I have been thinking about this one for a little while – there are a myriad of parents in fiction but all too often they function simply as cardboard cut-out background characters. In children’s fiction, parents often go through the entire novel without ever even being awarded a first name. They offer a chance for the protagonist to unburden themselves, a secure place to return to. Alternatively, they can also be the ‘dark past’ which explains the main character’s demons. I wanted this week to consider which characters are fantastic family members. I ruled out the plot-device parents (sorry Marmee March) and focused on those who really go beyond the call of duty to be there for their children.
1) Mrs Weasley – Harry Potter series, JK Rowling
I adore Mrs Weasley. She is the ultimate tiger mother. From her first appearance when she helps Harry find Platform 9 and 3/4, she instinctively mothers all those she comes across but Harry in particular. As well as marshalling her children (no mean feat in the case of Fred and George), she takes on Harry as a surrogate son with very little question. From Philosopher’s Stone onwards Harry always gets a Weasley jumper and an Easter egg and she helps him get his school shopping done and fusses over how much he eats. For me one of the most emotional moments of the series came in Goblet of Fire when Harry breaks down after what has happened in the graveyard and Molly seizes him into a Mummy hug, something that Harry did not remember ever having had before. Unlike Sirius who is really looking for a Best Friend replacement, Molly wants to parent Harry and when her boggart appears, Harry’s death comes in along with all of her other children. Julie Walters captured her perfectly onscreen, particularly that fabulous piece of description from Chamber of Secrets which remarked that for a kind-faced woman, it was surprising how far she could resemble a ‘sabre-toothed tiger’ when angry. Her sons may tower over her but they fear her wrath and Bellatrix Lestrange learnt to her cost that one does not threaten Molly Weasley’s children and get away with it.
2) Joe Gargery – Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Joe is not a parent for the majority of Great Expectations but to Pip he is a definite parent surrogate. I always enjoyed the scene where Pip is being loudly criticised by everybody round the table, to which Joe reacted by giving him extra gravy to make him feel better. By the end of the meal, Pip’s plate was drowning in gravy. It is a fairly classic Dickens device to have an incompetent mother figure (Dickens had some difficulties relating to women) and then a male figure reclaiming the domestic sphere but Joe is the best of them. Even though Pip shows himself up badly once he becomes a ‘gentleman’ by being ashamed of Joe, Joe proves himself a true gentleman by rescuing Pip when everything goes wrong. Joe’s final happy ending is well-deserved, he is one of Dickens’ very loveliest characters.
3) Hans Hubermann – The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
I have mentioned by affection for Hans Hubermann before. Although his wife Rosa too has many good points (although they take longer to see), Hans bonds with Liesel immediately and the way he stays up with her as she struggles with her nightmares is really touching. He never blinks that the first book she wants to learn to read with is a gravedigger’s manual and his love for his new daughter shines brightly in what is a very dark tale. He reminds me of my grandfather and that is a huge compliment from me.
4) Atticus Finch – To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Ah Mr Finch. Attitcus’ children may be unsure about his street credentials since he is older and refuses to play football for the Methodists’ but Atticus reveals himself to be the very finest of fathers. He consoles Scout on her first day of school, he teaches his children the difference between right and wrong despite the contradictions in the world around them; he is an adult who listens and those of us who remember childhood know how hard those could be to come by. The final scenes as he approaches the man standing in the corner of Jem’s room are very emotional and as the novel ends, we know that Atticus will sit at Jem’s bedside until he wakes up. Atticus’ character is based on the author’s own father and Harper Lee’s love for him helps the reader fall in love with him too.
5) Mrs Bennet – Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
This is a controversial choice but I will defend it. I will admit that Mrs Bennet would be an often excruciatingly embarrassing parent. However. She had a good heart and her husband was a Meanie. We are encouraged to sympathise with Mr B for having allowed his youthful lusts to shackle him to a foolish woman. But. We do not stop to consider what it has been like for Mrs B to be married to a man who makes fun of her in front of her children, who has not saved for the future and who makes light of the very precarious position the family will be in after his death. It will not be Mr Bennet’s problem if his wife and daughters are cast out of Longbourn after his demise but it will be Mrs Bennet’s. Her determination to find her daughters pleasant situations is sensible and to be fair to her, she does look for men who are agreeable. After Mr Darcy is rude to the Bennets the first time he meets them, Mrs Bennet is clear that they can just ignore him no matter how wealthy he is. She does have her daughters’ best interests at heart even if she does lack discipline. She is loud in her indignation after Mr Bingley treats Jane fairly terribly. Mrs Bennet is a tiger mother. Marriage to Mr Collins would be an alluring prospect for no one but it would have been the perfect solution for the family’s problems. Mr Collins was honourable to suggest it and to be fair, Mr B and Elizabeth were fairly rude in their refusal. Alison Steadman was fairly fabulous in her squawky 1995 interpretation of Mrs B but I did find Brenda Blethyn’s 2005 appearance to be far more sympathetic.
6) Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert – Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery
Marilla and Matthew never intended to have a daughter. This brother-sister combination wanted to take on a hired boy to help them round the farm as they grew older. Being delivered the red-haired Anne was something of a surprise but Matthew was too shy to explain the confusion and then even the more stern Marilla found it in her heart to sympathise with their charge. There are bumps along the way but the two of them complement each other perfectly. Marilla teaches Anne not to frighten herself with her own imagination by sending her out in the dark and the soft-hearted Matthew treats Anne to a dress with puffed-sleeves. It is as much about the two of them adjusting to this new love in their lives as it is about Anne’s development and it is very sweet to read. The final chapters of Anne of Green Gables are heart-breaking – I think this was the book that first taught me about grief.
7) Ma – Room, Emma Donnoghue
I really hope a film is never made out of Room. I know there probably will be. The boy Jack tells us about his life in Room, the only place he has ever known. From very early on it is clear that the only thing that has allowed Ma to survive has been her love for her son Jack. The two of them share a passionate bond that has brought them through an unimaginable horror. Ma remarks when asked that although some people say that it takes a village to raise a child, some other times it only takes two – in this case, her and Jack. Room is not a comfortable read but the fact that it is not a horrific one is due to its celebration of the mother/child bond.
8) The Man – The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Another tale along apocalyptic lines. The Man is battling to keep his son alive in a post-nuclear-explosion wilderness. The two of them trek along the roads with a shopping trolley full of their meagre possessions and try to keep ahead of the cannibals who prey upon the unfortunate. Like Ma in Room, it is only the love for his child which is keeping this man alive, but this is more than was the case for his wife who was tired of the harshness of their existence and so told the Man to think of it as she had taken another lover, but that lover’s name was Death. The Man tells the Boy how to kill himself should they be overcome by the cannibals but when the Boy asks him what he would do if the Boy was dead, the Man tells him straight away that he would want to die too. This is extreme hard-core parenting; breath-taking, painful and unforgettable.
9) Ma and Pa Ingalls – The Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder
This pair were not fictional but the way that they brought up their four daughters on the frontier is something that I have never forgotten. My mother was always amazed by Caroline Ingalls’ insistence on ironing her daughters’ dresses even if she had to do it in the wagon while they were travelling to their new home. It certainly makes me feel guilty for vaguely flapping my damp clothes after they leave the washing machine and hoping for the best. As a child I thought Ma was the mean Mummy, forever scolding Laura and stopping the fun. I thought that Pa was the fun parent, always ready with a song and his fiddle. As an adult I can feel more sympathy for Caroline who followed her husband’s itching foot across the country and kept up her standards even though her husband refused to settle to anything. Her insistence that her daughters be properly educated finally landed them in De Smet where Laura met her husband Almanzo. Laura admitted that without her father’s fiddle and the relief that its songs brought them, the family would never have gotten through all their tribulations. Charles and Caroline Ingalls were an amazing husband and wife team, working hard to get the best for their children, even scrimping and saving to get their daughter Mary to college. Laura recalls their love for each other very sweetly and the discreet way they speak to Laura upon her engagement to check that she is making the right decision has always stuck in my memory.
10) Rhett Butler – Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Oh Mr Butler. Why did you take such pleasure in hiding the fact that you were a lovely man? Rhett is at his best around his daughter Bonnie, finally taking up being nice to the neighbours so that Bonnie will not suffer from his reputation as she gets older. The scene where Scarlett arrives back in town to discover Rhett dressed up as an Indian as part of a game with Bonnie shows the loving side of Rhett that the reader and Melanie has always known about but to which Scarlett is woefully blind. The terrible, heart-rending loss shatters Rhett but although he returns to his previous policy of general unpleasantness, his neighbours this time understand. The love he had for his daughter was uncomplicated – Bonnie let him love her and she loved him back. Through Bonnie we see the Rhett that should have been and it makes the tragedy all the worse.
Death – Discworld, Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett’s Death is a family man. Father to Ysabell, he tries his best to be a good parent in his own inimitable manner and it is only with great regret that he allows her to return to the mortal world. He continues to be grandfather to the wonderful Susan Sto Helit even if there are times when she does resent his interference. Death always has the very, very best of intentions even if he does find humans so confusing.