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, their hired car struggled with the “demented gradients, 1 in 4 a commonplace” around hilly Porlock and Lynton. They decided not to spend a night in the seaside resort of Minehead: one look at it was enough. Instead, they spent almost a week in a comfortable hotel in Lynmouth, close to where Shelley was said to have stayed. From there they went on day excursions around the coast and toured the literary locations of North Devon, including the Exmoor of Lorna Doone and the bathing place of Westward Ho! on Bideford Bay, named after Charles Kingsley’s famous book.
This holiday in 1935 was, according to the writer Margaret Drabble, “a most extraordinary interlude” in Beckett’s long, tempestuous relationship with his mother. It forms the centrepiece of her essay “The Maternal Embrace: Samuel Beckett and his mother May”. Drabble knows the West Country well ‑ she tells us that she is writing in Porlock Weir, overlooking the Bristol Channel, and loyally speaks up for the charms of nearby Minehead ‑ and in focusing on the Becketts’ unlikely westward journey that summer she pinpoints a rare moment of relative harmony between mother and son which she feels has been overlooked. It was mentioned only in passing in Deirdre Bair’s 1978 biography, but James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (1996) gives the background to the holiday more fully, drawing on the letters to MacGreevy held at Trinity College Dublin.
Bair describes Beckett as “his mother’s child … thin, with the same angularity and sternness of bearing, the cold blue eyes and fair hair”. Biographers agree that May Beckett was an austere figure, who wore plain dark dresses, tailor-made mannish suits and kept her hair pinned up under a succession of fashionable hats, “her one vanity” (Bair). She was ambitious for both of her sons, but while Frank gradually became more obedient and settled, Samuel went in the opposite direction as he grew older. As Knowlson puts it, ever since Beckett’s childhood “they rarely saw eye to eye on anything concerning himself”. The situation went from bad to worse after Bill Beckett died in 1933 and May’s fierce attention became fixed on trying to convince her younger son that she knew best. Financially dependent on her as he was, Beckett’s options were limited, but in early 1934 he persuaded her to let him move to London to take up psychoanalysis (then illegal in Ireland). There his writing stalled, and he existed in a state of penury. Agreeing to take his mother on a road trip allowed him briefly to escape his grim existence, and to focus on beautiful cathedrals and literary sites, including Stratford-on-Avon (which he found “unspeakable”) and Jane Austen’s Bath. It provided them both with a welcome distraction for a brief time ‑ her from grief for her husband, him from financial struggles and anxiety over his failure to write.
The truce did not last beyond the holiday, and their familiar pattern of warring resumed. By October 1937 Beckett was preparing to leave Ireland for good. His mother too was moving, exchanging the family home of Cooldrinagh for a bungalow called New Place. As he packed up his books and looked around his old home for the last time, Beckett saw things through clear eyes. “I am what her savage loving has made me,” he told MacGreevy, “and it is good that one of us should accept that finally.” He knew that he had to make a break with her, and Ireland, while acknowledging that she was also a big part of who he was. It was one of life’s little ironies that less than three months later Beckett was stabbed in the street and May flew to Paris to be at his hospital bedside. Vulnerable and weak as he was, Beckett was touched by her concern. “For a few days she had him where she needed him to be,” as Drabble puts it, “dependent, grateful, in need of her care.”
After Beckett recovered, the relationship went back to its old footing, and they remained apart. He was there, and not there, when she died in 1950 in the Merrion Nursing Home by the Grand Canal in Dublin. As Knowlson says: “Beckett felt peculiarly alone in his sorrow … he whose relationship with his mother had been the stormiest but also the closest felt that her loss left him suddenly alone.” Eight years later, he evoked the memory of his mother’s death in Krapp’s Last Tape (1958):
the house on the canal where mother lay a-dying, in the late fall, after her long viduity … There I sat, in the biting wind, wishing she were gone. Hardly a soul, just a few regulars, nursemaids, old men, dogs … the blind went down, one of those dirty brown roller affairs … I happened to look up and there it was. All over and done with at last.
Her death, and the intervening years since then, allowed him to feel tenderness towards her, perhaps for the first time. The longer she was dead, and the closer he drew to old age himself, the more pity he felt. “She was a part of him, for better or worse,” Drabble observes, noting that Footfalls (1976) seems to capture the insomniac May Bennett’s restless pacing, “haunting Cooldrinagh, haunting New Place, haunting her son”, while Rockaby (1981) shows Beckett’s compassion for the old, frail and grief-stricken.
His continued references to her long after she was dead – his mother, but no longer his mother ‑ show Beckett’s growing understanding of her separateness. In an early version of Krapp’s Last Tape the old man forgets what the word “viduity” means and looks it up again, in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary (1755). May Beckett’s own long viduity, or widowhood, had begun not long before their English holiday together in 1935, when, to please her, Beckett took her to towns associated with the writers she loved. After he dropped his mother off at the end of the holiday and before returning to London, Beckett made a pilgrimage alone to Lichfield, the home of the great lexicographer. In Krapp’s Last Tape, with a nod to a forgotten word and a long-ago time, he was paying tribute both to the English language and to English writers, and recalling the summer when he and his mother were able temporarily to abandon their usual entrenched positions and find common ground. For once they were relatively happy together, touring a scenic no man’s (or woman’s) land in their little hired car.
