Writers and Their Mothers review – the legacy of maternal blessings

Made, marred, mollycoddled and inspired … Philip Larkin, Ian McEwan and Samuel Beckett are among the authors in this lively collection of affectionate and celebratory essays

Has there lived a writer who claimed never to have been influenced in the smallest part, for good or ill, by their mother? In this lively collection of essays, the legacy of maternal blessings (which they mostly describe) is thoughtfully and skilfully unpacked, either first-hand, via personal memoir, or second-hand, via biographical portrait. The keynote in nearly all of them is gratitude, for in the long perspective a writer must acknowledge a link between nurturing an offspring and nurturing a talent – both of them blood-deep, life-defining and mysterious.

In a wonderful piece Judy Carver considers the life of her grandmother Mildred, the mother of William Golding, and her “uncanny awareness” of people. Drawing on her father’s unpublished memoirs, Carver paints so detailed and vivid a picture of this displaced Cornishwoman and her benign “witchcraft” that the portrait seems to overrun the frame and become a study of aspiration and social mobility: “If class weren’t so serious a matter in England, it might be thought of as the national hobby.” Class is an invisible engine in these pages. Margaret Drabble’s account of Samuel Beckett’s relationship with May, his formidable mother, brings to life a prosperous Dublin household of artistic striving, frequent illness and severe Protestantism. May was an “ill-tempered” matron who quarrelled with her servants as well as her son, cosseting and constricting him at once. Psychologically he never eluded her sway, and much of his work sprang from their antagonism.

Just as sharp in its focus on class is Ian McEwan’s tender remembrance of his mother, Rose, a shy working-class woman who lived in fear of language and the social abyss it obliged her to skirt. As a teenager on visits home he was exasperated by her “timid” remarks and strove to distance himself; as a writer he now sees his deep kinship with her, his own early insecurity with words, and his instinct for a story. Eavesdropping on Rose’s gossip with a neighbour – often “gory” accounts of surgical operations – may well have stirred the inchoate imaginings of his first short stories. In later life she developed vascular dementia, which, as her son observes, would silence her tongue and “empty her mind”. It’s notable how strong a thread mental affliction is here. Philip Larkin and his bookish mother, Eva, wrote to one another, usually twice a week, from 1941, the year he went up to Oxford, to the mid-1970s, a mutually dependent relationship that never fully satisfied either of them. Eva’s long and troubled widowhood included a stay in a psychiatric hospital and a futile course of electric shock therapy. Grief-stricken, she would write to her son: “Is there, do you think, any hope for a broken & remorseful heart?” It’s hard to decide whether Larkin is the best, or actually the worst, qualified person to whom that question might be put. The condition mother and son intimately shared, and never appeared to overcome, was loneliness.

Mildred Golding with her sons William, centre, and Jose in 1914.
Mildred Golding with her sons William, centre, and Jose in 1914. Photograph: Courtesy of Judy Carver

Lyndall Gordon from girlhood nursed her ill mother alone, without knowing, for a long time, what that illness was. It strikes her as curious that neither her father nor her grandmother chose to tell her, perhaps from “reluctance to imagine what might happen when they weren’t there”. She discovers, from a word in a half-finished poem of her mother’s, the answer to the puzzle: epilepsy. Andrew Motion writes beautifully of his spirited, clever mother and her “delicate” condition. He describes how a long illness (arthritis) in his boyhood was formative both in his writing and his closeness to his mother, whose eventual fate one can hardly bear to read of: thrown from a horse, she suffered serious brain damage that left her unconscious for three years, and the next six “in limbo”. For Motion it was the defining incident of his life, a cruel lesson in bad luck and “the only reliable law of life: its randomness”. Catherine Aird recounts an extraordinary trauma, stricken at 16 with a kidney disease that compelled her to live at home, bedridden and nursed by her equally extraordinary mother. The latter lived to 85, by which time their roles had been reversed: Catherine was now the nurse to her frail mother, and fully appreciative of her subtle humour, deviousness and almost Jeevesian imperturbability.

By highlighting illness and misfortune I have perhaps made this book sound lowering. It isn’t. The prevailing mood is actually celebratory and affectionate, especially among those writers addressing their own youthful progress – just read the lovely mini-memoir by Rita Dove about her seamstress mother, Elvira, and the poem (“My Mother Enters the Workforce”) she inspired. There’s a rogue stepmother in the collection, too, as Martin Amis pays touching tribute to the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, his father’s second wife and his earliest literary mentor. Before Jane took him in hand, young Mart was, in his own words, “a semiliterate truant and waster whose main interest was hanging around in betting shops”. After a year of her tutelage he had picked up three A-levels and a scholarship to Oxford. The story of his getting halfway through Pride and Prejudice and stopping to beg Jane to tell him whether Elizabeth marries Darcy is justly celebrated. And yet, despite his thankfulness, he is honest enough to admit that he only ever felt “fond” of Jane: “your father’s ‘other woman’, I fear, is doomed to love her stepson without full requital”.

Youthful progress … US poet Rita Dove, in 1953, with her seamstress mother, Elvira.
Youthful progress … US poet Rita Dove, in 1953, with her seamstress mother, Elvira. Photograph: Ray A Dove

Another son of a famous writer, David Updike, considers the way a larger talent may eclipse a smaller one. His mother, Mary, painted at college, and studied for a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford. While John became renowned for his stories and novels, his wife had children – four of them – and gradually yielded to her family the time and energy she might have devoted to her art. Not an uncommon story, one imagines. Years later she told David, by way of explanation: “How could I compete with a talent like that?” Having resumed painting in later life, she continues to show her work, and to sell it.

There is one salient example of a mother who both made and marred her child. John Ruskin endured a long, inescapable relationship with Margaret, his fanatically religious mother, who indoctrinated him from a young age in the hope he would go into the church. He resisted, though the Bible study she imposed on him had a lasting effect, for he would later write in the manner of an Old Testament prophet. Something was amiss between them, however; as he wrote, devastatingly, in Praeterita, of his childhood: “I had nothing to love.” (And what a peculiar way of expressing his alienation.) Their relationship offers a warning against excessively tight apron strings: don’t, for instance, insist on living with your precious child when he or she goes up to university, as Margaret did (uniquely?) with Ruskin at Oxford from 1837. That is to put the “mother” into “smother” and, as we now know, it didn’t help her son in his subsequent relationships with women.

  • Writers and their Mothers by Dale Salwak (Palgrave Macmillan, £19.50). To order a copy for £16.58, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
Anthony Quinn

The GuardianTramp

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