Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On Mrs. Coulter, from The Golden Compass

by Shivanee N. Ramlochan

Would it make me a little…well, wicked…if I said I admired Marisa Coulter?

It is particularly interesting for me to contemplate the character of Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s mother and the anti-heroine of Philip Pullman's ‘The Golden Compass,’ beneath the lens of our expectations of motherhood. I hold the suspicion that, with the exception of Neil Gaiman’s The Other Mother, of 'Coraline,' no other matriarch mentioned in this admirable assortment of Mother’s Day introspectives could give Mrs. Coulter a run for her money in unmitigated cruelty. It is no mistake that our first impression of her is one in which she practices the role of predator with poise and eerie grace:
And he’s being watched. A lady in a long yellowred foxfur coat, a beautiful young lady whose dark hair falls, shining delicately, under the shadow of her furlined hood, is standing in the doorway of the oratory, half a dozen steps above him.
Of the entire cast we meet in ‘The Golden Compass,' I found Mrs. Coulter to be the most visually arresting. Every description of her compels the attention, and she soon becomes that creature so fair of face that it feels difficult to turn away from her radiance. The ways in which Pullman imbues her persona with equal measures of dread, of fear-inducing, nausea-prompting unease, are a testament to his careful characterization.

What is there to admire in Marisa Coulter? Surely, a woman without the mental fortitude to honour the bond between mother and daughter is not one worthy of mention, especially within the scope of a consideration of mothers.We might consider, perhaps, that not all women are to the role of nurturer born. Some are possessed of a ruthless ambition, Lady Macbethian, that would sooner see them dash the heads of babes against parapets, rather than cradle infants to their sympathetic bosoms. Indeed, we learn in sickening detail of just how unconcerned Mrs. Coulter is over the suffering of innocent children, once her own ends are achieved. What could such a woman teach her own child?

If we consider the following interchange between mother and daughter, in which Mrs. Coulter attempts to comfort her charge, after rescuing her from an atrocious fate (to which she has had a liberal hand in subjecting others)
“Cry as much as you need to, darling,” said that soft voice, and Lyra determined to stop as soon as she possibly could.
then we can smile at the essential truth of what Mrs. Coulter does for Lyra: she encourages, by her very existence, the affirmation of everything that is good, strong and wise in her daughter, by representing the opposite. If this is a cruel lesson of life, then who better to learn it from than one’s own cruel mother?

The plot development of the first novel of Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy showcases Mrs. Coulter at her worst. She moves swiftly, in her daughter Lyra’s eyes, and ours, from being a glimmering goddess of maternal promise to a manipulative craven. It is Lyra who proves her own strength, resilience and cleverness, repeatedly, in the company of better role models than her mother – a mother in name and blood, not affection nor desire – can provide. It is Lyra who merits our admiration and our concern, by the novel’s close. Mrs. Coulter can only attract the twinned regard of our contempt and our begrudging admiration.

‘Why’, I can feel the question, needling, ‘do you still admire Marisa Coulter, even after you’ve told us that she’s reprehensible?’ I suppose I am not as wicked as all that, after all, since I cannot say that she holds any bounty of my esteem. However, her archetype – the Widow Warrioress, both fair and terrible – is a commanding one, and she is masterfully written at each turn; whether the intention be to woo, disgust or enthrall us, each riposte at our sentiments is met with success. So, while I’d rather fight off an armoured bear rather than allow Mrs. Coulter to watch over my children, I give her free reign to captivate my further interest in ‘The Subtle Knife’ and ‘The Amber Spyglass.’

Let us be glad that there are more Mrs. Weasleys among us than Marisa Coulters, no?

Shivanee N. Ramlochan lives and works in Trinidad and Tobago. She runs the book review blog, Novel Niche, and is working on a collection of short fiction that focuses on the interrogation of desire, gender and language in the Caribbean. You can also find her on twitter.


  1. i love this post! and, agree wholeheartedly "that not all women are to the role of nurturer born" and should not be! and, yes, there are more mrs. weasleys...there are also more combination mothers as, mothers, unlike characters, aren't black and white.

  2. I love the selection of mothers represented in this series. All different, all interesting, and all going about their maternal duties in different ways.

    Now, let's get them all together for coffee and see what happens.

  3. What a fantastic post! I have not read this series but I have seen the movie (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and was truly captivated by Mrs. Coulter in a horrible kind of way. I do want to one day try and read the books.

  4. Jennifer;
    I enjoyed your very analytical review. What a book to be reading around Mother's Day.

  5. Mike, thank you for your comment- all the credit, though, goes to Shivanee at Novel niche, our fabulous guest writer! Llevinso hope you get to try them & would love to know if they pass the Bechdel test! Lisa, agreed, and if you write it, I would be honored to post it. Stephanie, insightful, and so true.

  6. I love the Golden Compass series. Mrs. Coulter is definitely an intriguing character. I feel as though she showcases a bit of compassion as the series continues. Still wouldn't want to share a cab with her though.

  7. One of the most wonderful things about Pullman's trilogy is the way that characters adapt and grow, including the adult characters. Mrs Coulter's ambition makes her initially reject Lyra, then seek to control her (as of course many mothers do), but in the later books she becomes a character whose motivations we can understand if not completely empathise with.
    Ma Costa is a far more traditional mother, and later, Mary Malone- ironically a former nun- is a maternal figure. For me, Philip Pullman is the best writer for children in the past 20 years.


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