Whether married or widowed, rich or poor, mothers in historical novels are an interesting lot. Most of them wield influence within their family circle but they do not have the external power of a father or guardian. During the 19th century, mothers—even if they were widowed—did not typically have sole legal custody of their children. If they were heiresses, they usually did not control the money they brought to the marriage. Money or the lack thereof was a significant impediment to a mother’s ability to carve out a happy, safe childhood for her children, and to pave the way to a fruitful, satisfying adulthood. There are as many differences in historical motherhood as there are similarities. Here are some of the most memorable mothers in historical romance.
In from the Cold by Nora Roberts
Aristocratic Serena Langston is a strategic fighter, forcing her family to confront and achieve their deepest desires. Lady Serena prods, pokes, plots, and manipulates those she loves to swallow their pride, admit defeat, and fight for love. She is a take-no-prisoner, mother-knows-best kind of mother. Serena is an emotional tactician, extracting information that even Ian might not know is troubling him. It’s a joy to watch her at work.
“Tell me about her.”
He gave his aunt a sharp look. “I have mentioned no ‘her.’”
“You have mentioned her a thousand times by your silence.” She smiled and kept his hand in hers, “’Tis no use trying to keep things from me, my lad. We’re blood. What is her name?”
“Alanna,” he heard himself saying. “Damn her to hell and back.”
With a lusty laugh, Serena sat back. “I like the sound of that. Tell me.”
Alanna lives near colonial Boston and Ian is visiting his aunt and her family at their palatial estate near Richmond, Virginia, but distance is no obstacle to Serena’s plans. She invites Alanna to visit her, chooses not to mention her impending visit to Ian, and then waits for fireworks. When Ian sees Alanna again, after being rejected by her three months earlier, he says furiously, “Clever, aren’t you, Aunt Serena?” “Oh, aye,” she said complacently, “That I am.” Serena mops up Alanna’s tears, after Ian’s rude, cold reception, and paves the way for the two lovers to reunite.
“Oh, there, there, sweetheart.” In the way of all mothers, she put her arms around Alanna and rocked. “Was he such a bully, then? Men are, you know. It only means we must be bigger ones.”
The Arrangement by Joan Wolf
Widowed Gail Saunders is a fighter too, but she doesn’t have the weapons of wealth and social status that Serena Langston employs so freely. Gail has steely resolve, skill as a horse trainer and riding instructor, and an indomitable duty to her son—but she has no husband. Life is precarious and unsettled, particularly after Raoul, the Earl of Savile, comes to her one day with the news that his late cousin has named her son Nicky as one of his beneficiaries. Gail turns him down abruptly, but Raoul tells her not to be a fool.
His eyes flicked insultingly around my shabby drawing room. I clenched my hands and said fiercely, “My house may not be elegant, but I can assure you that Nicky does not lack for any of the important things in life! My lord,” I added with deliberate disdain.
Raoul’s news terrifies her because he offers Nicky entrée into the world that he should have by birth—public (boarding) school, freedom to learn to swim and hunt, friendship with other boys of his class and the opportunity to grow up into a life of wealth, privilege, and duty. Raoul reminds Gail that “most boys of eight are packed off to school, separated from their mothers for many months at a time.” He accuses Gail of smothering Nicky, of not allowing him the opportunity to “learn to stand on his own.” Raoul points out that Nicky “is obviously starved for company.”
The red that had been hovering before my eyes since he’d first brought up the subject of Nicky leaving home now deepened to a bright crimson. The fact that I was secretly afraid that he might be right only made me angrier.
When Raoul accuses Gail of asking Nicky “for the kind of companionship you ought to be getting from a husband,” Gail raises her hand to slap him … which leads to another sort of fiery encounter. As a mother and as a woman, Gail Saunders is at a cross-roads in her life because the Earl of Savile’s news changes everything. When Raoul invites her and Nicky to join a summer house party after her landlord gives her her notice, he says that it will be wonderful for Nicky to have the companionship of his two nephews. “They’ll take Nicky swimming and fishing, they’ll play knights and pirates and ride their ponies all over the estate and play ball and fly kites.” Gail surrenders and says farewell to the life she’s known.
Cotillion by Georgette Heyer
Emma, Lady Legerwood loves her children, to be sure, but she’s a woman of her class, the antithesis of the hands-on Gail Saunders.
“She was generally considered to be a pretty woman; and since she was as good-natured as she was foolish, she was almost universally liked. She was uncritically fond of her husband, doted upon her children, and was much addicted to what her uncle would unquestionably have termed extravagant frivolity.”
Her uncle, miserly Mr. Penicuik, describes Emma to a tee to her dapper son Freddy, “I suppose Emma—your mother—goes to all the swell places? Almack’s—box at the Opera—Carlton House parties? She was dressed as fine as fivepence the last time I saw her.” Freddy brings Kitty, Mr. Penicuik’s ward and his putative fiancée, to stay with his parents in London. Country mouse Kitty has high hopes that a month in London, amongst the fashionable world of the Legerwoods, will change her life. This magical bubble bursts when she and Freddy learn that unfortunately, Lady Legerwood’s three youngest children have the measles:
‘But it is impossible!’ she cried. ‘What in heaven’s name do you expect me to do with her?’
