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Sons and Mothers

Ann Kennedy Smith
Writers and Their Mothers, Dale Salwak (ed), Palgrave Macmillan, 258 pp, ISBN: 978-3319683478 It is not easy being the mother of a writer: naturally, the writer will always have the last word. Literary biographers tend to pay writers’ mothers scant attention, or accept the version that their famous offspring give. The novelist EM Forster, who lived with his mother, Lily, almost all his life, is a case in point. She “blighted, constricted, restrained his life”, according to his biographer Nicola Beauman. While Lily was alive Forster felt much the same way, although he occasionally recognised her contribution, albeit from a position of unabashed self-interest. “Although my mother has been intermittently tiresome for the last 30 years, cramped and warped my genius, hindered my career, blocked and buggered up my house, and boycotted my beloved,” he wrote, “I have to admit she has provided a sort of rich subsoil where I have been able to rest and grow.” It was only after her death that he began to consider Lily as someone who had an identity other than that of being his mother, but by then it was too late: he had burned most of her letters and diaries, making it all the more difficult for future biographers to allow her voice to be heard. In this review I will look at two essays about writer sons and their mothers in which the mothers are given more of a fair hearing. Both are included in a new collection, Writers and Their Mothers, edited by Dale Salwak, which incorporates reflections by twenty-two contributors on the writer-mother relationship. In the summer of 1935, Samuel Beckett and his widowed mother, May, took a three-week road trip together in England. It is not clear whose idea it was, but Beckett, who was living in an almost destitute state in London at the time, seems to have gone along with the plan willingly enough. With his mother paying all expenses, he hired a small car and took her on what he called a “lightning tour” of English market towns and cathedral cities including St Albans, Canterbury, Winchester, Bath and Wells. They covered hundreds of miles, driving as far as the West Country and spending almost three weeks together. Beckett described their trip together in letters to his friend Tom MacGreevy, later the director of the National Gallery of Ireland. After they reached the West Country, he told MacGreevy,…



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