At the heart of I for Isobel is the destructive, abusive, and codependent relationship between Isobel Callaghan and her mother, May Callaghan. May seems to hate her youngest daughter, Isobel, while preferring her older daughter Margaret, but as the first half of the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that there is something dark, unspeakable, and ineffable that May wants from her daughters. As she goads the fiery Isobel to outrage and attempts to keep Margaret firmly under her wing, May reveals herself to be a master manipulator and a brutal force who both seeks to repress her daughters and force them to explode. As the novel develops, and the fraught mother-daughter relationship of Isobel’s childhood follows her into early adulthood—despite her mother’s passing when Isobel is sixteen. As Isobel navigates the world alone in the wake of her mother’s death, she has difficulty finding herself. It is not so much that parts of herself have been lost to abuse, but more that parts of herself were never unearthed in the first place. In this way, Witting argues that one of the most profound effects of maternal abuse is the estrangement of the self; Isobel’s journey of self-discovery, then, is the journey of creating herself from the ground up in the wake of the destruction her mother caused.
Charlotte Wood begins her introduction to the novel by stating, “For a girl, to be hated by your mother is surely the most savage knowledge with which to begin your life.” Indeed, much of the book is concerned with how the “savage” hatred May Callaghan shows toward her youngest daughter comes to calibrate Isobel’s life. The first chapter unfolds over the course of a few days at a lake house where the Callaghans are spending a holiday. It is Isobel’s ninth birthday, but as usual, her mother has told her that she will not be getting any presents. Her mother makes Isobel swear not to tell anyone that it is her birthday, but Isobel quickly breaks her promise by telling Caroline, another little girl staying at the lake house. Caroline then tells her father, Mr. Mansell, who surprises Isobel that afternoon at lunch with a lovely brooch. After the meal, Isobel’s mother beats her and calls her an “ungrateful little bitch” and a “swine,” smacking her while telling her daughter not to cry. May attempts to shame and humiliate her daughter and make her feel worthless. After the beating, when Isobel pins the brooch to her dress, the chapter concludes with the sentence, “In one way or another, she would be wearing it all her life.” Isobel was only allowed to keep the brooch after enduring a veritable hailstorm of physical and emotional violence. In this sense, the brooch is a symbol and a physical embodiment of Isobel’s journey of self-discovery in the wake of a horrific childhood. She will have to endure unimaginable pain as she searches for her sense of self, but in the end, she will ultimately find that her mother cannot take it from her, and that it is hers alone to admire.
One of Isobel’s early attempts at discovering herself, and at asserting what she has found to her mother, occurs when she hears a sermon given by a visiting priest and decides to try and inhabit a “state of grace.” Isobel feels herself bathed in calm after the sermon—a contrast to the fiery anger and agitation her mother inspires in her daughter again and again. Over the next several days, Isobel goes out of her way to be helpful, speak kindly, and refuse to rise to her mother’s baiting, and it becomes “unthinkable” for her to return to the tumultuous attitude she’d previously inhabited. A few days into Isobel’s stoic “state,” her mother tries to get a rise out of her, insulting her for acting superior and being a “nasty little beast” and a “brazen little liar.” Isobel notices for the first time her mother’s blatant determination to upset and anger her daughter. “I do something for her when I scream,” Isobel thinks, seeing her mother’s anger personified as “a live animal tormenting her,” and Isobel’s anger as an “outlet” for her mother’s own. In this scenario, Isobel is shown to again have discovered a small bit of herself that exists separately from her mother’s influence—and again, her mother attempts to take it from her or shame her for it. Isobel refuses to give in, though, prioritizing her own self-discovery over behaviors that allow her mother to take her further from the new self she is striving to become.
Towards the end of the novel, Isobel returns to her hometown as an independent young woman to try to encounter some of her “lost self.” She runs into an old neighbor, Mrs. Adams. As a young child, Isobel had published a poem about Mrs. Adams’s cat in the local paper—rather than being proud of her, Isobel’s mother convinced her that the neighbor would be furious that Isobel had put her name in the paper. When Isobel meets Mrs. Adams as an adult, however, Mrs. Adams tells Isobel how delighted she always was by the poem, and even wanted to thank the young Isobel by giving her a book to paste poems in, but the young, frightened Isobel always ran away. After this visit, Isobel walks back into town, crying and cursing both her parents for being “spiteful tormenting bastards.” Isobel tries to remind herself that she is a writer—that she has come far from the world of her childhood, and that she can choose to be whatever she wants to be now.
