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Meeting the mothers: The women who shaped iconic female authors


For an author, writing a biography is rather like a love affair; there is a brief encounter, a rapport and then over the next few years you develop an intimate relationship with your subject.

My latest book Mothers of the Mind about the remarkable women who shaped Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, and Sylvia Plath, began with one of those chance meetings. When I went to an exhibition at the Tate of St Ives in 2018 a quotation from Virginia Woolf caught my attention: “We think back through our mothers if we are women.” Placed alongside a bewitching photograph of Woolf’s mother Julia Stephen, I was intrigued. The woman staring out at me from the picture looked so modern, but there was something mysterious about her. I wanted to discover what she was really like and explore her relationship with her daughter.

As I thought about Virginia and Julia, I wondered whether the quotation was equally true for other female writers. I soon discovered Virginia Woolf was certainly not the only one who was moulded by their maternal heritage. As an avid reader of literary biographies, I recalled that Agatha Christie and Sylvia Plath also had intense relationships with their mothers. Their attitudes to life, literature and feminism were profoundly influenced by their parents.

Knowing a little bit about them, I was determined to find out more. Too often in the past these authors have been defined by their relationship with their lovers, I intended to redress the balance by focussing on their formative affinity with their mothers.

There have been many biographies of Virginia, Agatha, and Sylvia before, but I decided to look at them from a different perspective. My interest was primarily in the mothers. Rather than mentioning them in passing, it tells their stories in in full showing that they were remarkable in their own rights and not just interesting because they were their daughters’ mothers. They deserve to be better known as they were as passionate, complex and at times contradictory as their more famous offspring.

In each case the maternal relationship was crucial to the daughter’s development. Virginia admitted that for much of her life her mother obsessed her and that for three decades after her death Julia haunted her every step. Agatha’s daughter Rosalind described her grandmother as a dangerous woman because Agatha never thought she was wrong. While Sylvia’s psychiatrist encouraged her to believe that her relationship with her mother was at the root of her mental health problems.

All six women in this book were women who loved too much. They experienced what Agatha Christie described as “a dangerous intensity of affection,” which meant their love for their lovers and each other had the potential to destroy them. Julia was so in love with her first husband Herbert Duckworth, she wanted to die when he died aged only thirty-seven. Agatha’s mother Clara was equally bereft after her husband Fred Miller’s death, only her great love for her daughter made her carry on. Aurelia did not marry her soulmate Karl Terzaghi, but her heart was broken when he married another woman.

Once they had children, the mothers’ bonds with their daughters were also exceptional. Parent and child experienced what Aurelia Plath called “psychic osmosis” which allowed them to imagine themselves into each other’s minds. However, being so close to another person could be claustrophobic and made it hard to establish a separate identity.

The mothers played crucial roles in encouraging their daughters to become writers. Aspiring authors themselves, they recognised their child’s genius and then nurtured it as their first teachers, readers, and critics. Later, the daughters repaid them by fictionalising their lives in their novels. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia recaptured Julia in Mrs Ramsay, while Agatha recreated Clara as Miriam in Unfinished Portrait. Less flatteringly, Mrs Greenwood in Sylvia’s novel The Bell Jar is based on Aurelia. As I wrote this book, I wanted to find out how accurate the daughters’ portrayals of their mothers were. At times, the way the authors saw their parents was very different from the way the women saw themselves. As Aurelia wrote, Sylvia could only write about what she thought her mother thought, in my book, the mothers get a chance to answer back.

Writing Mothers of the Mind I feel I have got to know the women involved very well. Living with them through the pandemic, when so many of us were isolated from our real friends, has been an interesting experience. Like piecing together the clues in a detective novel, I feel that I have been gradually getting to know each of the characters bit by bit. In each case, there have been key moments, when everything suddenly clicked into place.

For Virginia and Julia’s story, visiting Julia Margaret Cameron’s house, Dimbola on the Isle of Wight was pivotal. The pioneering Victorian photographer, Mrs Cameron was Julia’s aunt and godmother. As a great beauty, the younger Julia was a Pre-Raphaelite muse, painted by George Frederic Watts, Edward Burne-Jones and William Holman Hunt. However, it was her aunt’s arresting photographs which really immortalised her. They captured her depth of character and revealed the strong personality beneath the great beauty. It was one of Mrs Cameron’s portraits which first made me want to write this book.

