Society’s attitude to single mothers hasn’t changed much as the decades – or even centuries – pass. This I realised while reflecting on stories of various fictional single mums as I wrote my second novel, Layla. Telling the story of a single mother turned reluctant lap dancer, Layla follows a tradition of literature devoted to women who are trying to raise children alone in the face of societal prejudice and injustice. Here, from a fallen Victorian to a stoical modern marvel, are the five which are most etched in my memory.
Esther in Esther Waters by George Moore
Esther Waters might not be the best known of the Victorian fallen woman genre, but it’s definitely my favourite. A naturalist masterpiece, the book is uncompromising in its depiction of Esther’s struggle to raise a son born out of wedlock against a backdrop of hypocritical morals and outright hostility. Call me old-fashioned, but I love this novel for that magic trio of a decent plot, a good clutch of goodies and baddies and a compelling setting (the world of horse-racing and betting). 'I daresay I shall get through my trouble somehow,’ Esther says. Finding out whether she does carries the reader through to the end.
Mrs MacLane in Flower Garden (short story) by Shirley Jackson
In this brilliant 1949 short story, Mrs MacLane – owner of the titular flower garden – is a widow rather than a bona fide single parent – but she’s a perfect example of how society can turn against a young mother for not conforming. Through the eyes of the petty Mrs Winnings, we read of Mrs MacLane’s arrival and subsequent ostracism in an American small town when she takes on Mr Jones, a black man, as her gardener. Don’t be misled by the pretty title: this perceptive story of racism and social exclusion has thorns.
Rosamund in The Millstone by Margaret Drabble
London, the mid-1960s: Rosamund is a privileged academic who finds herself pregnant after her first sexual encounter. After a failed attempt to abort her child with a bottle of gin (which is actually funnier than it sounds), Rosamund accepts her predicament, deciding to keep her baby or rather ‘failing to decide not to have it’. Though I prefer my novels a little bleaker than this (Rosamund doesn’t exactly struggle with her pregnancy, birth and solo parenting), I’ve great affection for this character as she, despite being well- educated and smart, bumbles about maternity wards and GP surgeries in a realistically inept and endearing way.
Marigold in The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
No celebration of fictional single mothers is complete without dropping a curtsey to their queen, Jacqueline Wilson. For the best insight into this particular novel, I’m handing over to my 10-year-old-daughter: ‘I’m glad this is only a story because I don’t think most single mums could be as bad as Marigold. As much as her kids love her, she isn’t a good mum. She drinks, stays out all night and is bad with money. When she paints herself white to cover her tattoos to prove that she’s changed, Marigold finally starts making things better for her girls, Dolphin and Star.’
Helen in Mo said she was quirky by James Kelman
Here is 24 hours in the mind of casino nightshift worker Helen. Living with daughter Sophie and boyfriend Mo in a tiny South London flat, Helen has left her native Glasgow to escape Sophie’s dodgy father. The dazzling pitter-patter of this hard working single mum’s thoughts and feelings minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, reveal emotional depth and a window into the blistering realities of raising a child alone in the 21st century: ‘Before Sophie started school was the very worst; nurseries and childminders, that was the nightmare of nightmares back in Glasgow…’ Hard work, but worth it.
Layla by Nina De La Mer is published on 20 February by Myriad.