Published On: Fri, Mar 25th, 2011

Literary aunts: the good, the bad and the ugly

In the latest edition of the London Review of Books (subscription required for most online pieces, I am afraid) there is a lovely piece by novelist Colm Tóibín on the importance of aunts in the 19th-century novel. He starts by investigating the aunts in Jane Austen, having quoted a passage in Ruth Perry’s book The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature 1748-1818

…mothers in novels of the period are notoriously absent – dead or otherwise missing. Just when motherhood was becoming central to the definition of femininity, when the modern conception of the all-nurturing, tender, soothing, ministering mother was being consolidated in English culture, she was being represented in fiction as a memory rather than as an active present reality.

Tóibín expands:

The novel in English during the 19th century is full of parents whose influence must be evaded or erased, to be replaced by figures who operate either literally or figuratively as aunts, both kind and mean, both well-intentioned and duplicitous, both rescuing and destroying

Mothers get in the way, he says: for the 19th-century novel, self-realisation, self-transformation, the assertion of the individual is key. “The necessity was to separate oneself from one’s mother, or destroy her, at least symbolically, and replace her with a mother figure of one’s choosing.”

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