New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families

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9780141041766: New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families

In a brilliant, nuanced, and wholly original collection of essays, the bestselling and award-winning author of Brooklyn and The Empty Family offers a fascinating exploration of famous writers’ relationships to their families and their work.

In a brilliant, nuanced and wholly original collection of essays, the novelist and critic Colm Tóibín explores the relationships of writers to their families and their work.

From Jane Austen’s aunts to Tennessee Williams’s mentally ill sister, the impact of intimate family dynamics can be seen in many of literature’s greatest works. Tóibín, celebrated both for his award-winning fiction and his provocative book reviews and essays, and currently the Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia, traces and interprets those intriguing, eccentric, often twisted family ties in New Ways to Kill Your Mother. Through the relationship between W. B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, and J. M. Synge and his mother, Tóibín examines a world of relations, richly comic or savage in its implications. In Roddy Doyle’s writing on his parents, Tóibín perceives an Ireland reinvented. From the dreams and nightmares of John Cheever’s journals, Tóibín illuminates this darkly comic misanthrope and his relationship to his wife and his children. “Educating an intellectual woman,” Cheever remarked, “is like letting a rattlesnake into the house.” Acutely perceptive and imbued with rare tenderness and wit, New Ways to Kill Your Mother is a fascinating look at writers’ most influential bonds and a secret key to understanding and enjoying their work.

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About the Author:

Colm Tóibín was born in Ireland in 1955. He is the author of six novels including The Blackwater Lightship, The Master, winner of a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Brooklyn, winner of a Costa Book Award. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

New Ways to Kill Your Mother
Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother

In November 1894 Henry James set down in his notebooks a sketch for the novel that became The Wings of the Dove, which was published eight years later. He wrote about a possible heroine who was dying but in love with life. “She is equally pathetic in her doom and in her horror of it. If she only could live just a little; just a little more – just a little longer.” In his outline James also had in his mind a young man who “wishes he could make her taste of happiness, give her something that it breaks her heart to go without having known. That “something” can only be – of course – the chance to love and be loved.” James also noted as a possibility the position of another woman to whom the man was “otherwise attached and committed . . . It appears inevitably, or necessarily, preliminary that his encounter with the tragic girl shall be through the other woman.” He also saw the reason why the young man and the woman to whom he was committed could not marry. “They are obliged to wait . . . He has no income and she no fortune, or there is some insurmountable opposition on the part of her father. Her father, her family, have reasons for disliking the young man.”

This idea, then, of the dying young woman and the penniless young man on one side and, on the other, of father, family and young woman with no fortune circled in James’s fertile mind. There was no moment, it seemed, in which the second young woman would have a mother; it was “her father, her family” that would oppose the marriage; over the next five or six years James would work out the form this opposition would take, and who exactly “her family” would be.

In her book Novel Relations, Ruth Perry looked at the makeup of the family in the early years of the novel. “Despite the emphasis,” she wrote, “on marriage and motherhood in late eighteenth-century society, 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.”

In nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction, the family is often broken or disturbed or exposed, and the heroine is often alone, or strangely controlled and managed. If the heroine and the narrative itself are seeking completion in her marriage, then the journey there involves either the searching for figures outside the immediate family for support, or the breaking free from members of the family who seek to confine or dictate. In creating the new family upon marriage, the heroine needs to redefine her own family or usurp its power. In attempting to dramatize this, the novelist will use a series of tricks or systems almost naturally available to Jane Austen and the novelists who came after her; they could use shadowy or absent mothers and shining or manipulative aunts. The novel in English over the nineteenth century is filled with 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. The novel is a form ripe for orphans, or for those whose orphanhood will be all the more powerful for being figurative, or open to the suggestion, both sweet and sour, of surrogate parents.

It is easy to attribute the absence of mothers in novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the large numbers of women who died in childbirth, as high as 10 per cent in the eighteenth century. The first wives of three of Jane Austen’s brothers died in childbirth, for example, leaving motherless children. But this explanation is too easy. If it had suited novelists to fill their books with living mothers – Jane Austen’s mother outlived her, for example – then they would have done so. In Novel Relations Ruth Perry takes the view that all the motherless heroines in the eighteenth-century novel – and all the play with substitutions – “may derive from a new necessity in an age of intensifying individualism.” This necessity involved separating from the mother, or destroying her, and replacing her with a mother-figure of choice. “This mother,” Perry writes, “who is also a stranger may thus enable the heroine’s independent moral existence.”

Thus mothers get in the way in fiction; they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality, and by something more interesting and important as the novel itself developed. This was the idea of solitude, the idea that a key scene in a novel occurs when the heroine is alone, with no one to protect her, no one to confide in, no one to advise her, and no possibility of this. Thus her thoughts move inward, offering a drama not between generations, or between opinions, but within a wounded, deceived or conflicted self. The novel traces the mind at work, the mind in silence. The presence of a mother would be a breach of the essential privacy of the emerging self, of the sense of singleness and integrity, of an uncertain moral consciousness, of a pure and floating individuality on which the novel comes to depend. The conspiracy in the novel is thus not between a mother and her daughter, but rather between the protagonist and the reader.

