Fearsome families! There’s something about them that holds us in awe. We can’t believe the things they do! But at the same time, we have to read on. Why? This is my theory: families are meant to love and support one another from birth to death—not live in a nest of vipers. Many who didn’t have idyllic childhoods are often jealous of friends who drew the longer straw. So we turn to literature for comfort. It proves we’re not alone.

King Lear by William Shakespeare

I’ve never understood King Lear. I’m not talking about the mechanics of the plot here. It’s the credibility of the characters, which, in my mind, is a stretch too far. Here you have a selfish old father who wants to know how much his daughters love him. Goneril doesn’t mind flattering him (then again, if you had a name that could be mistaken for a venereal disease, you too might do anything to curry favor). Her sister Regan has the common sense to know that sibling rivalry means you have to perform as well as, if not better than, your blood rivals. But Cordelia—silly girl—refuses to play ball. If only she’d come out straight with the words, “I love you, too, Dad, and by the way, may I have an increase in my allowance?” a great deal of blood might have been spared. This family is terrifying because of its lack of emotional intelligence. No editor would have let this one through in today’s day and age.

The Twits by Roald Dahl

If ever a match was made in hell, this one was. Mr. and Mrs. Twit’s cunning maneuvers aimed at each other and the outside world still haunt me, even though it’s been some time since I read this classic aloud to my children. Perhaps it’s because they are so real. Indeed, I know of some real-life couples who share an uncanny resemblance to this fearsome pair. (One even has a beard that traps food while he eats.) The Twits always remind me of Somerset Maugham who wondered why some couples look like each other. Is it because they were initially attracted by their similar appearances or because, as they grew older, they became more alike? I should have asked Roald Dahl his thoughts on this. I met him once at an auction when he gave me advice on buying a grandfather clock. I like to think that he’s still writing now—wherever he is.

Cinderella by Charles Perrault

The stepmother is always a good one when it comes to plot. (I have one myself but daren’t express my views on paper.)  I also have a full sister rather than the half variety, although that can bring its own baggage as my new novel, Blood Sisters, reveals. Nevertheless, poor Cinders has a rotten time of it at the beginning until she gets her crime-uppance. What I love about this story is that fearsome families ought to live in fear themselves. Bad deeds will come back to bite them. It’s called karma. So watch out. You all know who you are.


Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

The reason that Harry Potter became such a resounding success (well, one of them) is that the series gave another slant to the whole subject of families. No one is quite who they seem, apart perhaps from the uncle and aunt who brought up Harry who don’t try to hide the fact that they’re downright nasty. There’s the Weasley family who have their own secrets. Harry’s dead parents. And, of course, Hogwarts itself, which promises parents a family atmosphere for their precious offspring—though in reality, it’s a hotbed of magic and malice, just waiting to explode. No one does it better than the British boarding school. Trust me.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This opening line is said to sum up the plot. But I think it does something else, too. Fearsome families are often born from fear. We’re frightened of getting it wrong. Or we’re frightened of being vanquished. We’re apprehensive in case we don’t get it right when we have kids ourselves. Or maybe we’re scared because we were born that way. All this can make you do terrible things. It’s worth noting that many a writer comes from a dysfunctional family. I hold my hand up. Proudly.

Jane Corry is the author of the bestselling My Husband’s Wife, and her latest novel, Blood Sisters, will be published by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking.

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