Where I talk about the good the bad and very ugly mothers…

This week is Children’s Book Week! We pre-empted their theme of Heroes and Heroines with this blog on finding your literary and real-time heroes and so we’re really glad that we can continue the conversation about who makes your heart swell and who makes your blood boil.

Children’s Book Week is fabulous, it’s an annual celebration of reading for pleasure for children of a primary school age and it’s been running for a monumental 80 years. Hosting events across the country it also makes resources available to teachers, parents and librarians that encourage reading for enjoyment. So, CBW are talking about heroes – but we’ve already jumped on that bandwagon – so I thought we could jump off the back, throw on a swishy cape, eye mask and some long shiny gloves and while we’re pretending that we don’t look like Kim Woodburn just out of bed – kidnap the bandwagon driver and declare that we’ll be launching a topic take over. Not heroes and heroines today but baddies and villains instead. First stop children’s book week. Next week – THE WORLD. Mwhahahah.

Heroes are all very well and good but they wouldn’t have much to do without an evil plan to foil or a really wicked villain to stop in their tracks.  Baddies are just brilliant; whether plotting schemes to take over the moon from a hide-out in a cave, attempting to wipe out millions of people or whole enemy nations – or just dashing the hopes and aspirations of our plucky hero, great stories have villains who will make our hearts race and our teeth gnash. I’ve spoken about how much I LOVE to hate Professor Umbridge, but she is one nasty piece of work on a long list of characters that elicit a really guttural response of rage from me.

There has been some very interesting theoretical work developed around the role of villains in children’s literature, and particularly the role of the ‘bad mother’, when the usually comforting role of a mother is transformed into something corrupt and evil. Mrs Coulter in Northern Lights is a brilliant example of this – she is glittering with glamour and beauty, she knows how to dress and how to inspire love and adoration, but inside she is cruel and cold. Lyra finds redemption in her quasi-parents of Lee Scoresby, John Farr and Iorek Byrnison. Her mother is evil and so she surrounds herself by fathers -my brain fizzes at this stuff!

Mothers gone wrong can be found in books going right back to the Victorian times, and they aren’t always women. Fagin is a like a mother to his gang of stray boys, he feeds them sausages, tucks them in at night and makes sure they’re safe and happy. But he also uses them, abuses them and then betrays them when it looks like his neck is on the line.  But my favourite villain and ‘bad mother’ is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Miss Minchin. She pretends that she will be a real mother to Sara Crewe, but as soon as the lure of riches and fame disappears along with the diamond mines she banishes her ‘daughter’ to the attic to starve slowly as a servant girl.

Oliver meets his new mother – Fagin.

I love the ‘baddies’ because there is so much to think about and explore – and so much to get really, truly cross about! What about you? Who’s your best baddy? Your favourite villain – and why?

ps. Here is a video of another nasty lady – Miss Trunchball. Because she is a brilliant baddie. And I LOVE Matilda the Musical.

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12 responses to “Where I talk about the good the bad and very ugly mothers…

  1. I LOVE Philip Reeve’s Thaddeus Valentine and the Stalker Fang. What tragic villains.

  2. Beccs, where have been? You haven’t blogged for ages. And I do so enjoy your ‘nuts and bolts, tell it as it is’ style of commenting on writing. You don’t over complicate by showing off, throwing millions of literary facts and figures at your readers. You very neatly simplify some of the key building blocks of writing a story. Well thats enough brown nosing for now.
    One of the villains that makes my blood boil is the extremely cruel teacher ‘Wackford Squeers’ in Dickens, Nicolas Nickleby. How he beats children half to death and gets away with it is unbelievably monstrous. In the end Nicolas Nickleby delivers Wackford his come-uppance by giving him a taste of his own beating stick.
    One more ‘villain’ comes to my mind, ‘Mr Gryce’ the headmaster in ‘A kestral for a nave’ which was made into the film ‘Kes’ the multiple caning scene in the film is so accurate, where headmasters could use the cane freely on boys or girls is so true. I should know I was an innocent victim of such a mass caning event when I was fourteen (somebody set off a banger under the teachers chair, did’nt own up and the headmaster gave us all a whack on each hand). Fiction often reflects reality, and if you have lived a little reallity, you can easily connect with the writer.

