Happy Mother’s Day! This is an idiosyncratic look at three fictional mothers, with the connecting strand being money. “My children are my riches," sometimes translated as “These are my jewels,” is a maxim attributed to Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, Valerius Maximus (4.4). When a friend swanned about in the most drop-dead worthy jewels of the time in Rome, Cornelia is said to have waited until her children returned from school, and then said, haec sunt ornamenta mea.
The second Sunday in May can be an occasion for celebration, regrets, gauzy childhood memories, or chilling reminisces of a mother from hell. But most of us are not black and white, but rather shades of grey with human strengths and failings and, with a few sad exceptions, most fictional mothers have their children’s best interests at heart. Our first mother wants lusty love and a place of belonging for her son, with money not at the forefront of her concerns. Our second mother is so deeply in debt that her extravagant choices have curtailed the choices available to her twin boys, and the third mother is literally willing to pimp out her daughter to get her family out of debt.
Lord of My Heart by Jo Beverley concerns the marital choices of a Norman heiress: “To save her barony from ruin, Madeleine de la Haute Vironge must wed one of a trio of lords offered by King William.” In medieval times, your parents had absolute power over your life. They could use any means possible to enforce their wishes. This concept flows from the absolute power the monarch had over his subjects. There can have been few times as turbulent as the reign of the Norman conqueror, William. He claimed the throne by force—and claimed his bride Matilda with force as well. The court was a swirling stew of Normans, Saxons, and English nobility. One of a monarch’s most potent powers was to manufacture unity and alliances through dynastic marriages: the ultimate marriages of convenience for the people involved.
Our hero’s mother is Lucia de Gaillard, the English second wife of Norman Count Guy de Gaillard. Lucia is sister of Hereward, the famous English rebel leader. Lucia and Guy’s son Aimery straddles his uneasy inheritance, a liege son of Hereward, godson of the William the Conqueror, he is the polycot product of all the turbulent strands of England. Aimery has inherited a noble mantle but what does every noble bachelor need? A wealthy heiress! His mother brokers the marriage, with her husband’s help, between Madeleine and Aimery. Although of course she is glad to see her son well-married, she wants him to be happy as well. At the end of the book, Lucia sees that the young couple is estranged and although she is up to her ears attending a pregnant queen Matilda who is desperate to give birth to the next prince or princess, she watches over her son as well. Lucia’s comments to her son and daughter-in-law make it clear that her relationship with her husband is intimate, nay hawt, years after their marriage. Where her medieval power and strength really comes to the fore is when she joins forces with her daughter-in-law and son and faces down her brother Hereward. Don’t mess with a medieval mother!
Even a loving, nay devoted mother, can make monetary choices that have a profound impact on her children. False Colours by Georgette Heyer is such a case. One of the most unforgettable mothers in the Georgette Heyer canon is Amabel, the Dowager Countess of Denville. She’s reminiscent of a Diana, Princess of Wales, in some ways. Dazzlingly beautiful and charming, she was married extremely young to a much older, gruff and daunting aristocrat. Theirs was not a happy marriage, but her twin sons are the love of her life. She’s a bit like Mr. Micawber with a serene ’something will turn up’ attitude about all of life’s vicissitudes. Her sons are resigned to her extravagances and her idiotish attempts to pull in the reins. Her latest scheme leads to her asking her second son to pass himself off as his older twin; when Kit Fancot returned from Vienna to his mother’s town house, he little thought that the following evening would see him masquerading as Evelyn, his identical twin brother, and calling upon Evelyn’s fiancée, the Hon. Cressida Stavely. Kit’s first forebodings of the scheme launched by his lovable parent were more than justified—for one thing, Cressida was a very personable young heiress indeed. The mother in Georgette Heyer’s comedy of twins switching places is gorgeous, extravagant, and willful and all of her love wasn’t enough to justify, really, the pressures she put upon her children to keep her towed out of the River Tick.
Under a Lucky Star by Diane Farr introduces us to Cynthia, daughter of the Earl of Ballymere, known as the Frost Fair in society for her icy cold and stunningly beautiful demeanor. Sir James Filey, the villain in Georgette Heyer’s Faro’s Daughter, is paying his addresses to her and her profligate family wants her to marry him because he is willing to pay thirty thousand pounds for the privilege. Derek Whittaker, our hero, by no means a wealthy man, rescues Cynthia from a mauling by Sir James, but she becomes betrothed to the vile Sir James a few weeks later. Sir James dies, fortuitously, before the marriage takes place, but three years later the advance on the marriage portion is gone and her mother, Lady Ballymere, is pressuring Cynthia once again to marry money, to “save her family.” Derek and Cynthia are both at the same ducal house: Derek’s sister is about to give birth and Cynthia’s mother has found a new prey, a young naïve man. Fortunately, Cynthia has grown in wisdom and she confronts her mother,
“Mama,’ she said carefully, “I understand why you thought it necessary to bring me out at seventeen. I realize the exigencies of our financial situation. In hindsight, however, I think it was wrong to dress me so frequently in gauze and tiffany. I must tell you, I believe many of the gowns you had made up for me were immodest. Almost indecent.”
It will not surprise a reader of romance to find out that in spite of Cynthia’s mother’s most conniving attempts to marry her daughter to a rich man, by hook or by crook, she was ultimately not successful and Cynthia and Derek have their happily ever after, once Cynthia’s mother is presented with a fait accompli.
Mothers and money—three different mothers, all with very different ideas about money and its impact on their children. It’s a trope that interests me, so I would love suggestions for other books where this plot appears.