Mothers in Novels: Five Memorable Ones

Reading novels reminds us that there are all kinds of mothers, some of whom would never inspire a Hallmark card.

In honor of Mother’s Day, here are capsule summaries of five novels whose main character is a mother. Some of the novels will make you wish its leading lady had been your mother. Others will make you immensely grateful for the mother you had.

Three Loves, A. J. Cronin’s 1932 bestseller, is a novel about a woman who views herself as selflessly devoted to her family. The family views her as selfishly controlling. What happens when the devoted wife and mother realizes her devotion is rejected makes for riveting reading.

The Iron Woman by Margaret Deland  is novel for puzzle lovers. The novel follows four children as they attempt to carry out, against the wishes of their two mothers, marital plans made one summer afternoon under an apple tree. One of the mothers is the formidable owner of Maitlin Iron Works. The other is an equally formidable genteel widow. As to which is the better mother, there’s no contest. Readers must decide which of the two is the stronger.

The Family by Nina Fedorova (1940) is the story of a Russian emigrant family living in China in 1937. When the Japanese invade China, the mother has to decides to send the children off to what she can only hope will be a better life. Then she picks up the pieces of her life, and builds a new family in Tientsin.

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers Barnes was not only a bestseller two years in a row, but garnered the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Its leading lady, Jane Ward, leads an unremarkable life. Always comfortably well-off, she makes a happy marriage and has three children. In the 1920s when her children are grown and have children of their own, Jane reflects on her life and wonders if she made the right choices.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden takes a ‘sixties look at a mother whose life is not all that different from Jane Ward’s, but who makes different choices.

Years of Grace is compelling mid-life reading

“When you looked at a child, Jane reflected solemnly, you could never believe that it would grow up to disappoint you.”

Margaret Ayers Barnes story of a plain Jane was compelling enough to send Depression era readers to the bookstore in droves and timeless enough for the Pulitzer Prize committee to award Years of Grace the 1931 prize for literature.

Jane Ward is a dutiful daughter of a respectable 1880’s American family in all regards except her unseemly friendships with Agnes Johnson, a newspaperman’s daughter whose mother has a job, and a French boy whose parents live in an apartment.

When André proposes to Jane, her parents refuse to allow the marriage or an exchange of letters until Jane is 21. By way of consolation, Jane’s father lets her go to Bryn Mawr with Agnes for two years.

André  goes off to study art in France. André writes Jane for her twenty-first birthday. He has an opportunity for study in Italy and won’t be coming to America. Heartbroken, Jane accepts Stephen Carter and weds him before he leaves to fight to fight the Spanish in Cuba.

Jane and Stephen have a happy marriage, three children, no money troubles. Jane focuses on keeping things happy, even when she falls in love with her best friend’s husband.

It’s only in the 1920s—a graceless age—when the children are grown and married with children of their own that Jane seriously considers whether she might have had a better life had she chosen some glamorously wanton experience over “durable satisfactions” that gave “solid Victorian comfort.”

An unassuming novel with the solid strength  of an old family heirloom, Years of Grace is a perfect novel for end-of-the-year reflections. Copies of the original are rare (Depression-era paper was very poor quality) but a 1990 reprint on lovely paper stock is available.

Years of Grace
By Margaret Ayers Barnes
©1930 ©1958 Margaret Ayers Barnes
Published Houghton Mifflin, 1930
Reprint Cherokee Publishing, 1990
1931 bestseller #5
581 pages
@2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni