‘dead and never called me mother’: meaning and origin

The phrase dead and never called me mother is used to characterise the genre of melodrama. i.e., sensational drama with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.

For example, the following is from the review of the stage play Wuthering Heights, adapted from Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel by William Ash for Good Company—review by Jeremy Brien, published in The Stage and Television Today (London, England) of Thursday 29th September 1994:

It is almost a soap opera approach, and is slammed across by Jason Riddington (Heathcliff), Caroline Milmoe (Cathy) and Nigel Pivaro (Hindley) in a ‘shock, horror’ fashion that betrays their own soap opera background in Casualty (Riddington) and Coronation Street (both Pivaro and Milmoe).
Nowhere in this version is there more than lip service to the great philosophical metaphors in Bronte’s towering novel, the exploration of the limits of human behaviour caught in the power of love, or the wider vision created by the bleak moorland setting.
Eithne Browne comes nearest to realising that, in many ways, the medium of Wuthering Heights is the message, as housekeeper Nelly Dean, who the adapter has used to supplant Mr Lockwood as narrator.
For the rest, Mark Burgess (Edgar Linton), Jennifer Farnon (Isabella Linton) and Brian Rawlinson (Joseph), reverted to theDead and never called me Mother!school of acting—entertaining enough at times, but not quite what Emily Bronte intended.

The phrase is used of melodrama in the sense of overdramatic emotion or behaviour in the following about the French statesman François Mitterrand (1916-1996), published in The Alliance Times-Herald (Alliance, Nebraska, USA) of Saturday 25th May 1974—reprinted from The Economist (London, England):

When he moves out of character, as to quote de Gaulle * in hushed tones of dead-and-never-called-me-mother, the insincerity simply gleams from his glycerine-trickling eyes.

* The French general and statesman Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) was the organiser of the Free French movement during the Second World War, the head of the French government from 1944 to 1946, and the President of the French Republic from 1959 to 1969.

The phrase dead and never called me mother refers to the words said over her dead child by Lady Isabel in East Lynne. A Domestic Drama in a Prologue and Four Acts. Adapted from Mrs. Wood’s Novel. By T. A. Palmer (London: Samuel French, 1874).

Those words do not occur in the novel on which the stage play is based, i.e., East Lynne (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1861), by the English author Mrs. Henry Wood (Ellen Price – 1814-1887).

This is the plot of both the novel and its stage adaptation:
—After Isabel Vane, the beloved but bored wife of Archibald Carlyle, abandons her husband and children to run away with Sir Frances Levison, a handsome but wicked seducer, she is disfigured and nearly killed in a train accident. Her husband has divorced her and, when he believes her to be dead, he remarries the middle-class Barbara Hare. In order to live in her family estate and to be close to Carlyle and her children once more, Lady Isabel acts as governess to her own children under the name of Madame Vine.

This is the passage from T. A. Palmer’s stage adaptation in which the words occur:

Willie: Where are you, Madame Vine? […] I cannot see you or hear your voice. I cannot hear the singing of those voices in the shining garden. There! – there! (Points up and falls back, pause)
Madame Vine: Ah! the sweet young face is calm as – as – if – in death. His little heart has ceased to beat for ev – Oh! no! not for ever! Speak to me, Willie! (Throws off her disguise) This cannot be death so soon; speak to me, your broken-hearted mother. Oh! Willie! my own darling! my own – my –
Joyce enters
Joyce: Oh, Madame Vine, what is this? (She starts up and faces Joyce)
Madame Vine: Oh! My child is dead! (Joyce starts back in amazement)
Joyce: My dear Lady Isabel! Not! – not dead?
Isabel: No, Oh, would that I were dead. I recovered by a miracle, and returned, the shattered wreck you see me here prematurely aged, crippled, broken-hearted. Oh, that I had died and had been spared this agony. Oh! my boy! – my boy! (Sobbing on body of child)
Joyce: Do – do come away lady! Mr Carlyle is coming with his wife, for the love of heaven come away! If they find you here, thus – […] (Trying to drag her away)
Isabel: (Breaks from Joyce) Let them come! I care not for my life’s sands will soon be run. Oh, Willie, my child dead, dead, dead! and he never knew me, never called me mother! (Falls sobbing across the body as Carlyle and Barbara enter)

Both the novel and the play were hugely popular—as illustrated by the following from The Hastings and St. Leonards Observer (Hastings, Sussex, England) of Saturday 31st March 1900:

A revival of that tearful play, “East Lynne,” at St. Leonards Pier, can have interest for not a few piergoers, though there are some who would prefer something else to the anguish of Lady Isabel and the terrible despair which she throws into those world-famous words: “Dead! dead! and never called me mother!” Still, many playgoers have an undying affection for “East Lynne,” and on the part of managers it is generally a safe card to play.

