mothers in fiction, an unpalpable absence. But in that case, there will be no real impulse for Fanny to join her household rather than that of Aunt Norris and Fanny will miss daily contact with Edmund, who notices her and then doesn’t, thus releasing important dramatic energy in the book.

In patterning the book, in creating its dynamic and its dramatics, Austen has to have Lady Bertram there as a mother and not there all at the same time; she has to give her characteristics that are essentially neutral. She might have been easily amusing or irritating or silly like Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Since her husband is away so much, she might have been given a more significant role. The pattern of Mansfield Park is essentially the pattern of the family. Even the outsider Henry Crawford comes armed with two sisters. When we look for the pattern of the book, we must therefore examine the dynamic of the family, the strange way power is held and withheld which allows the events of the novel to unfold and, more than anything, lets Fanny Price, so ostensibly dull and powerless and passive, emerge as deeply drawn and deeply powerful within the silence of her own consciousness. The novel gives her a sort of autonomy that she could not have were the pattern to be different; it allows her to move from being an outsider to taking over the narrative and, indeed, taking over generally.

Thus Austen has the ingenious idea of making the sofa, rather than the household, the realm over which Lady Bertram reigns, and making sleep, or half-sleep, her dynamic. She is too sleepy to care. When her husband is leaving for the West Indies, Austen writes: “Lady Bertram did not like at all to have her husband leave her; but she was not disturbed by any alarm for his safety, or solicitude for his comfort, being one of those persons who think nothing can be dangerous, or difficult, or fatiguing to anyone but themselves.” While she thinks about her own comfort, she does not dwell too much on the subject. It defines what she does not do rather than any of her actions. She hardly has any actions. Austen writes: “Lady Bertram did not go into public with her daughters. She was too indolent even to accept a mother’s gratification in witnessing their success and enjoyment at the expense of any personal trouble . . .” What Lady Bertram does in the book most of the time is not merely ignore others, but effectively ignore herself; she lives a gloriously underexamined life, so placing her in precisely the opposite force field to Fanny, who notices herself with considerable, almost intrusive, care, as though she were a little orphan novelist. Lady Bertram is lazy, has little to say, suffers from mild ill health. Her passivity and general lassitude play comically against her sister’s energy. But more than anything, the state of non-being, her presence as outline rather than line, her sheer inertia, her belief in the power of her own placid beauty, allow other forces in the novel – the venality of some of her children, Edmund’s sincerity – to happen, or have their effect, not because of their mother or their family or even despite the mother or the family; instead, naturally, organically, each character is given their own autonomy, thus allowing Mansfield Park to unfold as complex pattern. Lady Bertram, for example, is a loved figure in the book, but also comic. She is not merely interesting for the reader, she has a surprising way of attracting the other characters. In the centre of the book like a strange and insistent mass stands the consciousness of Fanny Price. She has no vivacity, no wit; she is mainly silent. She repels as much as she attracts. Trilling, for example, dislikes her, and writes: “Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is overtly virtuous and consciously virtuous.” This may be so, if we insist on looking at her from outside as though she were human. What is more important is that the novel is a register of her very essence. More than irritating virtue, this essence contains reason and feeling. She has a way of noticing and registering that has nothing to do with virtue, but everything to do with narrative impetus, holding the reader. It is uncertain how she will live in the book, thus filling the book with momentum.

For this momentum to happen, it is essential that she is taken away from her mother and put in the care of two aunts, neither of whom behaves in a way that is motherly. This gives her presence in the book a sort of density and strength. The idea of aunts in fiction in the nineteenth century is not merely to give the main character strength, however. It arises from a need that is more fundamental and displays the novel form itself as oddly hybrid and insecure and open to change and influence.

