Book Review: The Complete Book of Mothers-In-Law – A Celebration by Luisa Dillner

The Sunday Business Post, October 26, 2008

A witty and overdue celebration of the uncelebrated

‘There was a knock at the door; I knew it was the wife’s mother, because the mice were throwing themselves on the traps.”

So said the late, great Les Dawson, a man whose name was practically synonymous with the mother-in-law joke, which was ubiquitous among comedians during the politically incorrect 1970s.

This was, of course, the humorous extension of an age-old tradition – the fear and vilification of one’s spouse’s mother. Through the ages, men have lived in terror, and often loathing, of what they saw as a future projection of their wives; their contempt for their in-law acted as a misguided warning to their betrothed on how not to grow old.

However, in writing The Complete Book of Mothers-In-Law, the Guardian columnist and former doctor Luisa Dillner has largely, and cleverly, spoken up for a group who have, for too long, been living in relative silence – the daughters-in-law.

To them, their husband’s mother is a much more complicated character than simply the ogre who runs a disapproving finger over unpolished surfaces or makes judgments on how her grandchildren are being mothered. This book is a subtle, painstaking and anecdotal instruction manual on how two women from different generations can smooth over their differences and celebrate their similarities.

Dillner has gathered together a mind-boggling array of stories from history, fiction, personal experience and celebrity culture, on this mythological figure of womanhood, in an attempt to eradicate stereotypes and put its modern incumbents into context.

She introduces the book with a fond ‘‘celebration’’ of her own mother-in-law, Maggie, an actress, magician’s assistant and Pearly Queen, who has gone some way to breaking down stereotypes. All the same, Dillner makes the salient point that, despite her mother-in-law’s pride in Dillner’s career as a writer and newspaper columnist, she still refuses to buy the Guardian.

The potted history and cultural round-up of relationships between mothers and daughters-in-law is brilliantly researched; from the servile daughters-in-law of old China and Japan, to the Indian tradition of meting out beatings, ridicule and hard labour to girls who got too close to their husband, and therefore threatened his mother’s position.

On the other hand, in Italy, where men who aren’t mammoni (mummy’s boys) are practically social pariahs, jealous mothers-in-law are being blamed for the rise in divorce rates. A Milanese psychologist warns that, ‘‘when a mother is crying at the wedding of her son. . . it is from the sorrow of losing him rather than the joy of seeing him happy with another woman’’.

To that end, Dillner makes a point of celebrating famous mothers-in-law who went beyond the call of duty; like Mrs Clemm, who somehow managed to adore her tortured, drunken son-in-law, Edgar Allan Poe, and Queen Victoria, who never underestimated how hard life was for Alix, who had married her ‘‘weak-willed’’ son, Bertie.

There’s even a recipe for ‘‘Mother-In-Law’s Chicken Soup’’ – it would be a brave daughter-in-law who’d attempt to better it.

Faber clearly has an eye on the Christmas gift market with this book, but I’d sound a note of caution; if daughters-in-law are to present this from under the tree, will there be an implication that all is not rosy? This is a marvellously entertaining book – but it could well lead to some uncomfortable moments.

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