Mamma by Diana Tutton

Reviewed by Harriet

Published in 1956, Mamma was the first novel Tutton wrote, though her second and now better known Guard Your Daughters was published first, in 1953. I don’t know the history of why this happened, but it could have had something to do with the potentially scandalous subject matter of Mamma which, as the blurb on this new British Library Women Writers edition indicates, is the story of a woman who falls in love with her daughter’s husband. However, though I’m sure we all could picture the sort of sensational novel that could have had such a plot line, this is the most delicately nuanced account of a woman struggling with powerfully unexpected and confusing emotions. And, though this situation is obviously central, the novel is about far more than that. It’s about society in the 1950s: family relationships, the generation gap, class divisions, and sexual mores.  It’s immensely readable and extremely enjoyable.

Joanna Malling is 41. Widowed just a year after her young marriage, she has lived a single life for twenty years, bringing up her much loved daughter Elizabeth, always known as Libby. As the novel begins, Libby, now the age Joanna was when she married, has written to her mother from London to tell her she has just got engaged. Joanna has never met Stephen but ‘I know you’ll love each other’. And, in a PS: ‘He’s thirty-five. Quite a sober age, you must admit, but he doesn’t seem old a scrap, and I don’t think a fifteen years gap is too much, do you?’. 

Stephen is a soldier, and Libby is excited by the fact that he is due to be posted abroad any day after the wedding. But following a bout of severe illness, he is told that this plan will be put on hold for up to a year. Coincidentally, the desk job he’s offered instead is located in the nearest town to the dilapidated Victorian cottage Joanna has recently bought and is lovingly restoring. She offers to move out and let the couple have the place to themselves, but she’s eventually persuaded to let them move in as paying guests.

At first the situation is awkward. Stephen and Joanna hardly know each other, and he doesn’t really know how to relate to the woman Libby has encouraged him to call Mamma. At first Joanna tries to keep out of their way, but soon they find themselves bonding over shared crossword puzzles, and become a relaxed and comfortable family unit. Or so it appears. But Joanna, much to her surprise, finds herself increasingly drawn to Stephen. Does he feel the same? And if so, what can they do about it?

That’s the bare bones of the plot, but as I said, there’s so much more going on. Although Joanna is the central figure, and much of what takes place is seen through her eyes, there are glimpses of Libby and Stephen’s married life. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is its treatment of sex and sexuality, and it’s quickly clear that though Libby is willing to participate in bed, she doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. As her more sophisticated friend Janet puts it, she’s ‘not yet fully awakened’. Stephen gives this some thought, and looks forward hopefully to ‘her growing powers of sexual pleasure’:

At present she seemed disconcertingly placid about the whole thing, so that he felt he must curb his own emotions, which would be, heaven knew, deep enough and dark enough if he gave them their freedom. Of what passion he was capable he was not sure, but he did feel that their present embraces, while physically they relieved him, were emotionally little more than an introduction.

Libby is, in fact, very naive. She’s greatly influenced by Janet, who takes an interest in psychology and plants all kinds of ideas in her friend’s head. One such is that Stephen’s eccentric, folk-dancing mother is in a lesbian relationship with the young unmarried mother she has taken in as a cook, a suggestion that horrifies Stephen. But the most damaging – and the one that reveals Libby’s extreme lack of sensitivity – is her opinion of the effect of female celibacy:

“I don’t see’, said Elizabeth, smiling, ‘how anyone at all young can live without sex and not get warped’.

Stephen’s feelings changed abruptly. Of all the tactless remarks! But Joanna answered peacefully: ‘Quite a lot do’.

‘Well, they all get a bit peculiar’.

‘I don’t think that’s altogether true’.

‘Janet says it comes out in all sorts of funny little ways’.

‘Well, good Lord, we’ve all heard that one’, said Stephen impatiently. ‘But it’s by no means universal’.

‘Even if it’s not visible,’ calmly continued Elizabeth, ‘it’s still there. In fact, if you can’t see it it’s probably worse’.

‘Darling’, said Joanna, looking, as Stephen gratefully noticed, not hurt, but amused, ‘we’ve all heard that too’.

‘Often’, added Stephen.

‘Oh, all right’, said Elizabeth, not at all offended. ‘But all the same, Janet says —‘

‘A course in so-called psychology’, said Stephen nastily, ‘doesn’t guarantee a profound knowledge of human nature’.

This is just one of an increasing number of occasions on which Libby’s immaturity is contrasted with the greater knowledge of life possessed by her husband and her mother, who are of course much nearer in age and experience than she and Stephen. An important moment in the growing closeness between them takes place on an evening when they all are jointly puzzling over a crossword clue – a poet with the letter ’n’ in the middle of his name. Libby is completely at a loss, but Joanna thinks of Donne, and this leads to a happy exchange of ideas between the two older adults, who can quote poetry to each other in the absolute confidence that each will recognise the source. Afterwards, Joanna reflects on the pleasure of finding that Stephen is ‘alive to poetry’ while Libby, like her father, will never get beyond the most superficial knowledge. But as time goes on, the attraction becomes increasingly powerful and, though Joanna is desperately unsure whether her feelings are reciprocated, it’s clear to the reader that Stephen is facing the same problem.

Although Joanna’s developing feelings for Stephen, and her struggle against them, could take place as easily today  as seventy years ago, other attitudes place the novel firmly in the 1950s.. The most obvious issue is that of social class. The local villagers, with their ‘common’ ways, provide some entertainment and amusement to Joanna and her family, and Joanna can’t imagine living without some form of domestic help. She deplores ‘the servant problem’, something which loomed large at the time – young women who had done war work were unwilling to go back to the domestic drudgery their mothers took for granted. Then there’s the question of unmarried mothers: Stephen’s mother belongs to a society which helps these young women, but the fact that they are referred to as ‘unfortunates’ shows that attitudes have changed little since the pre-war years. 

Overall, though, this is book which deals with great sensitivity with emotions that conflict with maternal love and loyalty. I enjoyed it enormously and so will you. A very welcome addition to the admirable British Library Women Writers series.

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Harriet is co-founder and co-editor of Shiny New Books

Diana Tutton, Mamma (British Library, 2021). 978-0712353885, 256pp., paperback.

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