The novel is unsure whether it is a story, told by a single teller, or a play enacted by a number of actors. It is both static and theatrical in its systems, a sphere in which a single controlling voice operates, or many competing voices. The value of aunts in the dramatic structure of a novel is that they arrive and then they depart. They break up space and they add spice to things. Thus the arrival in Pride and Prejudice of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy’s aunt, comes with a considerable new energy in the rhythmic tone of the novel as though it were being played out not for a single passive reader but for a large eager audience. It reads as follows:

One morning, about a week after Bingley’s engagement with Jane had been formed, as he and the females of the family were sitting together in the dining room, their attention was suddenly drawn to the window, by the sound of a carriage; and they perceived a chaise and four driving up the lawn. It was too early in the morning for visitors, and besides, the equipage did not answer to that of any of their neighbours. The horses were post; and neither the carriage, nor the livery of the servant who preceded it, were familiar to them. As it was certain, however, that somebody was coming, Bingley instantly prevailed on Miss Bennet to avoid the confinement of such an intrusion, and walk away with him into the shrubbery. They both set off, and the conjectures of the remaining three continued, though with little satisfaction, till the door was thrown open, and their visitor entered. It was Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

This idea of aunts arriving and then departing and the movement within the rhythm of the prose bearing signs of all this excitement makes its way through the novels of the nineteenth century. Chapter 7 of Book 1 of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, for example, is entitled “Enter the Aunts and Uncles,” as though the page of the novel were a stage in a theatre. And in how she paints the four sisters, Mrs. Tulliver, Mrs. Glegg, Mrs. Deane and Mrs. Pullet, she moves between the comic and the serious using both dialogue and witty authorial observation; she uses the young Tom and Maggie Tulliver as observers, almost readers, almost audience, of the scene being worked out within the older generation. At stake here in this chapter is the idea of the family as a unit, as a united way of doing things, and how things will move and develop within this sense of tradition will become an important aspect of the novel’s pattern. This will be outlined in the simplest and most domestic way as Mrs. Glegg remembers that in her “poor father’s time,” every member of the family arrived for meals at the same time. Soon when Mrs. Pullet cries about the death of a neighbour, her sister argues with her in the name of family tradition rather than good sense: “‘Sophy,’ said Mrs. Glegg, unable any longer to contain her spirit of rational remonstrance, ‘Sophy, I wonder at you, fretting and injuring your health about people as don’t belong to you. Your poor father never did so, nor your aunt Frances neither, nor any o’ the family as I ever heared of.’”

And since the novel is made up not of moving characters on the stage wearing colourful costumes and knowing how to project their voices, but of grim black marks on the page, then one of the other purposes of aunts is to allow them dramatic departures or vicious arguments for the amusement of both the younger generation and the reader. The departure of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for example, is tremendously exciting. “I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.” Or the departure of Mrs. Glegg in The Mill on the Floss: “‘Well,’ said Mrs. Glegg, rising from her chair, ‘I don’t know whether you think it’s a fine thing to sit by and hear me swore at, Mr. Glegg, but I’m not going to stay a minute longer in this house. You can stay behind, and come home with the gig, and I’ll walk home.’” Or the row half a century later between Stephen’s father and his aunt Dante on Christmas Day in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Dante shoved her chair violently aside and left the table, upsetting her napkinring which rolled slowly along the carpet and came to rest against the foot of an easychair. Mr. Dedalus rose quickly and followed her towards the door. At the door Dante turned round violently and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage . . .”

Thus aunts depart in novels as aunts arrive, to break the peace and lighten the load. Of all the novelists, the one who comes most to mistrust the mother and make use of the aunt is Henry James. In his critical writings, his prefaces and his letters, James wrote very little about Jane Austen. Early on he made clear his admiration for her: “Miss Austen,” he wrote, “in her best novels, is interesting to the last page; the tissue of her narrative is always close and firm, and though she is minute and analytical, she is never prolix or redundant.” But he also wrote that “Jane Austen, with her light felicity, leaves us hardly more curious of her process, or of the experience that fed it, than the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough.” He alluded sarcastically to “the body of publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of the present twaddle of magazines, who have found their ‘dear,’ our dear, everyone’s dear, Jane so infinitely to their material purpose.” There are many ways of reading this, but it should be noted that James was not, in general, in the habit of praising other novelists; he saw his own work as a deeply self-conscious art, refined into a system, an exquisite tapestry. He did not notice anyone else operating at the same intensity and degree of deliberation as he did. But he took what he needed, as any novelist does, from his colleagues’ work, and unlike “the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough,” he saw no reason to let everyone know.

