Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Fictional Aunts Stern

Had Prozac or this adorable woman's son been around a few hundred years ago, the history of children's literature might have been very different, no?

We think it's related to the whole "evil stepmother" thing as a logical creation of a society in which you had a decent shot at dying in childbirth and leaving your kids at the mercies of taciturn people who probably lived on a farm and desperately needed the exuberant energy of a young boy or girl to liven them up and teach them lessons about the simple joys of a positive attitude.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: "He lives with his half brother Sid, his cousin Mary, and his stern Aunt Polly in the (fictional) town of St. Petersburg, Missouri."

Emily of New Moon: "She is sent to live at New Moon farm with her stern aunt Elizabeth, who lets Emily bring only one of her cats and forbids her to write in her beloved journal."

James Y El Melocotsn Gigante: "Two very stern aunts* make life difficult for a recently orphaned young boy."

Nowhere to Call Home: "When she hears a servant's plan to become a hobo and ride the rails, 12-year-old Frances sees a way out of being sent from her home in Philadelphia to live with her stern aunt in Chicago."

Pollyanna: "The title character is named Pollyanna Whittier, a young orphan who goes to live in Beldingsville, Vermont, with her wealthy but stern Aunt Polly."

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm: "...a classic American 1903 children's novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin that tells the story of Rebecca Rowena Randall and her two stern aunts in the village of Riverboro, Maine. Rebecca's joy for life inspires her aunts, but she faces many trials in her young life, gaining wisdom and understanding."

Unbroken: "Her mother's will states that [Harriet] is to live with her father's sister, stern, disapproving Aunt Sarah."

Moreover, go read this poem by Rosaleen Croghan:

We had an aunt for every situation
great aunts cousin aunts fake aunts friends
of our mother’s mother
sad aunts mad aunts fastidious aunts
who had been in religious orders
musical aunts terrorist aunts twin aunts distinguished aunts
adventurous aunts who drove Ford transit vehicles.
These children of mine that have only one or 2 aunts
how will they ever learn anything?


(Picture via Etsy)

72 Comments / Post A Comment


No love for "Up a Road Slowly"?


Don't forget "Anne of Green Gables" !!!

Nicole Cliffe

Marilla SPECIFICALLY forbade the use of "Aunt" as an identifier. But, oh, definitely stern and in need of positive youthful energy.

Lili B.

@LDiggitty@twitter totally what I came here to say


@LDiggitty@twitter Basically all of L.M. Montgomery's books!


@Nicole Cliffe To be fair, stern Aunt Elizabeth definitely mellowed over time. Maybe Dean brought her back some really good hooch from his global wanderings?


@Nicole Cliffe I love Marilla for that.


What about Aunt Fidget Wonkum-Strong?


What about eccentric Aunts? (Also, does anyone actually have a stern aunt in real life? I don't think I do. Maybe a great-aunt)

Tragically Ludicrous

@Megano! One of my aunts wasn't all that comfortable with children, so I guess she was a little stern, but these days I wouldn't call her that at all.

Lady Humungus

@Megano! Oh man, I totally have a Stern Aunt. But yeah, technically she's my great aunt.


@Megano! I only have a couple aunts, but my mother had 12+ aunts, most of whom were around during my childhood, and there were several Stern ones!


@Tragically Ludicrous I think this is a good point. The "stern" aunts in my life, and even in a lot of these stories, didn't have kids of their own and didn't know how to act around kids. Being an authority figure without knowing how to give equal amounts of affection definitely make you come off as stern to the children involved.


@Megano! - I definitely did. She had been a nun (so was single, had no children, had lived in a very strict convent and/or lived alone almost her whole life), but had taught children (so I think she was used to being stern with them as a teacher). A few years after she died, I moved back to my hometown and moved into her house. Growing up I was only allowed in one or two of the rooms, so it felt super weird at first to actually walk around anywhere in the house that I wanted to. I saw rooms I had never been in before in my life.

Actually all the great-aunts that jumped to mind as being stern were also nuns.

all the kittens in the club gettin nipsy

@Megano! ALL OF MY 6 AUNTS ARE STERN. Also, they all have multiple children. I just hope it's environmental and not genetic.


@Megano! I have an eccentric aunt! And my mother had a stern aunt, so I guess I had a stern great-aunt.

Ten Thousand Buckets

@Megano! I have a Drunk Aunt, who is also quite eccentric.


@Ten Thousand Buckets I think I am the Drunk, Eccentric Aunt. But the kids all love me, so maybe that's a good thing?


And yet I feel like there were a lot of jolly uncles.

Valley Girl

@teaandcakeordeath I seem to recall that in Angela's Ashes the stern aunt and jolly uncle were married to each other, but that wasn't fiction. Life imitates art, I guess.