Having read about Julia’s holidays on the Isle of Wight staying with her aunt, I was intrigued to visit Dimbola. It was smaller and simpler than I expected, but once inside, seeing Mrs Cameron’s photographs of Julia next to the other pictures she was taking at the time, I felt that I was entering their circle of friends. With the poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and G.F. Watts’ beautiful young bride, Ellen Terry, staring out at me from the walls, it was like attending one of the parties Julia had enjoyed in her youth. However, there was also something disturbing lurking beneath the surface, the photos of scantily-clad children dressed as nymphs made me feel rather queasy. My visit to the Isle of Wight reinforced my awareness of the contradictions within Julia and so many Victorian women’s lives, the feeling that beneath a veneer of respectability, things were never quite what they seemed.

With Agatha and Clara, the turning point for me was visiting Agatha’s grandson Mathew Prichard and his wife Lucy in Wales and seeing the Christie archive. The archivist Joe provided me with a treasure trove of material. I was able to read Clara’s love poems to her beloved husband Fred, touch the purse with the symbol of a pierced heart on it, which she had painstakingly embroidered for him, and see the leaves she had gathered from the cemetery when she finally laid him to rest.

Clara’s unconditional love for her daughter was the firm foundation on which Agatha built the rest of her life. Looking at the family photo album, it was plain to see what an adored child Agatha was. Countless photographs of her with family and friends recapture her happy childhood in Torquay.

However, all the pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place for me when I interviewed Mathew. Talking to him about his grandmother, I understood just how deep the bond between them was. I also felt I got the greatest insight into what Agatha was really like because, although I couldn’t meet her, it seemed to me that there were similarities between grandmother and grandson and family traits had passed down the generations. I had read everything I could find but that can only take you so far, it is this sort of experience which really brings a story alive.

For Sylvia and Aurelia, speaking to Mrs Plath’s great friend in her final years, Professor Richard Larschan, was a game-changer. Richard had become like a second son to Aurelia; he lived near her and helped her manage everything from moving into a retirement village to dealing with publicity. Mrs Plath agreed to take part in a documentary which was filmed in Richard’s house. In the film she spoke about her complex relationship with her daughter. It was only after Sylvia’s death from suicide that Aurelia discovered exactly what her daughter thought of her. The toxic version of their relationship in Sylvia’s journals, poems and novel, The Bell Jar was totally different from the loving bond portrayed in her letters home to her mother. Reading biographies of Sylvia before, I had always wondered how Mrs Plath coped with making this heart-breaking discovery, now I got my answer.

When Professor Larschan showed me the recordings, I understood so much more. Sitting in a rocking chair, looking neat in a kilt and fair isle jumper, Aurelia let her innermost feelings out. A listener can hear the hurt and anger in her voice, the suffering she had been through was etched in the lines on her face and in the anguished expression in her dark brown eyes. Virtually spitting out her words as she quoted from one of Sylvia’s critical poems about her, she recited “Mother, Mother” the way she said it broke my heart.” She asked why her daughter ever wrote “anything so cruel.”

However, as I watched Mrs Plath recite another of her daughter’s poems, it was obvious how much love and pride remained. As she spoke with an almost feverish energy, I realised just how like Sylvia she was. It was a riveting performance and there were echoes of her daughter in her New England tones. As Professor Larschan explained: “Aurelia internalised Sylvia as much as her daughter internalised her. She appropriated Sylvia’s poetry.”

If writing a biography is like a love affair, this has been a tempestuous one. It has made me think about my own experience as a mother and daughter. It has challenged my ideas about what makes a good parent and made me wonder how well we can ever know another person, even those we love best. However, having traced each daughter’s journey through the painful rite of passage of separating from her mother and establishing her own identity, what survives is the visceral love between parent and child. Sometimes it was tested to the limits, at times the love was mingled with hate, but that primal bond could never be completely destroyed.

By Rachel Trethewey

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