In his creation of aunts, in any case, thrush or no thrush, James took his bearings from Austen not only in the outlines of what she did, but in the complexity she sought and the dense pattern she managed while breaking up a family for the purposes of her fiction. Both Austen and James made fictional space in which things moved unexpectedly or changed shape, in which there was much ambiguity and duality. If they played with pattern, it was a pattern that left space for what was shimmering and dynamic. Both Austen and James placed at the very centre of their pattern a throbbing consciousness, a striving presence who could filter experience, on whom experience could press in ways that were unpredictable, and fascinating for the reader.

In James’s six greatest works there is an absent mother who is replaced by a real aunt or by a set of surrogate aunts. In Washington Square, for example, Dr. Sloper’s wife has died, leaving Catherine, his daughter, motherless. Her helper and confidante becomes her aunt, who is conspiratorial, mischievous, oddly kind and somewhat foolish, and always on the verge of being banished by Dr. Sloper. In The Portrait of a Lady Isabel Archer is also motherless, indeed her father is dead too, and she is found as an unprotected orphan in Albany by her aunt Mrs. Touchett, who is eccentric, wilful, bossy, interesting, both kind and brittle. Mrs. Touchett takes over Isabel’s life, takes her to England and Italy, introduces her to a new world of possibility; the aunt is effectively the agent who causes the action of the novel to take place.

This idea of James killing off mothers and replacing them with aunts could be easily misunderstood. He was close to his own mother, as he was also to his aunt Kate, who lived with the family for most of James’s upbringing, and travelled with them when they crossed and recrossed the Atlantic. But he also sought to get away from his mother, and managed to do so by settling in Europe. He was devoted to his mother and he arranged not to see her much, thus making the devotion all the more heartfelt as time went on. He wrote to her and about her with considerable filial tenderness. His response to her death was one of genuine shock and grief.

His connection to his mother, both close and tenuous, may be one of the reasons why he sought to erase so many mothers from his best work. It was an area that he did not want to explore; it was complicated and raw, too complicated and raw to be easily shaped into narrative. And his replacing her with aunts or surrogate aunts may have had something to do with the constant presence of his own aunt Kate in the household, and we may be led to this view because James tended to use the hidden or secret shape of his own life, of his own fears, and find metaphors for them in his fiction. Thus killing off your mother and replacing her with your aunt might have satisfied some hungry need James had, which he kept locked in a cupboard in the house of fiction to be produced on special occasions.

But this is too crude a reading, just as it is too easy to explore Jane Austen’s own life as an aunt, or her need to assert herself in her fiction as someone who had no mother worth speaking about, and offer these as reasons why she did not have mothers in her last three books. There is another way of reading James’s motives or reasons for sending mothers into eternity while his characters lived in finite time. It simply suited the shape of the story he was trying to tell; it was impelled by the novel rather than the novelist. In other words, it was a technical problem that the novel had, rather than a psychological problem of his own that James needed to address. In his fiction, he needed mothers to be absent because having them present would undermine his entire enterprise. The main protagonists of his best books enact a drama of self-reliance, self-invention; they live alone and unnurtured in their minds. James could make their aunts silly, foolish, capricious and eccentric, and thus make their arrival and departure interesting and delicious for the reader, but he could not bring himself to create a very foolish or indolent mother as Austen had done in Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. This was not because he didn’t have the heart or the urge – he did, after all, create bad and capricious mothers in works such as What Maisie Knew and The Spoils of Poynton – but because such an approach would not be subtle, would be too easily comic, would destroy the level of moral seriousness that he sought to conjure up in how he displayed his characters and let them respond to each other.

Dr. Sloper’s loss of his wife and second child in Washington Square is seen not only as personal but as professional. “For a man whose trade was to keep people alive, he had certainly done poorly in his own family,” James writes. When Catherine, his only living child, is ten, Dr. Sloper “invited his sister, Mrs. Penniman, to come and stay with him.” Mrs. Penniman, whose first name is Lavinia, “had married a poor clergyman, of a sickly constitution and a flowery style of eloquence, and then, at the age of thirty-three, had been left a widow, without children, without fortune – with nothing but the memory of Mr. Penniman’s flowers of speech, a certain vague aroma of which hovered about her own conversation.” She is interested in melodrama and romance, she is a schemer, she has, James writes, “a taste for light literature, and a certain foolish indirectness and obliquity of character. She was romantic, she was sentimental, she had a passion for little secrets and mysteries.”