Eight Cousins! Which is really more about Uncle Alec, but there are certainly lots of aunts to be had. (Also, Aunt March from Little Women and Aunt Izzie from What Katy Did.)

The Lady of Shalott

@Verity Aunt Izzie!!!!! (Even as a kid, I liked Aunt Izzie better than saintly Cousin Helen.)


@The Lady of Shalott I was horrified when I read Clover recently and found Clover saying "I am afraid I don't remember Aunt Izzy well. I just have a vague memory of somebody who was pretty strict and cross". SHE WORKED HARD FOR YOU, CLOVER. JESUS.

The Lady of Shalott

@Verity I KNOW!!!! Did you read all five of the books? I think the last one is In the High Valley, and it's just completely crap. BUT I totally agree: Aunt Izzie worked thanklessly for six kids who were, most of the time, ENTIRELY UNGRATEFUL, and ran the household for her brother, and then expired, PROBABLY FROM OVERWORK.

Apparently I have more feelings than I thought about this series.


@The Lady of Shalott I haven't read In the High Valley yet, but I've read the others. I'm glad I'm not the only one infuriated by that line. Clover can't have been that young when Aunt Izzie died, and the fact that she ends up just being written off as "somebody who was pretty strict and cross" makes me so sad for her.

That same passage has Katy talking about what a trial she used to be to Aunt Izzie, and Clover saying something like, "Were you? Somehow I can't remember a time when you weren't a born angel", which gives me chills. Katy wasn't a "born angel" - she worked hard to improve (not that I think there was anything wrong with her before, but whatever), and Clover's statement seems to dismiss all of that - and also, it seems to completely erase her earlier self, the Katy of the opening chapters of What Katy Did. And I really liked that Katy (mostly) - but to her siblings, she might as well have never existed.

The Lady of Shalott

@Verity I was pretty sure Clover was at least ten, if not 12 or 13 by the time Aunt Izzie died--that's plenty old enough to remember your aunt, who lived with you and raised you!

And yes, the entire POINT of the first book is that Katy worked REALLY HARD to better herself! I mean, in the other books that kind of gets forgotten/swept under the rug, but it's still there! Geez!


@Verity Katy was SO much more interesting in the opening chapters. And Aunt Izzie was really good to all those kids who enjoyed defying her just because she was "only" their aunt.

Lili B.

Wasn't there also a stern (or possibly insane) aunt in Caddie Woodlawn as well? Who kept confusing the oldest son with her dead brother?

Old Katrina

James and the Giant Peach! Two stern aunts for the price of one!


@Old Katrina Good ol' Sponge and Spiker!


Oh, I have a million aunts and uncles (my mother is one of 10, plus my dad's two siblings, everybody's spouses, and a couple of fake family friend aunts and uncles) and I am genuinely sad that that kind of huge family dynamic is pretty much dead forever. There are only 5 of us cousins on the big side of my family, and I sure as hell am not going to Duggar it up to try and bring back the big family thing.

Lili B.

@OhMarie Your icon is the best of all best things.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@OhMarie Oh man, I've got over 30 first-cousins on the big side of my family, with eight sets of aunts and uncles, and I've got numerous siblings. Want to join my fam for the huge dynamic? You'll fit in like a dirty sock, as my mom likes to say.


@OhMarie - Big families FTW! I remember watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding for the first time and the girl says to the guy something like, "You don't know how it is, I have over 100 first cousins." I was watching that with my cousin and some friends and I just remember my cousin and I looking at each other with a kind of "100? so what?" look.

People should probably not have enormous families anymore because, you know, overpopulation and everything. But man, future kids are really missing out.


@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose @KeLynn It is so fun! My husband and I do have 3 sisters between the two of us, so it isn't so bad, but two of them are still in their 20s and the oldest doesn't want kids, so we're just a bunch of grown-ups until I get on that, apparently.

Old Katrina

@KeLynn My mom is one of 12 and my dad is one of 8 and yeah... I have fond childhood memories of acting out Power Rangers with my cousins but now I have 80 baby showers a year for people I never talk to. I'm ok with the fact that my future kids will only have 3 aunts and 2 uncles total (I'm one of 4, Mr. OK is one of 3). Gives us the opportunity to be more closely knit.


@OhMarie My mum is one of 8 and my dad is one of 3 and every single one of them married and had at least 2 kids. I am also sad for my kids that they will not have heaps and heaps of aunts and uncles and cousins like me (and this is after a heap of family feuds which stop people talking to each other). I try to make up for this dynamic by being a surrogate Aunty Sevanetta to my friends' kids.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

Being an aunt is awesome! I've got three little munchkins to look after and teach the ways of the world - 5, 3 and 3.5 months. I am stern sometimes, like when the older two get sassy, but it's all in good fun because I get to sneak them treats and buy them crazy-cool stuff and tell them jokes and play hide-and-seek and then go home at night without having to worry about putting them to bed or how they'll ever afford college.