At the end of the novel, Isobel’s coworkers gather around her on a Monday morning to ask her about her weekend—from her coy response, they begin to believe that she has met someone. Isobel smiles to herself, thinking that she has indeed “met someone”—she has finally encountered herself. Throughout the course of the novel, Witting examines Isobel’s relentless journey toward self-discovery in the face of the traumatic estrangement from herself that her mother inflicted upon her in her childhood. Now, at last, Isobel has begun to encounter herself, and is filled with hope and even joy for one of the first times in her life.
Mothers, Daughters, and Self-Discovery ThemeTracker
Mothers, Daughters, and Self-Discovery Quotes in I for Isobel
Mrs. Callaghan, too, kept [Isobel’s] birthday in mind and spoke of it now and then.
“January,” she said, “is too close to Christmas for birthday presents,” and later, serenely, “it is vulgar to celebrate birthdays away from home.”
Whenever she found a new argument against birthday presents for Isobel, a strange look of relief would appear on her face, and Isobel would be forced to accept, for the moment, that there would be no present.”
Isobel was living in two worlds. Miss Halwood’s, where she belonged and things were solid and predictable, and the other one, where she was exulting at making her mother uncomfortable. That was a great pleasure but it was like gobbling sweets—she expected some sickness from it. Meanwhile there was the world of Sherlock Holmes, which was better than both of them. She said, “May I be excused, please?” and hurried back to her chair. She fished out the book from under the seat and went back to Baker Street.
The sound of her mother's quick, foreboding tread made her push the box in a panic under her pillow. Now, she remembered: she had been told not to tell, and she had told. She had told Caroline, who had told Mr. Mansell, and retribution was coming, as her mother advanced with set face and luminous glare and began to slap her, muttering, “Don't you dare to cry. Ungrateful little bitch. Don't you dare to cry. You little swine, thankless little swine, you couldn't say thank you, couldn't even say thank you.” Slap, slap. “Don't open your mouth, don't you dare to cry.” There was not much to cry about, for her mother's intentions were far more violent than her blows. Her hands flapped weakly as if she was fighting against a cage of air.
Isobel took the box from under the pillow, took out the brooch and looked at it while she rubbed her stinging legs. Why hadn’t her mother taken the brooch? It would have been so easy. Isobel could even supply the words she had dreaded to hear: “Give me that, you don’t deserve to have it. Come on, give it to me.” Why hadn’t she said them? Could it be that there were things her mother couldn’t do?
That idea was too large to be coped with. She put it away from her, but she took the brooch and pinned it care- fully to the neck of her dress. It was hers now, all right. She went and looked at it in the glass and stood admiring it. In one way or another, she would be wearing it all her life.
There was a pause, so long that she thought it might be safe to pick up her knife and fork again, but as she stirred her mother said, “I want you to tell me what you are sulking about, Isobel.”
She was really frightened now, wondering how long she would hold out, foreseeing the moment when she would begin to scream and scream. She wasn't going to, not ever. She would think of grace and be still.
“Tell me.” Her mother's voice, which had been rising to a scream, turned calm and gracious again. Like somebody getting dressed. Isobel looked up and saw that her eyes were frantic bright. She doesn't want me to tell her, she wants me to scream. I do something for her when I scream.
Then she saw that her mother's anger was a live animal tormenting her, that she Isobel was an outlet that gave some relief and she was torturing her by withholding it.
Isobel was left to witness her mother's sufferings, which were real and ludicrous. She walked about white-faced, repeating, “Who'd be a mother? Who'd be a mother? You do everything for them, you give up everything for them and what do you get for it? Forgotten as soon as it suits them, they're gone without a thought. Heartless ungrateful children.”
She spoke not to Isobel, but in her hearing, wanting her perhaps to repeat the lament to Margaret, or inviting her to a new alliance. Isobel kept her mind averted, but thought it was strange, as she speeded up her polishing of the kitchen floor, that she should be hurrying through the chores in order to desert this misery and go and read about saintliness and brotherly love. She could not help it; grace told her to withdraw and she did what grace demanded, though it was more of a holding position now than an inner joy.
“Take that dress off, Margaret,” said their mother from the doorway. “It belongs to Isobel.”
“But Isobel said I could have it.”
Isobel said, “Aunt Noelene will never know.”
