As I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings, I don’t generally take part in blog tours, as many of the books I read are backlisted or translated or a bit obscure and the like. However, when British Library Publishing asked if I’d like to take part in a tour for their latest releases in the British Library Women Writers series, I was happy to be involved. I think British Library Publishing are doing sterling work with their beautiful imprints for crime fiction, horror and classic sci-fi, and the Women Writers range is a particular joy. Series consultant Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book is of course a blogging pal, and co-host of our club weeks (which he devised) and I think he’s curated some wonderful titles so far for the series. The book I’m featuring today – “Mamma” by Diana Tutton – has a particular interest for me, as I will explain…

Back in 2012, Simon discovered and raved about Tutton’s novel “Guard Your Daughters“; a number of bloggers (including me!) were inspired to track down copies and read it; and the book was something of a sensation for a while. I loved it (and actually have two old copies somewhere in the house); and more recently it was reprinted by Persephone Books. Tutton only wrote three novels, and “Mamma” was her first, although “Guard Your Daughters” was the book which made it into print first. Her third and final novel, “The Young Ones” was first published in 1959 and is currently out of print. More on her general choice of subject matter later…

“Mamma” was published in 1956, and opens with 41 year-old Joanna Malling arriving at her new home in Tadwych. Widowed at 21 after a short marriage, she’s brought up her young daughter, Libby, single-handed; and before long Joanna finds that Libby is engaged, to Steven Pryde. At 35, Steven is a soldier and quite a lot older than his prospective wife; in fact, he’s obviously a lot closer in age to the woman who will be his mother-in-law. Nevertheless, the marriage goes ahead, despite the husband and mother-in-law not particularly liking or being comfortable with each other. And Joanna thinks that will be that.

However, circumstances (and the forces!) conspire to post Steven to Tadwych and inevitably Joanna’s daughter and son-in-law end up sharing a house with her. As the young couple grapple with the difficulties of married life, trying to understand each other’s needs and temperaments, it seems that in fact Steven has a lot more in common with Joanna than might initially have been thought; and Joanna finds herself struggling with emotions she thought long suppressed . Things are not helped by the fact that her daughter is young, inexperienced and stubborn, bent on moulding her older husband in ways he doesn’t appreciate or want. But any kind of intimacy between the two older characters would be catastrophic – so how with Joanna resolve the clash between loyalty and love?

Well – Tutton really liked to tackle intriguing subjects and there are a *lot* being explored here! There is, of course, the possibility of what would, at the time, have been considered a transgressive relationship. Aside from Joanna’s loyalty to her daughter, it was obviously more acceptable in the 1950s for a man to be 15 years older than his wife than for a wife to be 6 years older than her husband. Even though the latter two would have much more in common, it was still taboo (and probably still is nowadays, to a certain extent – older women being mostly written off as old bags). It’s slightly shocking to see that at 41 Joanna is pretty much considered past it (and at some points thinks that way of herself); but it was ever thus and until attitudes change dramatically will still be the case.

What’s interesting, though, is how subtly Tutton explores this attraction; neither Joanna or Steven are particularly interested in each other to start with. However, as they get to know each other better, they bond over poetry and it’s clear that there is a deep intellectual link developing which cannot exist between Steven and the much younger Libby. It takes a dramatic family event to reveal the truth to them, but even after that there is the fight to suppress their impulses; and a dangerous point where Libby suspects the truth.

Aside from this element, there are a number of side-plots which look at different kinds of relationship. There is Mrs. Holmes, who “does” for Joanna, and has something of a reputation, as well as a number of children who don’t look that alike plus a handsome husband. And Steven’s mother, Mrs. Pryde, is a somewhat bizarre character who attracts speculation about a friendship she has with a young woman. There’s Libby’s best friend, Janet Mortimer, who has all sorts of rational ideas about sex and marriage, plus her ghastly family. It’s fascinating how Tutton uses these supporting characters to explore the types of relationship which can exist; and it’s clear she believes there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

I was intrigued, also, to find out how frank Tutton was in places about matters physical. There are mentions of losing virginity, hints of sex perhaps being not quite as all-consuming as a newly married girl would expect, musings on whether the husband is actually satisfied, and a particularly insensitive (on one character’s part!) discussion of whether sexual frustration makes you go loopy. There’s nothing at all graphic, but I did wonder if this was particularly usual for a novel of the time, and it signaled to me that Tutton was not afraid of tackling difficult subjects. I did perhaps find her working class characters slightly stereotyped, but she was obviously using them to explore the class divide which still existed at the time. Women like Libby and Janet can discuss birth control, taking this into their own hands as best possible (as the Pill would not be in more common use until the 1960s); whereas Mrs. Holmes has presumably less choice in these matters and is turning out children left, right and centre…

As for difficult matters – Tutton may only have written three novels, but each touched on a thorny subject. “Guard Your Daughters” featured a very dysfunctional family, seriously affected by one member with mental health issues and turned out to be quite a dark read in the end. “Mamma” takes on two taboos – an older woman and a younger man, and falling for your son-in-law. “The Young Ones” is apparently about brother-sister incest; so I do wonder if that one will ever make it back into print. Certainly, Tutton was a very interesting novelist!

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Mamma”; Tutton’s writing is excellent, her characterisation quite brilliant and the book was engrossing from start to finish – I couldn’t put it down and ended up staying up far too late to finish it! Diana Tutton’s work has been ignored for too long; “Mamma” is a wonderful and fascinating read and a worthy addition to the Women Writers series; and kudos to British Library Publishing for bringing it back into print!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! As with all of the British Library Women Writers book, there’s a lot of supporting material in the form of facts about the 1950s, a foreword and an interesting afterword by Simon. Lots of lovely bloggers are taking part in the tours for “Mamma” and also “Tension” by E.M. Delafied, as you can see from the graphic above – do go and check them out!)