In October 1977 the poet Philip Larkin wrote, with caustic black humour, to his friend Kingsley Amis. “My mother, not content with being motionless, deaf and speechless, is now going blind. That’s what you get for not dying, you see.” Less than a month later Eva Larkin was dead. She had been declining in health and understanding in a nursing home for the previous four years, but Larkin had kept writing to her, as he had always done.
There were thousands of letters between Eva and her only son, so many that Larkin’s friend and literary executor Anthony Thwaite decided not to include any at all in his Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985 (1992). In his introduction Thwaite quite reasonably points out that to have included them “would have swelled the book to unmanageable proportions”, though it is a shame that space could not have been found for one or two. This, along with a tendency to focus on Larkin’s father (as can be seen in the first chapter of the most recent Larkin biography by James Booth) means that “the first-hand voice of Eva Larkin herself” is largely absent, as Philip Pullen writes in his essay “No Villainous Mother ‑ The Life of Eva Larkin” in Sawak’s collection.
Even so, Andrew Motion gives Eva her due in Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (1993), pointing out that after she became a widow their correspondence “allowed him to maintain a relationship he knew was indispensable to his work”. Pullen’s essay focuses on the final third of Eva’s life, after Sydney Larkin died of cancer in 1948. He has trawled through the huge Philip Larkin Archive at the Hull History Centre, carefully reading her letters and diaries in order to throw new light on her relationship with her son and, as far as possible, “to tell her story in her own words”. Although after her husband died Eva moved to Loughborough and lived close to her daughter Kitty and her family, she found the early years of widowhood difficult. Larkin had to manage his mother’s frequently expressed hopes that they would live together, a “wheedling” that persisted even after he moved to Belfast in 1950, and subsequently to Hull in 1955.
Visiting her regularly, and writing to her often was Larkin’s way of maintaining their close connection while also keeping her at arm’s length. His lifelong involvement with his mother and the duty of care he felt towards her often got in the way of his other relationships with women. In 1954 Monica Jones pleaded with him not to live with his mother: “Don’t be robbed! Don’t be robbed of your soul!” In fact, his bond to his mother, combined with his insistence on not living with her, gave him a useful way of avoiding any other commitment so that he could continue to concentrate on his poetry.
For Eva, the lifeline offered by Larkin’s letters “became the most vital part of her existence”, according to Pullen. They were important to Larkin too: “I love to see your blue envelope in the wire basket,” he told her in 1967. Their letters mirror one another in language (“Dear Creature”, “Dearest Old Creature”) and in style and content, featuring what Pullen calls “an ocean of commonplace trivia and day-to-day detail”. Mother and son shared a pessimistic outlook on life, and drew comfort from the familiar. “Her tenacious clinging to routines,” Motion observes
made him feel that the smallest departure from normal practice was alarming. In the process, it made him look upon the ordinary as something potentially extraordinary. Her conviction that “the Larkins were superior”, and her insistence that their vision of the world was adequate, led him to his version of the egotistical sublime.
But Eva’s letters were often droll and observant too, and reveal her broad reading tastes. She tells Larkin that she feels like a “fish out of water” when she requests DH Lawrence, Dostoevsky and modern books on psychology from the Loughborough public library, and, in a not-so-subtle riposte to Monica Jones, she quotes a warning from George Bernard Shaw’s Love Among the Artists: “it is marriage that kills the heart and keeps it dead”.
By the late 1960s Eva’s health was declining and in 1972 she was admitted to a nursing home near Leicester. Larkin continued to pay her regular visits, making the long journey from Hull about once a fortnight to spend an afternoon with her. Even after she became incapable of writing, Larkin kept up his side of the correspondence, writing short letters to her almost daily. Then, when she could no longer understand them, he sent her picture postcards of animals and members of the royal family instead, even after he suspected that she no longer remembered who he was.
On November 17th, 1977, Eva died in her sleep, aged ninety-one. “My thoughts keep turning to an empty space,” Larkin wrote, although he told himself that she had lived a long life and had been well cared for. Now that he could no longer write to her, he took up a poem that he had been working on since 1974, and finished it. “Aubade” was published in the Times Literary Supplement on December 23rd, 1977, and Larkin joked that it had probably spoiled Christmas for a few people. It was, as Motion says, Eva’s “parting gift” to him, and one of the last poems that he would write. The final verse that he added in the days after his mother’s death concludes with a description of a cold dawn breaking on a world of ordinary, empty routines: “The sky is white as clay, with no sun. / Work has to be done. / Postmen like doctors go from house to house.” With Eva gone, there would be no more daily comfort or care brought in the form of letters written and received. Their conversation of twenty-seven years had ended.
Nicola Beauman, Morgan, A Biography of E. M. Forster (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993)
PN Furbank, E.M. Forster: A Life (OUP, 1979)
Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (Vintage, 1978)
James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (1996)
Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett (CUP, 2009-14)
Anthony Thwaite, Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985 (1992)
James Booth, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (Bloomsbury, 2014)
Andrew Motion, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (Faber & Faber, 1993)
Ann Kennedy Smith has contributed to the TLS and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She is currently working on a biography of Ida Darwin and her Cambridge circle. Her blog is at https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/