This allows her to scheme and meddle, it allows her to amuse the reader, but it allows her also to stand in great opposition to Catherine Sloper, despite her efforts to be helpful and supportive. Her presence in the book allows Catherine to be more alone, allows her to become herself with greater force and conviction, allows the reader to see Catherine more clearly, enter her spirit more intensely. Catherine knows how to feel, and the novel is an exploration and a dramatization of this knowledge and these feelings. As the short novel proceeds, what Catherine feels becomes more solid and more complex; she becomes almost heroic in her steadfast solitude, her single-mindedness, her stubbornness. James has taken not only the figure of Fanny Price, the young girl as dull and silent orphan from Mansfield Park, but also the orphan from folk tales, and he has given her a scheming aunt, a loathsome father and a pent-up sexuality. He has also offered her silence, the silence that only the novel can exploit with exact plenitude as it takes over her yearning spirit and allows her motives a painful complexity. Part of Catherine’s strange nobility comes from the fact that she is alone in the world, her mother is absent, her aunt is a fool.

In The Portrait of a Lady, written soon afterwards, Mrs. Touchett, Isabel’s aunt,

was a plain-faced old woman, without graces and without any great elegance, but with an enormous respect for her own motives . . . She was not fond of the English style of life, and had three or four reasons for it to which she currently alluded; they bore upon minor points of that ancient order, but for Mrs. Touchett they amply justified non-residence. She detested bread sauce, which, as she said, looked like a poultice and tasted like soap; she objected to the consumption of beer by her maid-servants; and she affirmed that the British laundress . . . was not a mistress of her art.

Thus in his introduction to both Mrs. Touchett and Mrs. Penniman, James can use a style that one could describe as self-amused. The sentences chosen to describe both aunts, as indeed the very names chosen for these personages, must have been enjoyable to compose. They set a tone, but oddly enough, it is not a tone for the novel itself, which will have a different tone and texture. Rather, they alert the reader that the heroine who will suffer in the book will be alone in her suffering, it will be done in silence, with no terms for it that belong to any woman of the previous generation. These are novels that project the individual as alone in the world, her singleness a metaphor perhaps for how the world is moving and developing, and with echoes of the space in which capital must be acquired and how it must grow; but these non-fictional issues are side-shows, the individual is alone in these novels more than anything else as a way of allowing the novels themselves to breathe and thrive, to live dynamically. It is for this that the young women Catherine Sloper and Isabel Archer will have to be removed from the control and the cocoon of family. What they do, what they decide, how they live, will have a stark drama; nothing will be inevitable or part of a communal system of feeling, something passed on to generations. The idea of generation in these novels is not something organic and biological; generation occurs as energy in the individual, self-made conscience, it happens there alone.

The Portrait of a Lady exudes more energy than Washington Square not only because its heroine fills a larger space spiritually and intellectually but for two other reasons. The first is that Isabel’s solitude is not only denser and richer, but it is also given more dramatic weight. In the Preface he wrote more than twenty years later James analyzed what he had done with Isabel Archer’s “inward life,” when he referred to that scene where, by allowing her mind to circle and re-circle, he brought Isabel and the reader to a realization of what has been hidden from both up to then. “And I cannot think,” James wrote,

of a more consistent application of that ideal [of making the inward life of a character as dramatic as any set of external events] unless it be in the long statement, just beyond the middle of the book, of my young woman’s extraordinary meditative vigil on the occasion that was to become for her such a landmark. Reduced to its essence, it is but a vigil of searching criticism; but it throws the action further forward than twenty “incidents” might have done. It was designed to have all the vivacity of incident and all the economy of picture. She sits up, by her dying fire, far into the night . . . it all goes on without her being approached by another person and without her leaving her chair. It is obviously the best thing in the book . . .