@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose This sounds perfect!


@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose
Yes! I am totally the Eccentric Aunt (and they desperately need one - they are a bit sheltered). It's great fun! 5 years and 8 years.
I should probably be more stern, because they don't get a good sense of boundaries/behavior at home (the youngest one's physical therapist recently had a very strong conversation with the parents about that), but I feel it's not really my place as auntie. It is a bit concerning, though, especially knowing I am one of the two guardians appointed in the parents' will should the parents both die (god forbid).

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@harebell We're an "it takes a village" sort of family, so if you see the misbehaving, you stop the misbehaving. The amount of love and protectiveness I feel for those little weirdos is almost surreal.


@harebell AH, exactly this. My niece and nephew are great little kids who have NO boundaries at home at all. It's...tough.


Understood Betsy, anyone? She gets passed around her aunts like a proverbial hot potato. Aunts for every taste!

Priscilla Peel

@TheLetterL Oh, that's right! The bad aunt lives in a city, has no children, learns everything from books, and is anxiety-ridden, so basically I am Betsy's bad aunt.



And the country Aunt is the "stern" aunt! But that's the place Betsy decides to stay because she learns to be independent and brave. I loved that book, possibly because it was so flatly unromantic about farm life.


That's the one! I guess, technically, it's two aunt/cousin pairs, but the cousins function like aunts, so potato potato.

I still aspire to make maple syrup snow candy, sneaking bits to the faithful dog by my side.


@TheLetterL Understood Betsy! I loved that book. The stern aunt was really a stern cousin, right? Cousin Ann? And the indulgent-twit aunts were two, Frances and somebody else. I should probably keep a copy of that book at hand for emergencies like this.


@Fflora My memory is Cousin Ann (stern) and her mother Aunt Abigail (cuddly) and Cousin Frances (neurotic) and her mother Aunt Harriet (with the "sore spot on her lung," otherwise unremarkable). It may have been Aunt Frances and Great-Aunt Harriet, though.

Priscilla Peel

@TheLetterL Frances is Betsy's cousin, but she calls her Aunt Frances, I think because she's too old to seem like a real cousin? Cousin Ann actually gets called "Cousin," and I think it's because she's younger than Frances.


@Priscilla Peel Thanks for clearing that up. Yeah, Frances would totally be an "I AM YOUR AUNTIE FRANCES, DARLING!!!" type. Cousin Ann wouldn't tolerate such nonsense. ;-)

That said, I do appreciate all the aunts. Except for the end, when Betsy realizes Frances wants to ditch her to go be a newlywed (which, ouch), Frances always seemed to be trying her best.


How about this for an aunt poem:


Not bad, eh?

My favourite part:
"Calvinist, so every word had to outweigh/the coin that was its counterpart, but not too nakedly."


My namesake is my great-aunt, and she is an Adventure Aunt. She was a stewardess in the late 40's; star of a local-access TV cooking show in South Dakota in the 50's; a beer-drinking, scuba-diving, dinner-party-giving Air Force officer's wife in Bangkok in the 60's; and a docent at the Air & Space Museum for the last 36 years.

Her sister would have been the Stern Aunt, but she was my grandmother.

up cubed

Can someone please clue me into the tag joke(?)?

up cubed

@upupandaway Sorry! I just realized what I missed.

Valley Girl

@upupandaway Nevermind!

Flora Poste

Don't forget King of Aunts, PG Wodehouse! "It is no use telling me there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof."








"On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James's letter about Cousin Mabel's peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle ('Please read this carefully and send it on Jane') the clan has a tendency to ignore me." COME ONNNN NICOLE


I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled so much but I did and it's over and I'm sorry.

Faintly Macabre

@Flora Poste "We run to height a bit in our family and there's about five-foot-nine of Aunt Agatha, topped off with a beaky nose, an eagle eye, and a lot of grey hair, and the general effect is pretty formidable."



@Faintly Macabre Ahem. I think you'll find that position is taken.

Nicole Cliffe


No, legit, I forgot to talk about Wodehouse.


So, once your mother's dead, you're going to get either a stern aunt or a kind housekeeper.


@noReally You might get sent somewhere with an absent uncle and a stern housekeeper, to mix things up a bit (The Secret Garden).


Oh, Aunt Petunia! And Aunt Marge!

apples and oranges

What about The Island of the Aunts?! One was stern but also loving.

God I loved that book.

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