The household and all the duties it entails – baking the bread, marrying off the daughters, washing the bodies – have ever been the woman’s domain. The language we use to describe the women who perform these tasks, despite their importance, is often derisory. But literature is full of women reluctant to leave their power at the kitchen door, who show that to “stand at the head of a family” is no meagre thing. Resourceful, often incendiary, the matriarch shapes the narrative from the shadow of the hearth.
As research for my novel, The Manningtree Witches, I read dozens of accounts of women (and some men, but mainly women) accused of maleficium, or witchcraft, in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. These accounts are touchingly formulaic: they begin with a woman, usually poor, often past marriageable age, visited by the devil, who offers his power in return for her soul. They are an invaluable resource for understanding the dimensions of women’s lives at this time in history. Their concerns are limited, domestic. And so, most often, are their alleged transgressions. They sour milk and dirty laundry at Satan’s behest. Rarely does their ambition for the power granted to them seem to extend beyond the home, the village.
These accounts articulate an intense social discomfort around women who seem to subvert the principles of domesticity and motherhood – and it is this very subversion that has made them tantalising subjects for art. Here are 10 of my favourites.
1. Livia Drusilla in I, Claudius by Robert Graves
The sort of woman for whom the word matriarch was coined, Livia Drusilla was wife to Augustus Caesar, mother to Tiberius, grandmother of Claudius, great-grandmother of Caligula and great-great grandmother of Nero. In I, Claudius, she is depicted as the red right hand of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Working within the proscriptions of “virtuous” Roman womanhood, Livia plays her family members off against each other, and does far worse to anyone inhibiting their collective advancement. Despite the title, I, Claudius is a fascinating portrait of a mother whose delicately exerted influence changed the course of history. As Claudius himself puts it: “Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus.” Cersei Lannister could never.
2. Tenar in Tehanu by Ursula K Le Guin
To my mind, Le Guin’s dazzling Earthsea Quartet ought to hold the place in our cultural esteem that Harry Potter and the etc does. We meet Tenar in the second book of the series, The Tombs of Atuan, when she is taken to serve as a child priestess to the mysterious Nameless Ones. But it is in Tehanu – older, wiser, and desperate to protect Therru, a child who has fallen under her guardianship – that she comes into her own. As a semi-literate middle-aged woman, Tenar is far from the typical fantasy heroine. But her fearlessness and grit as she works to build a life for the child she loves is as thrilling as any of Sparrowhawk’s dragon battles. Most daringly, on Le Guin’s part, Tenar’s perspective serves to interrogate the sexual politics of the earlier Quartet, and the fantasy genre in general.
3. Sethe in Beloved by Toni Morrison
Based on the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who fled Kentucky after the US civil war, Beloved sets the power of a mother’s desperation to survive against the cruelty of oppression. Sethe and her daughter Denver are haunted by loss and by the horrors of their family’s past. This haunting unravels with a slow, aching beauty, returning both women to themselves and to each other. A stunning consideration of maternal love bent to extremes under the weight of trauma. The indomitable Sethe is the novel’s big, glittering heart.
4. Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Most matriarchs are mothers, but it would seem churlish to deny the description to Betsey Trotwood, irascible aunt of David Copperfield, on a technicality. For an author seemingly convinced that all womankind can be divided and placed under the subheadings “Naive virgin (will probably die)” and “Bolshy harridan”, it is fortunate that Charles Dickens is – fair play to him – good at writing the latter. From the moment she enters the story, savaging a donkey with an umbrella, you know she’s going to be the best thing about it. Betsey is extremely funny, but more importantly, she’s a bastion of decency in a novel otherwise fairly jaded in its view of humanity. “Never be mean in anything,” she tells David. “Never be false. Never be cruel. Avoid these three vices … and I can always be hopeful of you.”
5. Mary in The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
In this luminous novella, we meet the Virgin Mary as she approaches the end of her life, held in apparent reverence and actual imprisonment by her son’s disciples. With devastating detachment, Mary recalls the life of and death of her son – and here he is her son before he is mankind’s – while weighing a mother’s desperation that her child might live against the hollow significations of his death. “I can tell you now,” insists Mary, “when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”
6. Helen Clark in Oreo by Fran Ross
From 1974, this so-loose-it’s-dragging-round-the-ankles retelling of the myth of Theseus is rude, sexy and hilarious. (Ross went on to write jokes for Richard Pryor.) A good part of the hilarity is attributable to Helen Clark, Oreo’s mother, whose insights are scattered throughout the novel in the form of letters to her children. For all its whimsy, Oreo, written at the height of the Black Power movement in the US, is also a meditation on racial identity – and Helen’s shrewd reflections on a mean, ridiculous and ridiculously mean world shape her daughter’s quest for belonging.
7. Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Reduced by most adaptations of P&P into a tawdry hysteric, one cannot help but feel there is some justice to her claim: “nobody can tell what I suffer!” Saddled with a husband who seems unable or unwilling to understand the Bennets’ economic precarity and five daughters who each seem determined – in their own unique ways – to make it worse, her rich portfolio of symptoms suggests to the modern reader less “haha” and more “severe anxiety disorder produced by the stress of existence under capitalism”. Perhaps it is time we all had a little more patience for her “poor nerves”.
8. Mrs Armitage in The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
“It’s very simple,” Mrs Armitage tells her doctor, “Jake is rich. He makes about £50,000 a year. I suppose you’d call that rich. But everything is covered with dust.” In this biting 1962 study of middle-class ennui, she suffers a breakdown in Harrods. She begins to ask questions – about love, motherhood and domesticity – that shake her faith in the rewards of bourgeois respectability. A subversive and bleakly funny feminist classic that examines the consequences of orienting a life toward the service of others.
9. Amisa in Ponti by Sharlene Teo
Teo’s novel centres on the relationship between the teenage Szu and her mother Amisa, an etiolated, chain-smoking actress whose star turn in 80s horror B-movie Ponti won her small-time cult stardom. Amisa provokes repulsion and allure in equal measure, and the home she shares with her daughter and “sister” – a mysterious spirit medium – is a viscerally rendered hothouse of maternal rivalry and resentment. Like the vampiric character in the film, Amisa’s queasy spirit haunts the byways of her daughter’s subconscious long after her death.
10. Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht
Set during the thirty years’ war, Brecht’s epic play tells the story of Anna Fierling, a canteen woman who hauls her cart of wares after the army, even as the conflict she profits by kills off her children, one by one, with a grim inevitability. Through each bereavement, Anna trudges on, weighed down by her cart, sunken eyes trained on the horizon of a Europe in flames. (Brecht wrote the play in 1939 in response to the rise of fascism in Germany and beyond.) It sees the redoubtable Anna transformed from matriarch into metaphor for the nihilism of humankind. And who but a mother could bear such metaphorical freight?
The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore is published by Granta. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.