The other scene from the book that James mentions in the Preface as also a key to the book’s dynamic is the scene in which

Isabel, coming into the drawing-room at Gardencourt, coming in from a wet walk or whatever, that rainy afternoon, finds Madame Merle in possession of the place, Madame Merle seated, all absorbed but all serene, at the piano, and deeply recognises, in the striking of such an hour, in the presence there, among the gathering shades of this personage, of whom a moment before she had never so much as heard, a turning-point in her life.

Madame Merle is presented to both Isabel and the reader as a surrogate aunt for Isabel, who will take the place of Mrs. Touchett or augment her effort to direct Isabel towards her destiny. Isabel will be free, of course, to resist such direction, being less brittle and selfish than Mrs. Touchett and less worldly and sociable than Madame Merle. What James then does is allow the character of Madame Merle to shift in the book, or move from being an aunt to being a rival. He sexualizes an aunt, and this act gives The Portrait of a Lady its power. He radically destabilizes the category of aunt, moves Madame Merle from being someone who protects Isabel, who stands in for her mother without having a mother’s control, to being someone who seeks to damage her, defeat her. He makes Isabel realize this by herself, through her own powers, thus making her solitude a sharp weapon, a tactic almost, as much as a vulnerable condition.

But James also wishes to dramatize, to take what happens in the secret chambers of the self, the mind at work in silence as registered by the novelist in sentences, and move this into dialogue, open drama. The scene where Madame Merle confronts Isabel, asking why Lord Warburton has not continued his interest in Pansy, the daughter of Isabel’s husband, is masterly in its stagecraft, its creation of dramatic illusion, its understanding of the sheer power in a novel of playing it as though there were two actresses on the page, rather than a silent novelist communicating with a silent reader. When Madame Merle overplays her hand by asking Isabel to “let us have him,” to let her and Osmond and Pansy have Lord Warburton, “Madame Merle had proceeded very deliberately,” James writes:

watching her companion and apparently thinking she could proceed safely. As she went on Isabel grew pale; she clasped her hands more tightly in her lap. It was not that her visitor had at last thought it was the right time to be insolent; for this was not what was most apparent. It was a worse horror than that. “Who are you – what are you?” Isabel murmured. “What have you to do with my husband?” It was strange that for the moment she drew as near to him as if she had loved him. “Ah then, you take it heroically! I’m very sorry. Don’t think, however, that I shall do so.” “What have you to do with me?” Isabel went on. Madame Merle slowly got up, stroking her muff, but not removing her eyes from Isabel’s face. “Everything!” she answered.

In that moment a transformation of an exquisite kind takes place in the book as the older woman removes her guise as aunt and puts on the mask of rival. There is another moment worthy of attention when shapes change, when figures who played one role move into another, thus adding to the texture of the book. It is in the very last chapter after the death of Ralph Touchett when Isabel embraces her aunt:

She went to her aunt and put her arm around her; and Mrs. Touchett, who as a general thing neither invited nor enjoyed caresses, submitted for a moment to this one, rising, as might be, to take it. But she was stiff and dry-eyed; her acute white face was terrible. “Dear Aunt Lydia,” Isabel murmured. “Go and thank God you’ve no child,” said Mrs. Touchett, disengaging herself.

Thus it emerges that Mrs. Touchett, as well as being an intrepid and amusing aunt, has all the time been a mother, watching over Ralph as he weakens as the book proceeds. Like Madame Merle, her role in a novel that is itself filled with duplicity is dual; the fact that she does not simply play one role, or that the simplicity of her role is so starkly undermined in that scene with Isabel, by allowing the novel to layer and offer density to its own procedures, gives it a powerfully protean dynamic.

In James’s novel The Ambassadors, written more than twenty years later, Lambert Strether appears in the guise of uncle, as, initially, Marie de Vionnet appears as aunt. Thus Chad can play the role of nephew to both and can seem to have an interest in Madame de Vionnet’s daughter. Once again, as the novel develops, James plays with absence. Chad’s father is dead; his mother is alive, but does not appear in the book except as an energy that pulls him towards her. In the empty space left by absent parents, then, it is clear what must happen. The surrogate uncle will fall for the surrogate aunt. And the two young people will find each other attractive. And the novel will, once more, be the story of the further exclusion of the mother, her annihilation all the more dramatic and satisfying because she is so needy.

