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.)