Jane Austen’s last three novels have motherless heroines. Austen, however, does not allow this to appear as loss, or does not let this expose the heroine, or take up much of her time. Rather it increases her sense of self, it allows her personality to appear more intensely in the narrative as though slowly filling space that had been quietly and slyly left for that purpose.

In Pride and Prejudice there is a mother, but there are also two aunts, Elizabeth Bennet’s Aunt Gardiner and Mr. Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It is an aspect of Austen’s genius that, while the novel dissolves the power and influence of the mother, neutralizes her in ways both comic and blunt, the two aunts are painted in considerably different shades, one allowed a calm, civilizing subtlety, the other given a histrionic sense of entitlement. But none of the three older women in the book has any actual power, although two of them seek power and influence; power instead is handed directly to the heroine and this power arises from the quality of her own intelligence. It is her own ability to be alone, to move alone, to be seen alone, to come to conclusions alone, that sets her apart.

When Jane Austen’s niece herself became an aunt she wrote to her: “Now that you have become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great Interest whatever you do. I have always maintained the importance of aunts as much as possible, & I am sure of your doing the same now.” Austen was close to her own nieces and nephews, looked after some of them after their mothers died, and seemed to have been remembered fondly by all of them. She also lived in the hope of an inheritance from her mother’s brother Mr. Leigh-Perrot, who was married and lived in Bath. The Leigh-Perrots were childless and not amusing, but they had to be kept sweet. Her uncle’s will, which in 1817 left Austen and her siblings a thousand pounds only after their aunt’s death, did not help Austen as she herself was ill and died soon afterwards.

In Pride and Prejudice the two aunts also represent a changing England. Mrs. Gardiner’s husband, who is Mrs. Bennet’s brother, lived from trade. He was, we are told, “greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education” and it is pointed out that the Netherfield ladies, Mr. Bingley’s sisters, superior and snobbish and alert to class difference, “would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could have been so well bred and agreeable.” His wife “was an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman, and a great favourite with all her . . . nieces. Between the two eldest and herself especially, there subsisted a very particular regard.” It is to her house in London that the sisters repair in that hushed interregnum in the book when both Bingley and Darcy have disappeared and with them the prospects for Jane. It is while travelling with her aunt and uncle that Elizabeth renews her relations with Darcy. It is via them that she discovers that Darcy has rescued her sister Lydia. In other words, the Gardiners in Pride and Prejudice offer stillness, unforced opportunity, vital information, none of which is available from their mother, or indeed their father. This idea that the sisters have to be removed from the family home for the novel to proceed makes the role of their uncle and aunt essential in the book, but also natural.

Austen feels free, on the other hand, to make Lady Catherine de Bourgh imperious and comic, her wealth and power serving to make her ridiculous rather than impressive. She is an aunt who does not prevail; her presence in the book succeeds in making Darcy her nephew more individual, more himself and less part of any system. His aunt’s function is not merely then to amuse us, or to show us an aspect of English manners that Jane Austen thought was foolish, but to allow her nephew, who refuses to obey her, a sort of freedom, a way of standing alone, that will make him worthy of Elizabeth and worthy too of the novel’s moral shape. Its suggestion that only those who are prepared to move outside their family’s arena of influence, to move out of the sphere of blood and inheritance as the centre of control, towards the autonomous and the personal, will become important in other areas of English life as the nineteenth century proceeds.

Austen understood, however, the strange dynamic of an extended family and how much could be made fluid and uncertain, detached and semi-detached, within its boundaries. Within their family, both Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra, as Marilyn Butler has pointed out in “Jane Austen and the War of Ideas,” “played a key role as travellers between the households [of their brothers] and assiduous correspondents . . . Jane somewhat closer to and more preoccupied with two of her younger brothers – Henry, said to have been her favourite, who lived in London, and the sailor Frank, who reported to her from various war fronts . . . The sisters made good aunts and friends to the next generation.”

Since two of her brothers, Frank and Charles, went to sea and were away from home for long periods of time, it is easy to see the intensely tender and constant feelings that Fanny Price in Mansfield Park has for her brother William, also away at sea, as being a fundamental part of Austen’s emotional world. The novel itself begins by breaking a family, by taking Fanny Price from her own impoverished family and handing her, almost as a changeling, to the care of her two aunts. The fact that she is penniless leaves her unprotected and requires her to be timid and passive.