James has other plans, however, and he plays these out in a recognition scene of exquisite subtlety as Strether, having made a random trip outside Paris, observes two figures in a boat, slowly sees that they have spotted him too; they are not Chad and Madame de Vionnet’s daughter, however, but Chad and the Madame herself. In the way they seek to avoid being seen, everything becomes apparent. “This little effect,” James writes,

was sudden and rapid, so rapid that Strether’s sense of it was separate only for an instant from a sharp start of his own. He too had within the minute taken in something, taken in that he knew the lady whose parasol, shifting as if to hide her face, made so fine a pink point in the shining scene. It was too prodigious, a chance in a million, but, if he knew the lady, the gentleman, who still presented his back and kept off, the gentleman, the coatless hero of the idyll, who had responded to her start, was, to match the marvel, none other than Chad.

Thus once more James has sexualized an aunt. It is as though Henry Crawford came to Mansfield Park in search of Lady Bertram rather than Fanny; or Mr. Darcy were found in the countryside in his shirtsleeves with none other than Mrs. Bennet, or Aunt Gardiner; or Mr. Bingley were found in a carriage with Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In other words, James took what was necessary for a novel in his time to have power and weight – the replacement of the mother by the aunt – and then saw what was possible, the making of the aunt not simply an enabling figure, or a cruel comic figure, or a passive figure, but a highly sexualized woman, and so, within the dynamic of the novel, a figure capable of moving at will from one role to another, causing havoc within the narrative systems created for her.

In both The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl, it is as though the mother never existed, as though the characters came into being by some method specially created by the novelist rather than by nature. She is not an absence; she was never present. She is unthinkable. Instead, a surrogate aunt emerges, who is deeply neurotic in the former book, and oddly nosy and wise in the latter. The children Flora and Miles thus inhabit that rich space made for Victorian fictional characters; they are orphaned, and nothing can happen to them until the aunt figure, in the guise of the governess, arrives, and then everything can happen. In The Golden Bowl, just as Charlotte Stant appears ready to become Maggie Verver’s potential stepmother, by marrying Adam Verver, Maggie’s father, she also becomes Maggie’s rival for the Prince, who is Maggie’s husband. As every other force in the book remains stable, solid, Charlotte is the element who is shape-changing, untrustworthy, duplicitous. Those around her can be released from being contaminated by Charlotte by the arrival of a surrogate aunt in the guise of Fanny Assingham, who will treat the story of the book as story, in the same way as a reader will, but will also be the figure who will smash the golden bowl.

In The Wings of the Dove, Kate Croy goes to her rich aunt Maud on her mother’s death, her mother having left her more or less penniless, and her aunt Maud makes her an offer that is outlined in the opening of the book. It is the offer that is at the very basis of the novel from Austen to James. Aunt Maud wishes her niece to be an orphan and wishes to control her life, or manipulate her future. She wants her niece to go and see her father. Kate tells him: “The condition Aunt Maud makes is that I shall have absolutely nothing to do with you; never see you, nor speak nor write to you, never go near you nor make you a sign, nor hold any sort of communication with you. What she requires is that you shall cease to exist for me.”

Having given up her father, Kate is now in the hands of her aunt, and it is these hands that slowly mould her and come subtly close to corrupting her. It is her aunt’s will that causes her to behave as she does. Her aunt watches over her possessively, as Aunt Peniston does Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, published three years later. In neither book is the younger woman loved or offered unconditional protection by the older woman; in both books the aunt is manipulative and difficult rather than hospitable to the orphaned niece, or comforting, or understanding. In Wharton’s book Lily Bart is brought to ruin; in The Wings of the Dove Kate Croy is allowed to ruin herself in a much more ambiguous and spiritual way; in both books, the brittle presence of the aunt hovers over the action, darting in and out of the narrative like a large needy reptile.

Into the action arrives the young heiress Milly Theale, whose history, we are told,

was a New York history, confused as yet, but multitudinous, of the loss of parents, brothers, sisters, almost every human appendage, all on a scale and with a sweep that had required the greater stage; it was a New York legend of affecting, of romantic isolation, and, beyond everything, it was by most accounts, in respect of the mass of money so piled on the girl’s back, a set of New York possibilities. She was alone, she was stricken, she was rich, and in particular was strange – a combination in itself of a nature to engage Mrs. Stringham’s attention.