Her mother gave her a look of hate as she walked
towards Margaret, who did not know what was happening and stood like a good little girl having a dress fitted till she heard the dull snap of threads and the tearing noise. She cried out then as if she had been hit.
“Damn you,” screamed Isobel. “Damn you, damn you, it was mine. It wasn't yours to tear. It was mine and I gave it to Margaret. Damn you!”
She saw the look of peace and relief on her mother's face as she walked away and she knew what she had done. The old sick closeness was back and she was the same old Isobel.
Margaret was sitting on her bed dressed in her slip, stroking the torn yoke and sobbing.
“It's only a dress,” said Isobel. She had lost more.
“Oh, you shut up. You didn't want it, anyhow.”
It wasn't only a dress. It was much more, and it was gone, and so was the state of grace.
At that moment, Isobel thought such things were not for either of them.
Dead, thought Isobel, trying the word again. It still meant only silenced. There was no hope of calling up any decent feeling from her evil heart, which was rejoicing in the prospect of freedom and even of new shoes. She picked up Shakespeare, Byron, Keats and Shelley and carried them into the bedroom, where Margaret was sitting on her bed, dazed and weeping, silently and slowly tears dripping like blood from a cut finger.
“Do you mind if I take the Shakespeare? It isn't mine but I’d like to have it.”
Margaret shook her head, sending two tears running quickly down her cheeks. It wouldn't do to tell her to cheer up. Somebody should be giving Isobel the opposite advice. Yet there was in her, deeper than her relief, a paralyzing sorrow, not at her mother's death but at being unable to grieve at it. That one was going to stay with her; she looked for distraction from it in the cheerful business of packing and buying new shoes, but knew that any cheerfulness was, in the situation, shocking. She feared she had shocked Aunt Yvonne already. Perhaps the funeral would touch her feeling and make her a member of the human race.
It was a commonplace little room but she was prepared to love everything in it: bed (slightly sagging), chair (straight), faded floral curtains at the window (her own window), combination wardrobe and dressing-table (lucky she didn't have many clothes), a grate in the corner, with a vase of paper flowers delivering the message that it was no longer used for fires, above it a shelf for her books. She unpacked them first: Keats, Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, The Last Chronicle of Barset, from the library. She looked with regret at that. She had been reading the novels of Trollope and whenever she wasn't reading, no matter what was happening in the outside world, she was conscious of being in exile from Barsetshire. She resisted temptation and went on with her unpacking, having a modest ambition to meet life, to be adequate. She had an idea of a life of her own, like the room of her own, where she chose the furniture-no rages' no black passions, no buffeting from the world. […] Putting her clothes away in a drawer she saw her face in the glass, so happy and hopeful that the likeness to her mother, which seemed to her usually to be a curse from birth, seemed unimportant.
''Went very funny after the baby was born. Not the first one either, the third. Joe that would have been, got grown-up sons himself now. She was very bad for a while. She came out of it all right in the end.”
“I'm glad to hear that.” Mrs. Bowers' tone admitted that Mrs. Prendergast was not often the bringer of good news.
“It can take you in funny ways. There was the woman lived opposite us in Mudgee. Six weeks old the baby was and they were getting ready to go out. Her husband called out from the door, ‘Are you coming, Dorrie?’ ‘I won't be a minute, dear, I'm just popping the baby in the oven.’ He came running in and there was the baby greased all over and trussed up in the baking dish and the oven hot. He just got to it in time.”
Mrs. Bowers shrieked, 'Oh, my God!'
She said to Joseph—in bed at night she humped her pillow to the shape of a shoulder and unpacked her thoughts for Joseph—“Suppose one is born bad—not by choice—the hand of the potter shook, you might say—why can't one choose to be different? I thought I could. I thought I could make my life into a room and choose what came into it. I was a bit above myself, wasn’t I? That's what monks and nuns do, with God and prayer and fasting and all that stuff. No job for an amateur. Besides, life isn't like that. It's more like swimming in a sea, with currents and undertows carrying you where you don't want to go.”
The currents and the undertows were mysterious evil passions, rage and envy; most of all an unconquerable sadness—no matter how willingly they accepted her—at being somehow disqualified, never to be truly one of them.
You left the house thinking of freedom, of being a different person, seeing the world ahead of you, but you didn't go on, you went back. To fight the old fight and this time to win, to have the verdict set aside, to be the favored child.
Any rag will make a doll for the idiot in the attic.