Since the opening of the novel has all the bearings of a fairy tale, it must have been tempting for Austen to make Lady Bertram, the aunt in whose house Fanny will live, an evil ogre and make Mrs. Norris, the aunt who lives nearby, into the kind and watchful aunt. Or make them both ogres. What she decided to do was to hand all the badness to Mrs. Norris. It is Mrs. Norris who emphasizes Fanny’s precarious position as someone who is inside the family enough to be given shelter but outside it enough to be regularly insulted. When Fanny refuses to take part in the play-acting, for example, her aunt Norris emphasizes her isolation and vulnerability: “I shall think her a very obstinate girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her – very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is.”

The reader is thus free to dislike Mrs. Norris for her cruelty and to admire Fanny for her forbearance. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees Mrs. Norris as “one of the great villains of literature”; the critic Tony Tanner as “one of Jane Austen’s most impressive characters and indeed one of the most plausibly odious characters in fiction.” All this is clear, at times rather too clear. What is not clear is what the reader should feel about the other aunt, Lady Bertram, the mistress of Mansfield Park. Tomalin dislikes her: “Fanny’s experience at Mansfield Park is bitter as no other childhood is in Austen’s work. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is virtually an imbecile; she may be a comic character and not ill-tempered, but the effects of her extreme placidity are not comic.” Tanner takes a similar view:

Lady Bertram is a travesty of those values [of quietness and repose]. She is utterly inert, unaware, and entirely incapable of volition, effort or independent judgement. She is of course an immensely amusing character; but she also reveals the Mansfield values run to seed. In effect, she never thinks, moves, or cares: amiable enough in that she is not malicious, she is, in her insentient indolence, useless as a guardian of Mansfield Park and positively culpable as a parent. And it is her sofa-bound inertia which permits the ascendancy of Mrs. Norris. Lady Bertram does not represent quietness and repose so much as indifference and collapse.

In his essay on Mansfield Park, Lionel Trilling has another reading of Lady Bertram, claiming that she is a self-mocking representation of Jane Austen’s wish to “be rich and fat and smooth and dull . . . to sit on a cushion, to be a creature of habit and an object of ritual deference.”

It is possible to argue, on the other hand, that Lady Bertram, rather than being merely a piece of self-mockery, is one of Austen’s most subtle, restrained and ingenious creations. This probably requires a different attitude to the novel than that displayed by Tomalin and Tanner, or indeed Trilling. The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgements on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place. This is not to insist that a character in fiction is merely a verbal construct and bears no relation to the known world. It is rather to suggest that the role of a character in a novel must be judged not as we would judge a person. Instead, we must look for density, for weight and strength within the pattern, for ways in which figures in novels have more than one easy characteristic, one simple affect. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.

Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park in this context is easy to read; her role in the pattern of the book is obvious. She is not good, she performs no good or kind act that matters; nor is she bad, since, in turn, she performs no bad act that matters. But she is there in the book, in the house, in the family. Fanny has already lost one mother, who effectively has given her away. Aunt Norris plays the role of wicked aunt who appears now and then. Lady Bertram has four children of her own, and with the arrival of Fanny she has a fifth. Since there is something in Austen’s imaginati...

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Descripción Penguin Books Ltd, United Kingdom, 2013. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. From Colm Toibin comes New Ways to Kill Your Mother, a fabulously entertaining book about writers and their families. In this wonderfully entertaining and enlightening collection, Colm Toibin not only explores the often tense relationship between writers and their families but also conveys, with a rare tenderness and wit, the great joy of reading their work. Here is W.B. Yeats harshly responding to his own father s literary efforts; Thomas Mann ruining his children s prospects; Tennessee Williams haunted by his sister s mental illness; and John Cheever being beastly to his wife. Praise for New Ways to Kill Your Mother: A brilliant book.Toibin is a supple, subtle thinker, alive to hints and undertones, wary of absolute truths Robert Hanks, New Statesman A penetrating and often very funny inquiry into the fraught complicity between parent and child, brother and sister Daily Telegraph Insightful and compassionate, assured and knowledgeable, never less than fascinating. An impressive, fine and engaging collection Independent on Sunday. Nº de ref. de la librería APG9780141041766

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Descripción Penguin Books Ltd, United Kingdom, 2013. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. From Colm Toibin comes New Ways to Kill Your Mother, a fabulously entertaining book about writers and their families. In this wonderfully entertaining and enlightening collection, Colm Toibin not only explores the often tense relationship between writers and their families but also conveys, with a rare tenderness and wit, the great joy of reading their work. Here is W.B. Yeats harshly responding to his own father s literary efforts; Thomas Mann ruining his children s prospects; Tennessee Williams haunted by his sister s mental illness; and John Cheever being beastly to his wife. Praise for New Ways to Kill Your Mother: A brilliant book.Toibin is a supple, subtle thinker, alive to hints and undertones, wary of absolute truths Robert Hanks, New Statesman A penetrating and often very funny inquiry into the fraught complicity between parent and child, brother and sister Daily Telegraph Insightful and compassionate, assured and knowledgeable, never less than fascinating. An impressive, fine and engaging collection Independent on Sunday. Nº de ref. de la librería APG9780141041766

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