When Margaret Forster’s book opens, 69-year-old Glaswegian Maudie Tipstaff’s bags are packed and she’s preparing for a year long trip–spending 4 months with each of her three children. Now that Maudie is alone (and what happened to her husband exactly?) it’s possible that she may end up moving in with one of her children permanently as “they had all written and pressed her to come and live with them for good.” Now there are several things fundamentally wrong with this idea. Maudie Tipstaff is an inflexible, domineering, pious misery, and since her children have more or less run off or made themselves scare, Maudie hasn’t seen them in years and has no idea how they live.
Pleasure and happiness are foreign states of mind to Maudie. There’s simply ‘Duty,’ and as she tells her ‘friend’ (“it required depths of loyalty known only to Eastern despots” ) Mrs McAllister, “I’m not going to enjoy myself,” said Maudie sternly. “I’m going because it’s my duty.”
Things immediately go wrong. Maudie insists on travelling by bus rather than by train due to the cost–even though Maudie’s daughter Jean, the daughter she has yet to forgive for getting married 25 years earlier, is paying for the ticket. By the time Maudie arrives in London, she’s in a state. Kind strangers try to help the seemingly weak, upset older woman, but after they feel lashings of her vicious tongue, Maudie is left to fend for herself.
Jean married dentist Edward, and although they’ve been married 25 years, Maudie has only seen her son-in-law twice, and she hasn’t seen her 15-year-old grandson since he was 6 weeks old. For Maudie’s stay, Jean and Edward have converted the attic into a flat complete with basin and cooker, and a sense of obligation drives them to offer Maudie a permanent home. Dallying with the idea that Mauide “might have changed,” and in spite of assuring themselves that they won’t bend to Maudie’s schedule, Edward and Jean find that Maudie’s presence chills and dominates the already fragile household.
Maudie consoles herself that life with daughter Sally will be better as there are 5 grandchildren in the house: ages 15 months to 7 years old. Maudie has one soft spot: and that is for children. “She couldn’t remember having experienced what one would call pleasure in the bringing up of her children,” there were too many worries and concerns, but now it’s known in the neighbourhood that she “wasn’t right in the head about children.” Her home is the neighbourhood hangout for children, but she tells her neighbours “that she didn’t want anything to do with them [the children] and didn’t know how they got into her kitchen.”
They accepted the food and the judgments as gospel, and took Maudie’s breath away with their simplicity. They plagued her with questions, but they never queried any final pronouncement. They told her anything and everything and caused her endless, heavily concealed mirth
As miserable as Maudie’s visit was to Jean, there are fresh tortures in store at Sally’s. Sally is a fertile woman who drinks, carouses with her ‘cleaner,’ and lives in filth and squalor while the children haphazardly raise themselves. Moving from Jean’s prim, clean affluent middle class London life to the chaos of Sally’s country cottage is a shock, but at least Maudie is needed.
They all crammed into the kitchen and Sally began shouting at them to sit themselves down and be ready to eat. Maudie was pushed on to a rickety bench between Sammy and Richard, the next in age, who plucked immediately at her sleeve to show her how far he could get his index finger up his nostril. Feeling faint, Maudie wrenched the finger out, only to see it plunged into the mound of shepherd’s pie which had suddenly appeared before him. As she opened her mouth to protest, a scalding helping appeared on her own plate, grazing her right ear as it passed from Sally’s hands over her shoulder. To the left and right and all around children were devouring the mixture without forks or knives, shovelling it in with spoons, or like Richard, with their fingers. She felt she might faint.
Even Maudie’s iron will is eroded by Sally’s wanton fecklessness and then it’s onto son Robert, who is living a Bohemian lifestyle as a painter in a primitive hut on a remote island. Robert is Maudie’s favourite, and he seems to pay her a lot of attention through his lengthy weekly letters. Yet Maudie is baffled when she meets Robert again, and there are even more shocks in store.
Robert’s relationship with Maudie was a very strange one. His letters to her were designed to be famous, but they were not, as anyone with any knowledge of Robert ought to have realized, letters to her at all. They were essays, weekly essays most painstakingly executed, beautifully written,. They were stylistically perfect–and quite unreal. They were, in fact, letters from Robert to Robert. True, they showed a most touching concern for the person they were ostensibly sent to, but on examination this concern consisted mainly of a string of endearments, quite foreign to Robert’s nature, and certainly to Maudie’s. But he enjoyed putting them in. He thought they read well, and he liked to begin and end with something informal. When he read the copy over, as he regularly did, he thought them rather a master touch. They would look well in book form when the collected edition was published.
Maudie has many admirable characteristics, but when the book begins they are swamped by rigid piety, judgement and inflexibility. By the time the book ends, I had sympathy for Maudie thanks to the behavior of her children (Sally and Robert). But it’s with Robert’s girlfriend, Eleanor, that Maudie is at her worst (rude) and her best, and it’s also through this relationship that we see how parents and children all too often fail to connect as individuals. Perhaps the collective weight of childhood and parenting is too heavy, perhaps it obfuscates individualism. How can we spend decades as parents and children and not know each other? Whatever the reasons, in The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff, an extremely witty, lively book, Margaret Forster argues that parenting–being a parent, being a child, isn’t easy.