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October 14, 2010

On Bolting, and Bolters

One good thing about rereading What Maisie Knew was considering the character of Maisie’s mother, Ida Farange, a rather loathsome woman, and not just because she abandons her daughter after manipulating her or ignoring her for years. At one point, they refer to her “bolting”, to her being a “bolter”. Which made me think of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which is the story of the Radlett family as narrated by their cousin Fanny. Fanny lives with her cousins because her parents have abandoned her as Maisie’s do (though in a far more light-hearted fashion), and her mother is referred to as “The Bolter”.

Perhaps Bolters were a blip in maternal history, a brief early twentieth century phenomenon amongst the English upper classes. (There is a biography called The Bolter as well, of someone called Idina Sackville). But I think we could actually do with a bit more literary bolting these days, mothers who take off without compunction. It was suggested to me that Alice Munro wrote about bolters, but we decided it didn’t count– her boltings always required sacrifice, but bolting doesn’t, by definition.

It occurred to me early on in motherhood why a mother might leave her children. (Not that I’d leave my children, but I have to say that, don’t I?). Because motherhood is all-or-nothing, overwhelmingly so, and if you discovered you just weren’t cut out for it, that you were terrible at it, and if you had financial means to flee, well then, wouldn’t you have to?

This is all assuming that there are women who just don’t “take” to motherhood, which I think is a healthy idea to be considered because of the number of times it turns out to be true. And I kind of admire the stance of the bolters, who don’t take to motherhood but don’t have to pretend that they do. They don’t have to run away and pretend they’re all torn up about it either. Which isn’t to say that the kids are all right, but maybe they are, or at least they will be, and the bolters don’t care regardless.

Now I’m not advocating bolting itself, though yes, undoubtedly, I’m glamourizing it. But I think these kinds of characters are positive figures in what they represent, in their freedom and their shamelessness. Adding the “bolter” to maternal archetypes, I think, would elevate maternity in general. Those of us who don’t care to bolt might be better mothers for carrying a bit of their spirit within us.

Update: See comment below re. Mrs. Brown who bolted from Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. And I just now thought of the mother from Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Replace Your Name, who had her own reasons.

17 thoughts on “On Bolting, and Bolters”

  1. m says:

    I haven’t read any of these bolters, but the bolter in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours always stays with me, especially Julianne Moore’s portrayal of her in the movie (which I think is better than the book!). Every so often I wonder if I could do it, be a bolter. I know I couldn’t, but I do know where I’d bolt to if I ever felt like I had to.

  2. Nathalie says:

    I found the bolter theme in Mitford to be wonderfully rich. Everyone keeps watching Fanny for signs of flight, as if bolting is a genetic thing, but, of course, it’s Linda who effectively bolts from her children, even while still physically present. The passage where she remarks that she never bothered to get attached to the children because she knew they would be taken away by the in-laws–she’s just so practical in immuring herself emotionally.
    I agree. Bolters should get bigger roles in our discussions of motherhood. Leaving is always seen as such a negation of the maternal instinct, but sometimes it is a matter of survival for both mother and child.
    Then there’s the over-the-tops bolters: Mama in Eden Robinson’s “Dogs in Winter” is a serial killer and leaves her daughter in front of the tv with a bowl of ceral and instructions to sit tight. She’s gone for years. It’s a great story for examining the extremes of maternal saints and demons.

  3. Gillian says:

    It’s really, really important to include bolters in our collective description of motherhood. This is a great discussion.

  4. Kerry says:

    It’s such a good name too. Wouldn’t you rather be a Bolter than a Soccer Mom?

  5. m says:

    I wonder if bolting isn’t as common now because there are more options for women/mothers? I think if Mrs. Brown wouldn’t have bolted if she wasn’t a SAHM. Imagine if she was able to pursue a career in publishing or law, she wouldn’t have felt trapped, and have been able to navigate those early, difficult years.

    1. Kerry says:

      Marita, I think you’re right entirely. But I do think that some non-bolters could remain non-bolters, and still feel somewhat liberated by knowing they’d have the option of bolting if they chose it.

  6. patricia says:

    I’d definitely take Bolter over Yummy Mummy.

    1. Kerry says:

      Hear, hear. Yummy Mummy is totally gross.

  7. SFP says:

    I’d never thought about it before, but Anne Tyler writes about bolters–mothers in Earthly Possessions and Ladder of Years and a father in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

    Men bolt, too. My paternal grandfather walked off after seven kids with my grandmother pregnant with the eighth (who died as an infant).

  8. Heidi says:

    Oh boy. I have been spending a lot of time ruminating on this topic, albeit not with this terminology. My novel-in-progress has a bolter, and one of the main characters is her daughter. I started the book before I became a mother; now I am one, and I’m having to go back and add in a lot of layers of complication to the bolter character, because now I get it. I get how trapped you can feel at home all day with a young child, how your identity can feel subsumed, your purpose reduced to the daily mundanity of unending laundry and diaper changes. I get it because there are days when I fantasize about leaving it all behind and boarding the first bus back to my old self. Before I was a mother, this character was all about her effect on her daughter. Now that I’m a mother, I feel like rewriting the whole thing from the bolter’s side. As a new mother I’ve struggled against the myth of the saintly mother, the Hallmark depiction of mothers as patient givers-of-all, and what I yearn for is some honesty: This is hard. It involves a lot of poo. Some days, I really do believe I’m not cut out for it.

    There’s also a Bolter in Barbara Gowdy’s The Romantic.

    1. Kerry says:

      Heidi- it’s so remarkably different from the other side, isn’t it? And far more complicated and nuanced, and wonderful and awful. (Though your story is probably going to be that much better too for becoming more complicated, nuanced, wonderful and awful itself).

  9. m says:

    Is it just semantics, or am I alone in thinking that Bolters are different than the male version SFP mentioned, who I would label Abandoners?

    1. Kerry says:

      m and SFP– I think there is a difference. Male “bolters” seem to be doing something much less unnatural.

  10. m says:

    I’m listening to John LeCarre’s interview on Writers and Company right now and he’s talking about his mother being a Bolter!

    1. Kerry says:

      And I just read the Margaret Trudeau excerpt in Chatelaine. Bolters are everywhere (though not all of them are rocking out with The Rolling Stones).

  11. melanie says:

    The mom from A Complicated Kindness was a Bolter too. I think the more we look for them the more we will find. For some reason the mom from the movie “Hanging Up” (which wasn’t very good – staring Meg Ryan & Diane Keaton) has always stuck with me. Ryan’s character finally searches out her Mom to ask why she left and – if I recall correctly – the Mom basically tells her that she hated being a mother and it didn’t really go deeper than that. Of course, I could be remembering this wrong but I don’t think so. I am sure there are some women who really do hate being mothers and feel that they have no other option than to just pick up and leave. Of course, there are many more options these days like was previously mentioned, I’m sure between work, daycare & other activities you could make it so that you rarely saw your children.

    1. Kerry says:

      There are plenty of Bolters. We just don’t call them Bolters. But I think that calling them Bolters gives the act a certain charm, no?

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