Where have all the families gone? Robert Winder wonders why great literature, which is supposed to address universal truths, ignores children, parenthood and family life. But this may be changing. Writers no longer consider it beneath them to write about parenthoodby Robert Winder / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Pet theories are untrustworthy, but I have long nursed one. Where on earth, in the history of the novel, have all the children gone? The truth-and it is an overlooked one-is this: they hardly exist. A couple of notable heroines-Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary-are also mothers, but their offspring are not significant characters; we do not see their parents coping with them on anything other than a picturesque level. Indeed, children function as little more than sentimental props: upping the stakes when adultery comes galloping into their homes, they are left in the lurch when their mothers decide to pursue the true, spine-tingling subject of their lives: suicidal romance. Even in Middlemarch, which has been called the first novel for grown-ups, children appear mainly in order to signal the doting simple-mindedness of most women’s lives-a limitation which the novel’s heroine is understandably keen to outgrow.
This is not to say that childhood is not one of literature’s favourite subjects. It clearly is. The novel pretty much began as Bildungsroman, the formation of an individual through the adventures of childhood and youth. Most Victorian novels seem to begin in orphanages and end with wedding bells. So perhaps it would be truer to say that what is missing in literature is not children, but parents. The protagonists do not have children because they are children. One or two novels in the canon have taken the trouble to follow their heroes and heroines into an adulthood that includes children (To the Lighthouse, War and Peace-though even here Tolstoy seems at pains to show married life as a spirit-sapping decline); and a few more have portrayed the loneliness of old age. But most novels leave their characters to fend for themselves long before their backs begin to play up. They especially like dumping them at the altar, as if that were the end of their meaningful lives.
What, for instance, are the novels of Jane Austen (and her successors) if not superlatively refined and ironic Mills & Boon romances, in which well-bred virgins hover about hoping that this time the handsome new aristocrat will stop at their desk to borrow a pen? But marriage, even in Austen, proposing as it does a fairy-tale future in which “they all lived happily ever after,” is offered as a semi-sarcastic monetary joke. Today, when it is hard to see marriage as anything but a provisional matter, a…