We live in an age where women are no longer defined solely by their role as mothers, but whether by their presence or absence, children remain a conspicuous theme in many women’s life. Young girls know that the start of mensuration signals that they can have children. We relentlessly educate teenagers on avoiding teen pregnancy, and many women now feel the tick of their body clock as they struggle to build a career, find the right man and start a family before it is too late. Jean Rafferty explores this idea of motherhood in her book The Four Marys, a quartet of novellas each centred on the theme of maternity.
Drawing heavily upon Scottish culture, history and folklore, Rafferty creates four distinct yet complementary stories. “The Sealwoman “is a wild retelling of the Selkie myths in which Mhairi the seal sheds her skin to experience being a woman. In “The Faerie Child” Mara struggles with her long line of miscarriages and begins to search for a baby in less conventional ways. Mercedes is “The Diva” who transcends her Glasgow council estate upbringing to become a celebrated opera singer and yet still feels the pull of motherhood. Finally in the titular story, “The Four Marys”, Rafferty explores abortion where the time just isn’t right to have a child. The title itself comes from a sixteenth century Scottish ballad of the same name. It tells the story of Mary Hamilton (whose story also features in The Four Marys), a supposedly fictional attendant to Mary Queen of Scots who was made pregnant by the Queen’s husband and hanged for the murder of her illegitimate son.
Despite using these varying characters to look at motherhood from several angles, each of Rafferty’s stories seem to have a similar cast. The idea that “a’ women want a wean”, that all women desire to be mothers, is entwined throughout the stories. Mhairi sees the birth of her first child as “the beginning of her life as a woman” and the catalyst to her understanding of life. Mara wonders “what else is there” besides children? Mercedes has never factored a family into her jet-setting life but the moment she falls in love she begins to feel “this ache in the pit of her stomach”, the desire for a child so strong that sometimes “she would find it hard to catch her breath”. Mariana is the only one of the four who does not want her child, but still there is the suggestion that it is only circumstances and the child’s paternity stand in the way. Her counterpart, Mary Hamilton, admits “I knew I could have loved him” if only circumstances were different. . The very idea that there could be more to life than children is quickly dismissed in “A Faerie Child” in the form of Rachel, a minor character labelled as a “stupid wee lassie” for making a claim that there is more to life. Although such views are unlikely to be Rafferty’s own, she does seem to ignore the growing group of women represented by Rachel, who see no place for children in their lives. While three of the novellas take a distinct look at a different facet of maternity, ”The Diva” seems to explore ideas already expressed in ”The Sealwoman” and “The Four Marys”. One can’t help but feel the desire not to be a mother could have been further explored.
Despite such reservations, each of the four tales is almost spellbinding in its own right. Through her skilful use of language and attention to detail Rafferty brings her settings, characters and ideas to vivid life, each feeling as wild and primal as reproduction itself. In The Four Marys she has created a group of stories that will resonate with every woman who picks them up, whether or not they have children.