‘First thing to do is to buy her some clothes. Can’t have her going about like a dowd. Must see that, ma’am!’
Lady Legerwood is renowned for her kind heart but when she retreats to her dressing-room with the hapless Kitty, she is heard “murmuring quite audibly: ‘Oh, dear, I wonder what next will befall us?’” Her mind flits from pressing problems—like where will Meg, her married pregnant daughter, live while her diplomat husband is abroad—to the most trivial. Understandably, she has hopes that her oldest son Freddy will marry “someone of consequence, and not to a little countrified girl nobody ever heard of!” At Freddy’s suggestion, Kitty will stay with Meg while the younger children recuperate. Here is Lady Legerwood at her best, perceptive and pointed, albeit seemingly superficial. Her oldest child Meg sweeps in “resplendent in a new pelisse of Sardinian blue velvet … displaying with ostentation the sables which had been her lord’s parting gift to her.”
Between her dread that some germ of measles, wandering adventurously down from the nursery-floor, might fasten upon her daughter, and her disapproval of sables and blue velvet, Lady Legerwood was for several moments too much occupied to present Kitty to the visitor. On the whole, it was her daughter’s lack of taste which most exercised her mind, for her own eye for colour, like Freddy’s, was unerring. ‘Ermine or chinchilla with blue, Meg!’ she said firmly. ‘Sables never show to advantage!’
The plot of Cotillion is as complicated as the dance it is named after. A subplot reveals another side of Emma. Freddy’s rather dim cousin, the Earl of Dolphinton, has been treated very cruelly by his selfish, grasping mother:
“Even Lady Legerwood, always prone to take the kindliest view of everyone, could not like Augusta. In her eyes, Augusta was a bad mother, whose treatment of her dull-witted son had, she maintained, done much to increase his imbecility. She could say no worse of anyone.”
If part of a mother’s role is to guide and support her adult children, at that Lady Legerwood is incomparable. Praise from her is treasured and her innate sense of taste is a legacy she passes onto to that arbiter of style, the Honorable Frederick Standen. Fortunate Emma, doted on by her indulgent husband, loved by her children, is the perfect mama-in-law-to-be for Kitty Charing. Meg tells Kitty, who is guiltily trying to bring her pretend betrothal to an end, “the thing that particularly pleases Mama is that you have such excellent taste. She sets the greatest store by that, you know.”
Simply Love by Mary Balogh
Anne Jewell has an intelligent, artistic son, David. He was born out of wedlock and conceived against her will. She loves him with a single-minded devotion and almost resents the efforts of his cousin, the Marquess of Hallmere, to include him in the wider family circle. When the Marquess comes to invite David to spend the summer with him and his family at an estate in Wales,
David dashed toward him, all childish eagerness and voluble chatter, and was swept off his feet and spun about in a circle while he laughed joyfully.
Anne, looking on, felt an almost painful constriction about the heart. She had poured out a mother’s love on her son for nine years, but of course she had never been able to provide him with a father’s love too.
A teacher of mathematics and geography at Miss Martin’s School for Girls in Bath, Anne surrounds David with security, friendship, and warmth. But the older he gets, the more she admits, on a deep inchoate level, that he is missing a great deal. She confides to David’s cousin, Joshua, the Marquess of Hallmere, “he has very little contact with men and almost none at all with boys.” Anne and David both come to Wales, at the invitation of Freya, the Marchioness of Hallmere, and there Anne finds companionship of a different kind for herself.
She becomes friends with Sydnam Butler, a reclusive, disabled soldier and former artist, now the steward at the Duke of Bedwyn’s estate in Wales. They become more than friends but before they explore a deeper relationship, Anne tells Sydnam a little about her past, specifically, how she was raped by the heir to the Marquisate,
“David was the result,” she said, lifting her head. “I wish . . . oh, I wish he had not come of such ugliness.”
Again he wanted to touch her but did not.
“I will say what you said to me,” he said. “You are incredibly brave.”
“Just foolish,” she said. “Just one of numerous women who believe they can reason with such men and change them. Some women even marry them believing that. I was saved from that fate at least.”
It’s altogether clear why Anne Jewell clings to her independence and her pride but when a tender, poignant episode leaves her pregnant, she and Sydnam marry willingly, for the sake of their unborn baby. Anne, the sole comfort and support of her son for nine years, is reluctant to loosen the reins of maternal love and allow Sydnam to try to be a father to David, not just a husband to her and their unborn child. David too is worried that there won’t be enough love to go around. A mother’s courage to let go, a son’s willingness to welcome someone new into his heart, and a new father’s strength, passing on a gift that he fears he has lost forever—Simply Love encapsulates many strands of love.
The common thread that runs through each of these maternal characters is wisdom. Each one has the courage and foresight to stand beside their children as they confront change, and ultimately, to stand back and let them live their own lives. In the words of Elizabeth Gaskell, “a wise parent humors the desire for independent action, so as to become the friend and advisor when his [or in this case, her] absolute rule shall cease.”
Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. When I rediscovered the world of romance, my spirit guide was All About Romance's Desert Island Keepers — I started with the “A” authors and never looked back.