Auden had a general in his head. (“But they've severed all the wires, and I don't know what the general desires.'”
Isobel had an idiot in the attic.
Back in her room, she sat on her bed and reflected. She was in a different position from Auden; she knew what the idiot desired, all right, and had to watch to see it didn't get it.
The idiot played its games with the real world and- and what was worse-it played them behind Isobel's back. Not any more, now that she knew. Could she do this, watch a part of herself and control it, fight against it all her life?
She was not too discouraged, the new knowledge giving her a feeling of strength. At least she knew where she was going wrong-no wonder the others disliked her, watching her suck up to Mrs. Bowers, taking what ought to be Madge's.
Idiot wants a mother.
Idiot can't have one.
Life is very difficult.
The idea of losing a job was so alarming to Isobel that she could not leave the subject. “But what are you going to do? You have to have a job. You have to eat!”
Diana considered that idea carefully, then shrugged. “I've got some money saved.”
“And when that's gone?”
She sounded quite belligerent. Interesting. Here was someone feeble enough to bring out the bully in Isobel.
“What do I care? I don't care about anything. I'm finished. I'm as good as dead.”
Isobel reflected. “You know, I think that's right. I mean, if you take life as change and development—and I think it must be, life must be always changing... if you had a life without change, it might be as good as death, I suppose... well, when you can't change, I suppose you are as good as dead.”
She was so interested in this idea that she forgot Diana and spoke with detachment, then was startled at the fury in Diana's eyes. True to form, she made a note: masochists prefer to devise their own sufferings.
“It was an accident, on his bike. I don't know much about it; he was badly hurt and he died this morning in hospital. Helen asked me to come and tell you.”
Absent-mindedly Diana pulled open the drawer of the bedside table, got out a hairbrush and began to brush her hair.
Shock. People do very funny things when they're shocked. But the feeling that was coming over Diana did not seem like shock. It was profound; she was thinking hard and breathing deeply. She dropped the hairbrush and steadied herself with one hand on the pillow.
This must be what they called being in travail. It was a private process; Isobel should go away and let her get on with it, but she did not know how to do that.
The feeling was appearing now: relief. Isobel was the prison governor who had brought her news of her reprieve. She said, “Can I get you something? Make you a cup of tea?'
What falsehood. I am thinking of what she ought to
Diana too thought Isobel had made a social error. “No, thank you. I'm quite all right.” She looked with surprise at the hairbrush and put it back in the drawer.
All right is no word for it. She's glad he's dead. She feels the way I felt when my mother died. He wasn't a human being to her, he was a thorn in her side, a stone in her shoe.
You could change your name, have your face altered, change your country and your language, but in the end you would resurrect your self.
Nevertheless, she felt cheerful as she packed her belongings. She was glad to be escaping from a grief not her own, she looked forward to the foolish pleasure of buying a saucepan and a frying pan, a cup and saucer and a plate, a knife, a fork and a spoon and two tea towels. Into the suitcase she put Shakespeare, Keats, Byron (now known as facile), Shelley, Auden. Though she knew the passage of Auden well, she found the place and read it with a grin.
“It's no use turning nasty
It's no use turning good.
You're what you are and nothing you do
will get you out of the wood.”
She shut the book and put it in the suitcase. One is never quite alone.
The tears were coming slowly. How could tears come from so deep, as if she was a tree with tears welling up from its roots? Then they came in a roaring flood that drowned thought; she put her cheek against the rock, which was as rough as a cat's tongue and unyielding, but she was too far gone to feel any perverse pleasure in that. Her sobs were so loud that even in this wasteland she had to put her hands over her mouth to muffle them; when her mind sobered up her body went on snuffling and heaving along ten years of roadway.
I am a writer. I am a writer.
Too late. It must be too late. The poor little bugger in the baking dish; nobody came in time.
Suppose I tried? Suppose I went through the motions? The writer might come back.
You've tried that with love. It doesn't work.
But that was other people, too. This is me.
The crying had slackened. There was such a feeling of limbs stretching, of hands unbound, she knew she could choose to be a writer. A pen and an exercise book, that was all it took, to be a rotten writer, anyhow. Good or rotten' that came later.
It meant giving in to the word factory. That frightened her, because the word factory was such a menace. Now she understood why the idea of being press-ganged was so alarming.
Oh, well. If you can't lick 'em join 'em.
Maybe that was what the word factory was all about, the poor little bugger trying to get out of the baking dish.