There are more lovely books coming out right now in the fabulous British Library Women Writers series, and I’ve been fortunate enough to receive copies of both of them. I’ll be appearing on the official Book Tour for E.M. Delafield’s “Tension” later this month, but I wanted to read Diana Tutton’s “Mamma” early so I could enjoy other people’s reviews of it without having to save them until I’ve read it. What a great book it was!

Diana Tutton – “Mamma”

(21 April 2021)

It had shocked her profoundly to find that she and Steven were in danger of combining against Libby. She hoped that she had checked in time the disloyal message of her eyes and lips. If anyone was to feel shut out in this household of three, it should be herself; never, by any chance, darling little Libby.

When you read the blurb of this novel, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s going to be a big book, full of melodrama and feelings being expressed all over the place. As Tanya Kirk puts it in the Preface, it’s “scandalously plotted”. But it’s small and tightly bound and nuanced and a much better read for it, in my opinion.

Joanna was widowed a year into her marriage, at 21, and the baby she had then is now 20, growing into a very different womanhood, influenced by her friendship with a very modern family and now keen to marry a chap with a moustache that she vows to get rid of. Steven is 35, so much nearer to Joanna’s age than his Libby’s, and although things start out awkwardly when they end up living together out of necessity, they draw closer through little moments of common ground. Joanna is caught between a last grasp of happiness and youth and her loyalty to her beloved daughter, who she has to watch navigate that first year of marriage with the same difficulty everyone has. Meanwhile, life goes on as normal, there’s a sub-plot to do with Stephen’s fairly ghastly folk-weave-loving mother and her unmarried mother lodger/help, and the village in which they stay is portrayed very nicely, too.

I loved the character of Joanna, much happier with muddy hands in the garden than entertaining and pretty unconventional after a life of having to be. Books and poetry are important to her, too, though, and we see how that draws her close to Libby, with a spirited discussion of “Little Women” coming early on, as well as to Stephen later. The relationship between mother and daughter, rather condescending on Libby’s part, is drawn as exactly as that between the married couple themselves, and Libby’s thoughts one or twice, Steven’s inner existence, at times, and Joanna’s inner thoughts and turmoil more often, are dissected gently and quietly. The one scene where all might come out is so carefully and tightly drawn, really a marvel.

There’s a comic servant and her mother, a second attractive and dangerous man and a clever technical echoing in two walks and the sight of an old man’s cottage to add to the detail and depth of the novel, and a lovely bit of metafiction when Joanna reflects that a woman in a novel would never have said what she just said.

There’s a short piece about the 1950s, including details about unmarried mothers and contraception, a short biography of Tutton followed by the Preface discussing the contrasts in the novel and an afterword that ranges over attitudes to sex, newspaper crosswords and poetry, to round off another beautifully packaged novel that is a delight to read.

Thank you very much to British Library Publishing for sending me a print copy of this book in return for an honest review.