From Mrs Dashwood to the Wicked Queen, the novelist considers one of the culture’s most traduced figures
Not the best public image … Lily Savage as celebrated stepmother the Wicked Queen
Sam Baker has edited some of Britain’s bestselling magazines, including Company, Cosmopolitan and currently, Red. She published her first novel, Fashion Victim, in 2005, and a second, This Year’s Model, followed in 2008. The Stepmother’s Support Group, her third, is published this week in paperback. She lives between Winchester, Hampshire and central London with her husband and grown-up stepson.
“Stepmothers get what can only be called a “bum rap” in literature. From Snow White and Cinderella to Tolstoy to Judy Blume, whenever fiction needs a character to pin it on a stepmother comes in handy. Euripedes didn’t help our cause when he wrote, “Better a serpent than a stepmother”. And it’s pretty much been that way since, with stepmothers pitted, in the main, against their stepdaughters, to create stories of two women battling for one man’s attention.
“There aren’t many positive role models, and often you need to dig below the surface, finding characters whose “stepmother-ness” is incidental. That’s why I wanted to rehabilitate stepmothers, and made my characters in The Stepmothers’ Support Group many things to many people – friends, professionals, lovers, confidantes… Stepmothering is just one of their tasks, and some of them are even good at it! Here are my favourite fictional stepmothers – some good, some very bad, and some downright put upon.”
1. The Wicked Queen in Snow White by the Brothers Grimm
Hardly a positive role model, but I can’t omit the mummy of them all. The wicked queen in Snow White is the baddest of all. But don’t worry, the Brothers Grimm made sure she got her comeuppance. In their original, which has since been sanitised for our more sensitive constitutions, the queen attends Snow White’s wedding, ignorant of the bride’s identity. During the after-dinner speeches, the prince relates their “meet-cute” and realisation dawns. As she attempts to make a break for it, the queen is stopped by guards, who have some handily heated iron shoes. They force these onto the queen’s feet and the wedding party watches as she dances herself to death. Nice.
2. Mrs Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
As light of touch as ever, Austen gave us the anti-Cinderella story in the form of Mrs Dashwood. The antithesis of the Wicked Queen, she is cruelly wronged when Mr Dashwood dies and, in keeping with the property laws of his time, he leaves everything to his son from his first marriage. Far from being the baddie, Mrs Dashwood and her daughters fall victim to an avaricious daughter-in-law, who sees to it, despite her husband’s deathbed promise to his father that he would look after his stepmother and sisters, the rivals are out on their ear by Friday. Was Austen trying to tell us something? Undoubtedly.
3. Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
Blink and you’ll miss the fact that Holly Golightly is a stepmother at all. But before she was the responsibility-free Holly, the still teenage Lula Mae hot-footed it away from Texas, her marriage to Doc Golightly and her role as mother to his children. A theme, for Capote, perhaps, whose sharp-tongued stepmother Amy appears in his semi-autobiographical Other Voices, Other Rooms.
4. Edith Grainger in Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
This book should be renamed Stepmother & Daughter. It is not Dombey or his son who sit at the book’s emotional core, but the love between his neglected daughter, Florence, and her stepmother, Edith. A rarity in fiction, it is not the stepdaughter but the husband who is the source of the conflict, and Edith has her work cut out from the word go, choosing to stay with the cold, heartless Dombey only because she can’t bear to abandon her stepdaughter Florence. When Edith can finally take no more, Dombey blames his daughter for his second wife’s betrayal.
5. Topaz in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Bohemian artist’s model and sometime nudist, Topaz is not the most likely of stepmothers. She is certainly an occasional trial to Cassandra Mortmain, as the pair hatch a scheme to marry Cassandra’s elder sister Rose to a rich American and save the Mortmain family from having to sell their furniture to buy food. Topaz is a stepmother in the elder sister/irresponsible aunt mode, conspiring with her stepdaughters as they attempt to use love to escape the consequences of their father’s writer’s block.
6. Sydelle in In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner
The most odious of modern stepmothers, Sydelle has married Rose and Maggie Feller’s weak father, Michael. (Seeing a “weak man” theme here?) In Jennifer Weiner’s immensely popular chicklit tale, Sydelle ticks all the boxes of a stepmother who tries to come between a father and his daughters, whilst pushing her own daughter to the fore. But she also manifests many of the traits of a critical mother. You can’t help but laugh at her, but she also makes you want to look over your shoulder.
7. Elsa and Anne in Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan
Elsa and Anne represent both sides of the stepmother coin. Elsa, Raymond’s mistress at the start of the novel, is another on the merry-go-round of young women in Cecile’s life since her mother died when she was two. Young and fun, Elsa is an ally. Anne, older, more determined, is ultimately more of a threat when she announces she and Cecile’s father are to marry, and makes the fatal mistake of trying to fill the role of mother. Determined to stop it, Cecile goes to war, but whose side is the reader really on? The mistresses who come and go are fine, but when one threatens to interrupt Cecile and Raymond’s relationship, Cecile makes sure she doesn’t stand a chance.
8. Yelena in Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov
Mysterious and relatively young at 27, Yelena is on a hiding to nothing before she sets foot through the door. Often stepmothers are cast as plain (their ugly spirit infecting their looks) or very beautiful; both a sure sign of trouble. Here the beautiful, and seemingly unhappy, Yelena is pitted against the “homely” but dutiful daughter Sonya, who is close to her in age, and questions whether Yelena really married her father for love. A question that would never have been mooted had Yelena been older and plainer.
9. Emelia in Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman
William, the five-year-old boy cum “very small 62-year-old man” at the heart of Ayelet Waldman’s story is the real hero, but you can’t help but be moved by Emelia’s struggle to learn to love him, as she copes with the death of her own baby and the resentment of his (now pregnant) mother. Flawed, self-absorbed, grieving and guilt-ridden, Emelia may not be especially likeable – but her battle to love another woman’s child lies at the heart of most step-relationships.
10. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The stepmother as (convenient) unseen monster. The stepmother in Persepolis doesn’t exist at all, but ably sums up the global image problem. Stopped by the Guardians of the Revolution, who complain about Marji’s “whorish” and “decadent” garb, Marji bursts into tears, claiming that if she gets into trouble her stepmother will burn her with the clothes iron and send her off to live in an orphanage. The stony-faced guardians let her go. See, even stoney-faced fundamentalists are scared of stepmothers!
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/03/sam-baker-stepmothers