Exploring the relationship between mothers and daughters is a well mined literary seam resulting in gems such as Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women and Susan Chitty’s painful account of her mother the novelist, Antonia White.
Yet this profoundly moving memoir, by prize-winning biographer Lyndall Gordon, exploring the exceptionally tight bonds between her and her mother, Rhoda Press, an unpublished poet, and the later division between them, does much more than simply dissect that dynamic. Some of the most powerful passages in the book examine the nature of female illness in the early and middle part of the century and the shame attached to labels such as epilepsy, as well as the author’s own post-partum depression and threatened breakdown following the birth of her first child. Gordon believes that though her mother never read John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women she came to the same conclusion; that women’s minds are even more vulnerable than their bodies to men (doctors) who exercise unthinking authority.
The book is set against the backdrop of apartheid rule in South Africa and the difficulty of being a 1950’s housewife who must never say what she thinks in public and is expected at all times to be a dutiful wife even if that meant suppressing her own talents.
From birth onwards Lyndall (a name chosen from Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm but which embarrassed the child) was to be her mother’s sister “because she wants one so…my part is to be there if she’s ill. At four years old it’s a privilege to have this responsibility instead of trotting off to nursery school like other children.” Many years later Rhoda writes to a friend about the relationship, for one “who has no sister, who is an island in an alien but affectionate family, what a surprise, what a delight to discover in one’s own child the close companion one has learned to lack.” Such intensity must threaten suffocation yet this is a tender tribute to a mother who taught her to love and cherish books yet who cannot ever have been easy, much less so once she fell under the spell of a charismatic Israeli teacher, Nahum Levin. Lyndall is (mostly) forgiving when she realised the disruptive depth of her mother’s love for this man, while recognising the pain it must have caused her father. Rhoda hoped that her daughter – “an extension of herself” – would settle in the Holy Land. That Lyndall did not share her mother’s dreams in this regard is the source of the growing divide.
In the next generation, when Gordon’s daughter Olivia gives birth and asks her mother to be present, this closeness provides her own most memorable experience of motherhood, reinforced when Olivia told her how important it was “that as mothers we crave and value our mothers even more.” So the experience of one generation folds in to the next. But Gordon is clear she wants her own daughters “to bear what fruit they were made to bear without an obligation to be an extension or channel.”
This is an intensely female book but there is a hero at its heart; Lyndall’s husband, Professor Siamon Gordon, with whom she left South Africa for New York a man who understood how critically important it was that his wife had her own voice and her own work to thrive.
Anne Sebba is researching a book on women in Paris from 1939-49