Mamma by Diana Tutton

This is another excellent entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series (they’ve yet to reissue a dud), the sort of novel that’s a pleasure to sink into for its subtlety and understanding. Its author, the British writer Diana Tutton, was interested in fiction focusing on families and relationships – particularly those that were frowned upon by society. While Mamma was published in 1956, it was written a few years earlier – possibly the early ‘50s, a time when societal attitudes were beginning to loosen and change.  

On the surface, Mamma tells the story of a forty-one-year-old widow, Joanna Malling, who develops feelings for her son-in-law, Steven – a man of thirty-five. However, in truth, the novel is more an exploration of Joanna’s inner world and her position in society than a salacious love triangle. There is a degree of restraint in the writing – a subtlety that makes the story all the more immersive. It reminded me a little of Dorothy Whipple’s novels Someone at a Distance, perhaps, albeit with less melodrama. Either way, I would definitely recommend it.

When we first meet Joanna, she has just arrived at her new home in Tadwych, a suburban town somewhere in the south of England. Tutton wastes little time in establishing Joanna’s position in society. Widowed at the age of twenty-one, Joanna has remained unattached since then. While she had hoped to remarry in her twenties, no suitable partners subsequently emerged, ushering in the prospect of permanent widowhood – a state Joanna has grown used to over the years.

After twenty years of widowhood […] she had quite expected to marry again, but in the five years after Jack’s death she had had only one proposal, and that one so unsuitable as to be almost an insult. She had politely rejected a solicitor, twenty-four years older than herself, and had settled down to perpetual widowhood. (p. 4)

On arriving at her new house, Joanna learns that her daughter, twenty-year-old Libby, has just got engaged to Steven Pryde, a soldier whom Joanna has never met. At thirty-five and a Major in the army, Steven is significantly older and more mature than Libby. In truth, he is much closer in age to Joanna than to her daughter – and this closeness becomes increasingly apparent as the novel unfolds.

At first, however, the dynamics between Joanna and Steven are rather awkward. Joanna is somewhat disappointed by her prospective son-in-law with his dominant moustache and slightly stiff manner. Libby, however, is very much in love with her man, and plans for the imminent wedding are soon underway.

Following the wedding, Libby hopes for a glamorous posting abroad, envisaging her new life as a Major’s wife in various exotic locations. The reality, however, turns out to be much closer to home. When Steven is appointed to a role in Tadwych, a shortage of suitable housing prompts the newlyweds to move in with Joanna, necessitating much rearrangement of the furniture and various living arrangements to accommodate the couple.

Libby – a rather excitable, childish young woman at heart – is delighted to be living with her mother, relishing the chance for Joanna and Steven to really get to know one another. Joanna, however, is acutely conscious of the need to give the newlyweds their own space. Steven too is also far from thrilled at the prospect of living with ‘Mamma’, especially when Libby seems determined to fuss over him in front of her mother. Steven is also recovering from a bout of pneumonia, and Libby in her naivety is determined to mollycoddle him – something Joanna hopes to counteract.

Poor young man! thought Joanna. If he is to be fattened up after his illness it must not be done so tactlessly in future. She wished that Libby would not, with rather over-weight humour, keep reverting to the subject of nourishing food, and speaking of a conspiracy “between you and me, Mummy” to control Steven. “I need your support, you know, Mummy, because he’s most obstinate and naughty.” (p. 100)

Gradually though, Joanna and Steven warm to one another, recognising a shared interest in poetry and other related pursuits. In truth, Steven is a lot closer to Joanna in age, outlook and cultural attitudes than he is to Libby – a situation that becomes all too apparent to Joanna as the weeks slip by. This closeness is something Steven feels too, especially when a tragedy in his family sparks a moment of connection. Rather tellingly, Steven refers to Joanna by her Christian name at this point, momentarily seeing her as the woman she truly is, not the ‘Mamma’ she has been until now. As the story plays out, Joanna must try to reconcile her conflicting emotions – her attraction to Steven vs her loyalty to Libby – a tension that Tutton handles with a degree of subtlety and sensitivity.

One of the most impressive things about the novel is Tutton’s use of this premise to explore Joanna’s situation. At forty-one, Joanna had resigned herself to passing through life as a widow, consumed by her passion for gardening in the absence of a partner or family. Steven, however, has disturbed this equilibrium, reawakening in Joanna feelings she had thought of as consigned to the past. Rather than dwelling on the possibility of a scandalous relationship, Tutton leaves us with the idea that this is, in part, a liberating experience for Joanna, paving the way perhaps for a future romantic relationship – albeit with a man who is more available than Steven, someone society would view as a respectable match.

There are also some very interesting contrasts in the novel, which Tutton skilfully uses to highlight various contradictions or hypocrisies in society. As Libby’s closest friend, Janet Mortimer, intuits at one point, Libby (or Elizabeth as she is sometimes called) has likely married without the benefit of any sexual experience, leaving her somewhat exposed in the physical aspects of the relationship. Steven, on the other hand, is expected to be more practiced in the art of lovemaking – nevertheless, he is giving nothing away on that count, certainly as far as Janet can decipher.

She suspected that their sexual relationship still left much to be desired. Probably Elizabeth was not yet fully awakened; but she would be all right in a year or two, and would probably—when her troubles were over and done with—tell Janet all about them. It was, of course, a thousand pities that Elizabeth should have been so inexperienced. Janet, herself a virgin at twenty-one, intended to change her condition in a year or two, and to marry when she was twenty-five. She sincerely hoped that Steven was able to make up for poor Elizabeth’s ignorance, but on this subject Liz was unexpectedly reticent, and her own study of Steven’s character had so far told her nothing. (p. 69)

There are a few hints throughout the novel that Libby is finding Steven sexually demanding – another reason perhaps for the latter’s attraction to Joanna as the more ‘natural’ partner.