Mrs. Stringham is, of course, childless, old enough to be Milly’s aunt, and she becomes Milly’s surrogate aunt to match Kate’s aunt in the novel about two women, both orphans, both in the care of their aunts, both moving slowly towards destruction, one of the body, one of the moral spirit.

This idea of the family as anathema to the novel in the nineteenth century, or the novel as an enactment of the destruction of the family and the rise of the stylish conscience, or the individual spirit, comes in more guises than the replacement of mothers by aunts. As Lionel Trilling has pointed out: “Of all the fathers of Jane Austen novels, Sir Thomas [Bertram] is the only one to whom admiration is given.” This idea of the annihilation of the communal and its replacement with the person, and the novel being one of the agents of this, as much as a result of it, comes throughout the century, however, in the guise of mothers fading and aunts arriving. As Rupert Christiansen has pointed out in The Complete Book of Aunts, it occurs in the novels between Austen and James as much as it does in their work. It occurs in the novels of Dickens (David Copperfield and Little Dorrit) and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre), of Thackeray (Vanity Fair) and Trollope (He Knew He Was Right).

But as the century went on, novelists had to contemplate the afterlives of Elizabeth and Darcy, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, had to deal with the fact that these novels made families out of the very act of breaking them. It was clear that since something fundamental had been done already in the novel to the idea of parents, something would also have to be done to the very idea of marriage itself, since marriage was a dilution of the autonomy of the individual protagonist. There is a line that can be drawn between Trollope and George Eliot and Henry James in which all three dramatize precisely the same scene, each of them alert to its implications. Each of them is alert to the power of the lone, unattached male figure in the novel. This male figure is not openly looking for a wife, and this is what makes him dangerous, more dangerous than any aunt has been. He can have an uneasy sexual presence with a way of noticing and listening. He can have the power of conscience, and the pure strength of someone who does not have obvious desires. He can represent the novelist in the novel, but is also from the future, from a world in which the making of marriages is no longer the main subject for a novelist. Once more, it is his solitude that gives him power, as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice derives his power from his solitude as much as his fortune, until he marries Elizabeth.

There is a chapter in Trollope’s novel Phineas Finn, published in 1869, called “Lady Laura Kennedy’s Headache,” when Laura Kennedy tells Phineas that her marriage has been a mistake. In doing so, she uses his first name, not having done so before, and becomes oddly intimate with him while making clear, as she says, that “I have blundered as fools blunder, thinking that I was clever enough to pick my footsteps aright without asking counsel from any one. I have blundered and stumbled and fallen, and now I am so bruised that I am not able to stand upon my feet.”

As they talk she compares Phineas, who is young, sympathetic, handsome, free, to her dry, bullying husband. As she does so, her husband approaches, and bullies her further, doing so in the presence of Phineas, who is now in possession of very dark knowledge indeed.

In George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, published in 1876, Deronda himself comes into possession of precisely the same knowledge when Gwendolen takes him into her confidence. She, like Lady Laura Kennedy, has married a bully. As in Phineas Finn, the reader learns how dangerous the Phineas or Daniel figure is, how much the bullying husband will resent him and how much the wife, locked in a nightmare marriage, will depend on him not only in her dreams but in the construction of her own narrative. Phineas and Daniel operate irresponsibly in this aspect of the novel, they are like cells who do not duplicate, or atoms whose power cannot be penetrated or dissolved. They stand outside a marriage as a force even more destructive than the husband himself, someone outside the family, utterly attractive, stealing power for themselves. A woman talking about her husband to another man offers an electric charge to the novel, a charge reflected in the very response of Gwendolen to her own confession:

She broke off, and with agitated lips looked at Deronda, but the expression on his face pierced her with an entirely new feeling. He was under the baffling difficulty of discerning, that what he had been urging on her was thrown into the pallid distance of mere thought before the outburst of her habitual emotion. It was as if he saw her drowning while his limbs were bound. The pained compassion which was spread over his features as he watched her, affected her with a compunction unlike any she had felt before . . .