The phrase perhaps became a Victorian literary cliché, as it occurs in Because of a Dream, a novel by Aimée Stewart, published in The Essex Newsman (Chelmsford, Essex, England) of Saturday 26th March 1892:

Chapter XXI.
She never called memother.”

[…]
Her voice had been rising, taking a new, a passionate vibration. With a strength of which she had seemed barely capable she wrenched her hands from her husband’s hold, and as he, startled and afraid for her, loosed her and rose, she staggered to her feet, away from him, and stood catching hold of the back of her chair with heaving breast and glittering eyes. “It is true, every wore I speak,” she said with rapid utterance, pouring forth her words as if she would give herself no time to think, driven on by the consuming fire within her. “You know it; I am accursed of God and man. I told you it was I who killed my child. The cruel street life did its work and I threw her to the streets. And you saved her, not I; you took her from the life that ends in hell, not I. I sought her. Oh, yes! When it was too late remorse seized me. I have wept, I have soaked my pillow with tears night after night. I had my punishment, I have it now. It is right, it is just. Your very love drives the nails into my hands, the sword into my heart, and it is good! My child turned from me to you in her death; he eyes looked to you, she was never mine, never, never! She never knew me, her mother! Oh, Mother of God!” Nathalie cried, stretching up her hands, then twisting them together in the very abandonment of agony, and clasping them over her head. “She never called me mother—never once—never once!”

The phrase occurs, probably as the title of a song, in an advertisement for Blue Beard, a pantomime staged at the Theatre Royal, Cardiff, published in the South Wales Daily News (Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales) of Monday 15th January 1894:

TIME TABLE:
7.0—Pantomime Overture.
7.10—Demon’s Grotto (the Plot).
7.20—Blue Beard’s Matrimonial Market—[…]
[…]
10.5—Terrible Sword Combat: and Overthrow of Blue Beard—“Dead! dead! and never called me mother.”

A parody of the play occurs in “East Lynne” Encore, by ‘Our Minor Melodramatist’, published in The Referee (London, England) of Sunday 8th April 1900—the author evokes “a performance of “East Lynne” such as was presented once upon a time by a certain touring company, who were compelled to play the piece after the first act without any Lady Isabel at all”:

It chanced that after starting the play the leading lady (never mind her name) suddenly put on more frills than usual, and on being gently remonstrated with by the management, “walked out of the theatre” and wouldn’t come back. After a hurried consultation it was proposed that as they all “knew the play backwards,” as the saying is, they should do without Lady Isabel and only “allude” to her throughout. The plan was adopted, and presently certain points of the play panned out thus:
[…]
Enter Joyce.
Joyce: This new governess who came to-day, disguised in black goggles, a white wig, and the name of Madame Vine, cannot deceive me, the one faithful nurse at East Lynne. I must confess I had my doubts till that cruel nurse-girl Wilson started to beat our dear Little Willie. You should have seen that supposed governess dart forward and snatch the child away. “Back! Woman! You shall not touch him!” she cried, like a black-spectacled tigress. “What business is it of yours?” said the sneering Wilson. “You are not his mother, are you?” Then this so-called Madame Vine clasped Little Willie to her breast and took him off to sleep in her own room. If that ain’t poor Lady Isabel—come back under her own roof only to find her husband married to Barbara Hare—may I never have the banns put up for me! (Exit.)
Archibald (bending over the dying Little Willie).
L. W.: And shall I in that other world—so bright—see my mother—I mean my own, very own dear mother, whom you never let me mention?
Archibald: Yes, yes, my child; for I know that were your mother here she would say at this moment, “Yes,” darling; for your mother will repent and come to you there. (Music: “You’ll,” &c.)
Enter Cornelia quietly.
Cornelia: I have been a wilful and headstrong old woman, but my heart is softened now. This governess turns out to be our erring Isabel; she has been outside the door at the keyhole all through this scene, Archibald, and just now, when Little Willie passed away, she flung off her white wig and black goggles, and shrieked, “Ah, he is dead—dead—and he never called me mother!

The following photograph and caption are from an article about a production of East Lynne at the Little Theatre, published in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London, England) of Saturday 10th February 1934:

IN DARKEST LONDON—A ghastly scene on the Embankment near Waterloo Bridge. P.C. Stout (the arm of the law), Sir Francis Levison (a serpent), and Lady Isabel Carlyle (the Woman he has wronged). (E. Isaacson-Hallows, Helena Pickard and Edgar K. Bruce)