BOOK OF THE WEEK
WRITERS AND THEIR MOTHERS
edited by Dale Salwak (Palgrave Macmillan £19.50)
Should you have nice, well-balanced parents, including a mother who is warm-hearted and supportive but not oppressively so, sadly the chances are you won't amount to anything much in the arts.
What you need, to be a great writer in particular, is either 'a tortured mother who'll ignore, interfere with, smother or abandon their children' or, on the other hand, as Dale Salwak says, a kind of hard-to-find saint who is 'selfless, spiritual, tender' and resembles Marmee in Little Women.
The real-life inspiration for that character was Louisa May Alcott's mother, Abigail, who is described in this book as 'a power behind the scenes, a gentle, pervading influence. She knew how to get inside the minds of her children, studied their failings and possibilities, and guided them with a calm wisdom'.
The point is, surely, that Abigail Alcott, for good or ill, like every other mother discussed in this book, was controlling.
Author Dale Salwak, reveals how a mother's cling can influence a child's creativity in a collection of personal contributions
Whether the control is blatantly cruel, or passive, or passive-aggressive, the offspring of such mothers are always deeply psychologically affected for the rest of their lives.
No other woman matches up to the force of that primal maternal relationship, and the children tend to find being married difficult.
Salwak's excellent book reminded me of something that was said about Peter Sellers's bond with his ambitious, battle-axe mum, Peg. 'When a man marries, he divorces his own mother.' It is never an amicable split.
Bad mothers, as it were, and clinging mothers, light the fires of creativity. John Ruskin, for example, the long-winded Victorian critic of painting and historian of Venice, had a Bible-bashing old girl who insisted on living with him, and ordering him about, until her dying day — aged 90, in 1871.
When Ruskin went up to Oxford, in 1837, his mother went with him. She rented rooms opposite his college and he had to leave his student friends and humiliatingly repair there to dine and sleep every night.
Mrs Ruskin was deliberately unaffectionate. She believed in 'serenity through fear'. As an only child, John was not allowed toys. He gazed at the play of sunlight on the carpet, fiddled for hours with a bunch of keys and built towers with plain wooden bricks. Ruskin was not allowed to pick the fruit in his own garden, even when grown up.
As is pointed out by Anthony Daniels in this fascinating compendium of essays, 'permanently protecting a child from the consequences of his acts is hardly a way of encouraging independence'.
In due course, Ruskin's marriage was annulled for non-consummation — it is disputed whether this was because his relationship with his mother was loveless, he was appalled at his bride's pubic hair, or he was, in fact, homosexual.
He went mad and sat in a Lake District turret, hooting at owls.
Another with a 'strong-willed, dour, volatile, dominating' mother was Samuel Beckett, who is the subject here of a brilliant chapter by Margaret Drabble.
Louisa May Alcott (pictured) based her character Marmee in Little Women on her mother
Maria Jones Roe, known as May, who died in 1950, liked to exert power over her neurotic son but, as he suffered from 'night-sweats, panic attacks, pleurisy, insomnia and urinary problems', her authority was mixed with genuine concern. Her son was a bit of a liability. He went to Paris and got stabbed. He came home to be nursed, drank heavily, and was always angry — there were plate-throwing rows in the family's large villa in a prosperous Dublin suburb.
Nevertheless, Beckett and his mother went on holiday together around the English cathedral towns. They ventured to the West Country. 'One look at Minehead was enough.' I'd give a lot to have seen the author of Waiting For Godot in Splash Waterworld at Butlins.
Mrs Beckett was 'a constant creative presence, as well as a destructive one'. She helped form 'the strange landscape' of the future Nobel Prize-winner's mind, which was filled with weird old bags usually played by Billie Whitelaw.
Permanently protecting a child from the consequences of his acts is hardly a way of encouraging independence
Eva Larkin, a widow from 1948, played a similar part to May Beckett in her son Philip's existence. Based in Hull, where he was the university librarian, Larkin felt entirely responsible for his lonely mother, who remained in Loughborough, Leicestershire — though she angled like mad to come and live with him. He resisted.
He exchanged letters with her daily ('I love to see your blue envelope in the wire basket,' he chirruped), visited her every weekend and the pair of them, like the Becketts, went on an annual holiday together around the British Isles.
It is not mentioned in this book —but Eva and Philip, I know, also went to Minehead. Tom Stoppard ought to write one of his plays about all these literary giants at Butlins.
Their surviving correspondence is full of the drab details and routines that filled the poetry: faulty gas fires, cleaning silverware, bottling fruit.
Mother and son shared a 'gloomy, pessimistic attitude towards life', which had an undercurrent of Eeyore-ish humour in it, too — and, though Larkin lamented to friends, such as Kingsley Amis, that his mother was a blinking pest who was grinding him down, this was not really the case.
Louisa May Alcott's mother, Abigail (pictured) was a powerful influence behind the scenes
Eva, who received electric shock treatment for her phobia about thunderstorms, was Larkin's 'primary emotional interest', as Philip Pullen says here. He 'loved his mother more profoundly than anyone else in his life', which is what ruled out marriage to any of his notorious partners, the heavily bespectacled Monicas, Maeves and Bettys. They would naturally have demanded a level of emotional commitment he could only reserve for his mother. She'd also warned him off the practicalities — marriage, Eva counselled, was no guarantee that socks will be darned or meals will be served on time.
She died in 1977, aged 91, after which Philip Larkin never wrote another word.
Ian McEwan's maternal legacy, as he describes in another marvellous chapter, is less stifling, subtler, but equally as pervasive.
His working-class mother, who became the wife of an Army officer who'd risen from the ranks, was always nervous and tongue-tied in company, a victim of the 'layered linguistic density of English class', where a mispronunciation at the colonel's garden party can find you out.
From his mother, therefore, McEwan says that he has inherited a cautious, painstaking, fastidious way with language. 'I've inherited her wariness', also a personal combination of timidity and reticence, yet a confidence — almost an arrogance — when on his own facing the page.
WRITERS AND THEIR MOTHERS edited by Dale Salwak (Palgrave Macmillan £19.50)
In his books, Mrs McEwan survives as 'the repository of all the goodness that men fall short of'.
Indeed, men, fathers, are absent from these engrossing biographical and autobiographical pieces. They have died, been divorced or are relegated to the background.
Martin Amis's father, Sir Kingsley, abandoned his wife, Hilly, and children, and did a bunk with Elizabeth Jane Howard, this 'tall, calm, fine-boned, queenly' creature who, obviously, the teenage Martin quite fancied as well.
In his splendid portrait of his stepmother, Martin pays Jane Howard full credit for introducing him to classic literature. He was a sullen adolescent who'd failed his exams on purpose — she coached him into winning a place at Oxford. She made him grow up a bit.
Meanwhile, Kingsley's infatuation with his new wife turned to loathing. He covered her cooking in HP Sauce and pickles and drank himself silly. Understandably, she bolted.
In a development that seems out of a sitcom, Kingsley went back to live with Hilly, who was now based in Primrose Hill and married to the impoverished Earl of Kilmarnock.
Kingsley had a bedsit in the basement. The Earl and Countess became his housekeepers, leaving a plate of cheese and Branston sandwiches ready for when he got back plastered from the Garrick Club.
Kingsley now called Hilly 'Mum' — an ex-husband becoming a dependant son must be unique, even in the annals of Freud?