    • beccawearsredwellies

      Hi Stanley,

      Thanks for your kind comments – I think you’re so right. When you’ve tasted injustice as a kid, reading about it in a book makes it all the more visceral- And when the hero wins victory is all the sweeter!

  3. The baddies I hate are the ones that look like they’re going to get away with it, they’re subversive, they’re smug, they’re confident in their abiloty to really be NASTY.
    I remember really hating Mandy Nylon in Philip Ridley’s Vinegar Street. She was everything the girl’s magazines were hinting me to be, and I was definately NOT ‘brimful of swirls and curls’, blond, pouting-lipped and glamourous. I hated the way she twisted everything so that poor, innocent Mandy was the victim and nasty oddball heroine Poppy was really just a bully. Gah, just thinking about her makes me so glad I dyed my hair green – she’d have HATED it *huge grin*
    Another I really loved to hate was the Graveyard Hag from Tamora Pierce’s Wild Magic series. Well, I say ‘hate’, more ‘want to smack the Smug out of’ – all that trickery and smirking ‘I know something you don’t know’ attitude… I didn’t hate her maybe, but I really wanted to! Even worse, I must admit that I even kind of liked her sometimes – which just makes her even more unbearable!

    • beccawearsredwellies

      I haven’t read either of those *straight to the HKB reading lists!!* But I think it’s interesting that often the evil girl children are those sickly sweet, blonde ringleted girls that so often are cruel and sharp elbowed in the playground… Especially awful considering our heroes are plucky, and courageous and often a bit messy and dirty kneed. I know which I’d rather be!

  4. Speaking of bad mothers, I always liked the “Other Mother” of Coraline

    • beccawearsredwellies

      Oh I totally agree! And it’s such an interesting contrast, initially Coraline’s real mother seems like the villain, but she develops into a sort of pathetic heroine that needs to be saved by her heroic daughter from an evil version of herself. And what about the pathetic husband who is being consumed by his wife? It’s absolutely fascinating, and so clever – and scary!

      • I forgot about the husband! That was very unnerving. (Actually it’s interesting that there isn’t much of a Bad Dad counterpart to the Evil Mother type. They tend to just be kinda useless.)

    • beccawearsredwellies

      I wonder if it’s because in the West (and especially UK and USA) children mostly experience their mothers as primary carers and therefore experience feelings of anger and resentment towards them more commonly than towards their Dads who are at work for more of the day – and are therefore depicted as absent/useless. Even when you have a really healthy relationship with your parents I think most children get frustrated at the limitations placed on their freedoms.

  5. My most favorite (or least, I guess) would be Mrs. Norris from Mansfield Park. She is benign, but truly heartless and ruthless to Fanny. I’ve always loved to hate Umbridge and Trunchball, myself! And Mrs. Coulter scared the ever-living willies out of me as a kid. I never ever trusted her, especially as someone who identified with Lyra. Oh, how the baddies can be so good!

    • beccawearsredwellies

      Yes! But I think it’s interesting how few sympathetic female characters there are in Northern Lights, Seraphine Pekkala of course, and Mary – although she’s the Temptress, and Ma Costa…But they’re few and far between! Have I missed anyone? Another bad-Victorian-mother is Mrs Reed, Jane Eyre’s evil Aunt – the unjust cruelty as she throws her in the red room! There’s a sort of delicious anger that this sort of character provokes.

      • Kate Herrell

        That’s so true! There really aren’t many. To sound shamefully sexist for a second, one might hypothesize the reason could be that the author is a man, trying to write sympathetic women from the point of view of a child girl, so he has trouble portraying women, without portraying them in the way that a grown adult man would if he were observing a woman out in the world, from a stereotypically male viewpoint, i.e. sexualized or motherly. But on the other hand, as a women, it’s hard to write three-dimensional women that are both sympathetic and interesting, rather than flat and perfect and boring. Ma Costa is the closest we get, and I like her the most because she’s a compelling foil against Mrs. Coulter’s calculating malice. I wonder if I’m not the only writer who has a hard time avoiding stereotypes when I need sympathetic characters. 🙂

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