In the meantime Grandcourt, the tyrant husband, watched his wife and Daniel: “No movement of Gwendolen in relation to Daniel escaped him.” In a later scene, when Gwendolen once more appeals to Deronda to understand what is happening in her marriage and he tells her, “My only regret is, that I can be of so little use to you,” the writing takes on a force, filled with shimmering movement and dramatic excitement. “Words,” she writes,

seemed to have no more rescue in them than if he had been beholding a vessel in peril of wreck – the poor ship with its many-lived anguish beaten by the inescapable storm. How could he grasp the long-growing process of this young creature’s wretchedness? – how arrest and change it with a sentence? He was afraid of his own voice. The words that rushed into his mind seemed in their feebleness nothing better than despair made audible, or than that insensibility to another’s hardship which applies precept to soothe pain. He felt himself holding a crowd of words imprisoned within his lips, as if the letting them escape would be a violation of awe before the mysteries of our human lot. The thought that urged itself foremost was – “Confess everything to your husband; leave nothing concealed” – the words carried in his mind a vision of reasons which would have needed much fuller expression for Gwendolen to apprehend them, but before he had begun to utter those brief sentences, the door opened and the husband entered.

Henry James, by the time he began The Portrait of a Lady in 1879, had followed the serialization of Daniel Deronda. He read the book carefully and disapproved of it and then took what he needed from it. In Ralph Touchett he created another male whose role was both playful and pivotal, whose skepticism and illness undermined the very idea of attachment. He operates as a sort of surrogate novelist in the book, conspiring with his father to leave Isabel a fortune so that he can amuse himself watching what she might do with freedom. When Isabel marries Osmond, Ralph becomes the one who guesses how unhappy she is, and how bullying and cold her husband. As he lies dying, once more the unhappy wife finds in a single, unattached figure a saviour, someone who will help her break the glass of her marriage. “I believe I ruined you,” he said, as she replies starkly: “He married me for the money” and then later in the scene: “Oh yes, I’ve been punished.”

Soon afterwards Ralph dies, and the family is broken. When his mother, Mrs. Touchett, hears that Madame Merle has gone back to America, she offers one of the truest and funniest lines of the book: “To America? She must have done something very bad.” And Isabel returns to her husband, and there is a sense at the end of the book that she has not returned to be his wife, part of his family, but with a new power she has found, a resource that will allow her to resist him, repel him, move in the world alone and free not only of the family she inherited and came into, but the one she chose and sought to make.

About The Author

Photograph by Reynaldo Rivera

Colm Tóibín is the author of eleven novels, including Long Island; The Magician, winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary; and Nora Webster; as well as two story collections and several books of criticism. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and has been named as the Laureate for Irish Fiction for 2022–2024 by the Arts Council of Ireland. Three times shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (June 4, 2013)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451668568

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“A typical Tóibín essay describes the arc of a writer’s development and life, and uses the writer’s own words to draw graceful conclusions about his temperament and biography…Tóibín’s skill at glossing the lives of great writers is on display in his latest essay collection.”

– Andrew Martin, Bookforum

“Tóibín finds an engaging multiplicity of detail. And his critical voice is as seductive as the widely varying voices in his novels.”

– Donna Rifkind, Barnes & Noble Review

“Tóibín is a masterly novelist who is also a fine critic…powerful.”

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“[Toibin possesses a] vast understanding of fiction and its uses, and a mind that processes novels and ideas like a rumbling supercomputer...Mr. Toibin is such an adept and morally serious close reader that his criticism becomes nearly as galvanizing as his fiction. There really aren’t, it turns out, any new ways to kill your mother, at least not artistically. But all the old ways, in Mr. Toibin’s telling, still work rather beautifully.”

– Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“[A] lively exploration of writers and their families…Fascinating.”

– Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

“[Tóibín writes] shrewdly and passionately as both critic and novelist.”

– Fred Setterberg, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Like all fine critics, Tóibín inspires readers to go back to the work, and he brings a human aspect to the works of seemingly deracinated authors like Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges…It’s a pleasure to watch Tóibín rove through 19th and 20th-century literary history.”

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