Hierarchies of class and sophistication also play their part in the novel – from the wealthy, self-assured Mortimers with their active city lives, to Joanna and Libby in their homely middle-class abode, to the rather coarse Mrs Holmes, Joanna’s gossipy charwoman, accepting money for sexual favours while her husband is away at night.

This another fascinating novel, an interesting companion piece to Rose Macaulay’s Dangerous Ages (1921) in its exploration of early middle age. At forty-one, Joanna is very similar in age to Macaulay’s Neville, a married woman of forty-three, whose children are now grown up. While the two women have very different personalities, it’s interesting to consider them together given the similarity in stage of life.   

(My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.)

25 thoughts on “Mamma by Diana Tutton

  1. A Life in Books

    I wonder how this was received when it as first published. It seems rather controversial territory for the times. The examination of Joanna’s perception of herself sounds interesting and well done.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a while since I read it, so I’ll have to go back and look at Simon’s afterword to see if he says anything about that. It must have provoked some interesting reactions for sure. I really like the fact that Tutton handled the situation so delicately. In the hands of another writer, this could have led to a very different outcome for Joanna and Steven – not to mention poor Libby!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s very sensitively handled. I’d come across Tutton via Simon as he’s been championing another of her novels, Guard Your Daughters, for years. I don’t think she wrote very much, which is a shame, but what little there is seems to be very good indeed!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Liz. Yes, that’s what I thought. Joanna and Neville are quite different individuals in terms of outlook and personality, but they’re both on the threshold of middle age and in danger of allowing their lives to drift if they don’t take positive action. I think the fact that both novels have been included of the BLWW series makes it easier for us to make these connections, almost as if they’re part of a broader picture of women’s lives in the 20th century.

      Reply
  2. Jane

    What a delicate but fascinating subject,! Today they all seem so young don’t they, to be widowed at 21 and settle into it with the garden is so sad. I’m looking forward to this one and shall read Dangerous Ages with it, good idea!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! These days, it’s weird to think of someone settling into widowhood in their twenties, especially as so many women wait till their thirties to get married or start a family. At 41, Joanna has so much life still ahead of her, and hopefully her experience will Steven will open the door to other relationships in the future.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    I really enjoyed this, Tutton handles the story so subtly, probably more so than a modern writer would. I thought the dynamics between the characters was fascinating too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I agree. The lack of melodrama was very refreshing. I really thought it was going to end in a big showdown with Libby in tears and Joanna’s reputation in tatters, but luckily it was far more even-handed than that!

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review, Jacqui. I thought this was an excellent one, too – Tutton tackles difficult subjects with great sensitivity (“Guard Your Daughters” is well handled), and I admired her frank exploration of certain aspects which I thought were quite ahead of their time. Libby is actually a bit insufferable and you can’t help feeling sorry for her husband, and also wishing Libby had been given perhaps a little more guidance about certain aspects of marriage. Tutton is an excellent author, although I do suspect we won’t see her other book back in print…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen! I agree, the novel does feel quite progressive for its time – in terms of both the controversial subject matter and the sensitive style. The ‘love triangle’ premise could have resulted in a very melodramatic denouement, but I’m really glad Tutton didn’t go down the obvious route. That shows a degree of maturity on her part, I think.

      I must take a closer look at Guard Your Daughters at some point. (I’m aware that Simon has been championing it for a while, but I have to confess to not knowing very much about the novel’s premise or themes!) The Young Ones, on the other hand, does sound too controversial to be revived, even in today’s more liberal society…

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        I read Guard Your Daughters back when Simon started raving about it, and it’s a fascinating look at family relationships gone skewed because of mental health issues. Again very sensitively done by Tutton. There’s a review on my blog probs though it might have spoilers – I can’t recall! But I do recommend it. As for The Young Ones, yes – I think that’s unlikely to see the light of day…

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, thanks. For some reason, I thought Guard Your Daughters was out of print, but it’s actually available from Persephone. I’m glad you think it’s in a similar vein in terms of the sensitivity. One for me to keep a look out for, especially in the charity shops…

          Reply
  5. Julé Cunningham

    What seems especially interesting about this is how Tutton uses a situation that could have been written about so differently, to open up possibilities for Joanna and show how much she has to bring to a relationship. Though I have a feeling I’d find Libby on the annoying side!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. In reality, this is a story of a women’s reawakening, an experience that opens the door to other, more satisfying relationships in the future. There’s definitely a hint of that at the end of the story which leaves the reader feeling optimistic about Joanna’s situation. We get the feeling that she’ll find happiness and fulfilment very soon! (And yes, Libby will almost certainly test the reader’s patience at several points in the novel…)

      Reply
  6. Madame Bibi Lophile

    The set-up could be so melodramatic or sensationalist, couldn’t it? The novel sounds much more subtle and interesting than that though. I’ll be really interested to read this one and the BLWW editions are so lovely too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, completely. I really thought it was going to culminate in a big showdown, with Libby walking in on her mother in Steven’s arms. That would have been the obvious outcome…but, as you say, the fact that the story doesn’t go down that route makes it all the more interesting. Hopefully Libby will settle into her marriage at some point, otherwise there could be more trouble ahead for the newlyweds…

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    An author I would definitely like to explore. I don’t know whether to be grateful or disappointed that this series isn’t readily available over here. (Are you secretly hoping for that dud? LOL)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I suspect I’ll be waiting quite a while, especially given their track record so far…Maybe they’ll be picked up by a stateside publisher at some point? One can only hope. In the meantime, should any of them take your fancy, you could always place an order with Blackwells – they do free delivery worldwide, which is very useful to keep in mind!

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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