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Mother and Son

I will confess that it was not by chance that the narrator-hero of my novel Heritage, published twenty-nine years ago, came to have Richard Savage for his name, and that the intentional reference it makes, to the early-eighteenth-century poet whose mother did her level best to get him hanged, was a mistake. It was a case of taking up a bludgeon to do what a stiletto would have done more neatly. Time softens all things, and I can now also allow that my own mother, Rebecca West, never went as far with me literally as the Countess of Macclesfield felt able to go with her son. That, however, brings me to the end of the concessions I feel able to make in that quarter. The truth of how things were between my mother and myself was that from the time that I turned fourteen, and she came to the point of a final rupture with my father, H.G. Wells, she was minded to do me what hurt she could, and that she remained set in that determination as long as there was breath in her body to sustain her malice.

When I wrote my novel thirty-five years ago I was angry with her. I had lately transplanted myself to the United States to make a fresh start in life, three thousand miles out of her way, but I had found myself pursued by her animosity even at that distance. I had been doubly offended by the steps she had taken to make it difficult for me to make a career for myself in my new country because she had set about the job of queering my pitch with a blatancy that made it plain that she thought me too much of an idiot to notice what she was about. I had the vain hope that if I made it clear to her that I was under no illusions about the lengths to which she was going to disoblige me, she might tire of her sport and drop it. The calculation, as I should have known, was a fatuous one, and, as I should also have realized, the stupidly clever idea of using Richard Savage’s name had prejudiced whatever chance of success I might have had with the maneuver. And then I had also called the book Heritage.

The chain of events that led me to pick that title began soon after my mother had come to the parting of the ways with my father. Once it had become clear to her that there were no circumstances in which he would ever think of marrying her she decided to adopt me. The step was explained to me as a prudential one. Unadopted, I would have to make my way through life producing, whenever I had to give formal proof of my identity, a birth certificate that named both my parents, declared my mother’s condition at the time of birth to be that of “spinster,” and so disclosed my bastardy to anyone who saw it; adopted, I would be the possessor of a document recording merely that I was born on such and such a date, and that on another, fourteen years later, legal process had made me the child of a spinster, Cicily Isabel Fairfield, “also known as Rebecca West,” with whom I had no recognized previous connection. When I grew up, I was told, I would be able to understand how greatly this improved my condition. It was not pointed out to me at the time that this highly symbolic performance also removed my father from my pedigree, in law if not in fact.

My mother married money not long after my adoption went through, and within a year or so of that happy event she felt called upon to inform my father that he need trouble himself no more to provide for me in his will, as her husband, Henry Andrews, was making me his heir. My father later asked me if I knew anything of this, and with a certain complacency I told him that I did and that he wasn’t to worry about me. Henry was really rich, and as I understood it I was to come into the bulk of his estate when he died. My father looked at me quizzically for an instant after I had said this, and then let the matter drop, observing that if it were really so I ought to be all right. I recalled his words, and the expression that had been on his face when he uttered them, some years later while I was listening to the reading of his will. Under it I was given the right to take such personal souvenirs of him as I might fancy from the contents of his house, and nothing else. This was not, the document went on to say, because he had anything against me, but because he understood that, unlike his other children, I had substantial expectations from another quarter. When I heard that explanation a flash of intuition informed me that my designation as my stepfather’s heir had been functional, and that I was not likely to enjoy that status for much longer now that its function had been fulfilled.

My insight was confirmed three years later in the course of a melodramatic scene that was enacted on the front steps of my home in Dorset. Its pretext was an advertisement that had appeared in the two “quality” Sundays on the previous day, in which the publishers of my first novel had announced its forthcoming appearance as one of the titles on their autumn list. Each of the dozen books featured in the advertisement was given the briefest of brief descriptions followed by a snippet of background information about the writer. Of me it was said that I had promise, and that I had begun work on a biography of my father, H.G. Wells.

On the morning after this atrocity had run on the book pages of the two papers concerned, my stepfather, having proclaimed his coming, drove over from his home near High Wycombe in his Rolls-Royce to bring me an ultimatum. He wouldn’t come into the house, he explained when he had arrived, because he didn’t want to impose himself on me as a guest until he had let me know what he had come to say. It was consequently from a point about halfway up the front steps that he let me have it. He was extremely angry with me for having been so thoughtlessly cruel as to allow my publishers to exploit the dormant scandal of my mother’s connection with my father. Its revival had given my mother unimaginable distress. He was prepared to go to any lengths to spare her a repetition of what she had been through in the previous twenty-four hours. He wanted me to understand that unless I was willing to give him my solemn undertaking never to lend myself to the commercial exploitation of this most private of private matters again, he would have to think seriously of changing his will. He reminded me that a considerable sum of money was involved, and begged me to do what he asked. I was taken aback by his proposition, and could only tell him that I couldn’t possibly do or say anything that might seem to suggest that I had any reason to be ashamed of being the child of either one of my parents.

Henry then turned to my wife, Katharine Church, who was standing beside me, to say, with what affected to be a rueful smile, that he deplored my attitude. He hoped, he added, that she would become his ally in the task of persuading me to modify it; it might make it easier for her to do so if she were to consider what the ultimate consequences of my obduracy would necessarily be—the interest that our two children had in his estate as things were would be extinguished along with mine should my conduct force him to change his will. Kitty’s response to this was to say, “Well really, Henry!” and to go indoors, turning her back on him. My stepfather lengthened his normally long face considerably, gestured as if to indicate his helplessness in the face of so evident a case of folie à deux, told me that he would give me a week to think the matter over, reminded me of the sum that was at risk, and departed. He presently did what he had threatened to do, and that was the end of my expectations.

I was given an even clearer idea of the extent of my mother’s passionate desire to do me harm a little while later when I had foolishly involved myself in a sufficiently banal marital difficulty. I fell very hard for a young woman who was as nice as could be, and extremely attractive to me, but who was, literally, a passing stranger. I made a heavy overinvestment of emotion in what should never have been more than an episode, and was soon in a fair way to upsetting my apple cart. My mother gave me every assistance in overturning it. As soon as she became aware that my marriage was going through a rough passage she summoned my wife to London for a lunchtime conference, naming the extremely pleasant, sumptuous, and quiet eating room at the Green Park end of the Ritz as their meeting place. When she got there Kitty was surprised to find that my stepfather was one of the party. She was even more surprised when my mother, after commiserating with her briefly, launched into a presentation of the case for an immediate divorce, which had the form of a denunciation of myself and all my works.

My mother had, it seemed, been living in dread of the very thing that was happening ever since our marriage. She had never thought that it could last. She had always known that I was utterly irresponsible and—yes—unstable. There was an unaccountable streak of something base in my makeup that had made me curiously unreliable even as a child. When it came to a divorce Kitty would have to put herself in the hands of someone really good; if there was the slightest vagueness in the terms of the final settlement she would live to regret it. I was shifty about money matters, and could be relied upon to get at her through the children if I was given any loophole that would allow me to do so….

At that point Kitty objected that it was early days to be talking about divorce. She was far from sure that it need come to that. As she understood things it was common enough for both men and women who had married young to be overtaken by feelings of sexual restlessness when they felt their middle years closing in on them. She could see that there might be dangers for her in what was happening, but she still felt that far too much was being made of something that was, in her opinion, most unlikely to be the big thing that I was making out of it. She didn’t think that there was any chance that it would last.

My mother responded to this by exploding with rage. She began by telling Kitty that she was the biggest fool she had ever tried to help out of an appalling situation. I was an utter rotter, and she was an idiot to let me trample all over her. She raised her voice as she launched into a lengthy indictment of my past and present performances. As she ranted on conversation ceased at most of the other tables in the room, and the waiters gave up even the pretense of attending to their duties in favor of standing and staring. Kitty is at a loss to explain how the two men concerted their action, but the scene came to an abrupt end when my stepfather and the headwaiter, moving together as if they had rehearsed the procedure a dozen times, each took my mother by an arm close to the elbow, plucked her up out of her seat, and carried her from the room, dangling between them. She continued her vilification of her daughter-in-law and myself until the doors of the room closed behind her.

It would be pleasant if I could say that this episode had relieved my mother’s feelings and had required no sequel, but that would not be true. The fact is that my mother was never able to forgive Kitty for being generous and understanding where I was concerned, and that the interrupted tirade that was broken off in the Ritz on that memorable occasion was destined to be taken up again, and again, at irregular intervals through the remainder of her life. Each new turn in the melancholy history of my deteriorating relationship with her brought Kitty its fallout in the form of yet another batch of letters taking up the theme of my vileness and aimed without disguise at extinguishing the last remnants of any residual affection she might have for me.

Close to a hundred and thirty of these letters survive. Some of them are brief notes, but the majority are old-fashioned letters of the kind that people used to write before time became as precious as it is today. They are written on both sides of as many as six eight-by-ten sheets of paper, and their texts can run to better than five hundred words to a side. Some of them contain more than six thousand words. Of the archive as a whole my former wife says that it constitutes a fascinating involuntary self-portrait of someone who was treacherous and dishonest, and whose leading passions were money, malice, and meddling.

I can agree with that, but for me the pitiful and extraordinary thing about it is that it is typical. Katharine Church was not the only recipient of such outpourings—there are at least a dozen archives similar to hers in various hands in England and America, and there may be several more. Some are a good deal larger. Those I am familiar with have it in common that they were built up over periods of years, that they show the same delight in disseminating spiteful slanders and untruths, and that their substance consists of releases of hostility and aggression aimed at specific bêtes noires on a private hit list. One of these collections was in the making as early as the winter of 1922-1923, and another, which means rather more to me, covers the period extending from 1924 to 1970, and consists of letters that were addressed to John Gunther. It yields a remarkably complete picture of who my mother’s hates were over those years, and contains a more than adequate explanation for the strength of my feelings about that much misunderstood lady.

In the days between 1924 and 1928, when my father was the chief of her bêtes noires, my mother was having an affair with John Gunther. When they first met he was straight from Chicago, and the ultimate in the new school of American foreign correspondents who had learned the reporters’ art, so far as they had learned anything, by chasing police cars and hanging around city halls and state capitols. They came to Europe to “cover” it, as ignorant of its history, demography, and economics as they were of its languages. John’s physical beauty was as absolute as his innocence: he was six feet two, lean as a rail, golden-haired and golden-skinned, and endowed with marvelously clear blue eyes. He was aflame with enthusiasm for the new world that had been opened to him by his transfer from the windy city to Paris and Vienna. He had the air of being an angel, overjoyed at finding himself a witness to the creation.

My mother was thirty-two, he was twenty-three, and I was ten, when the affair began. If he had hung about he might possibly have become a bore, but he came and went unpredictably as the focus of the news shifted in and out of London, and before there was time to be sated with the flawless beauty, the unlimited enthusiasm, and the endless repertory of exciting stories of what was “really” going on wherever he had just come from, he would be gone again. I became very fond of him, and as I grew up he remained high on the list of those people I always looked forward to seeing again. He took a fatherly interest in me and always made me welcome when I showed up on his horizon. When I emigrated to the United States in 1950 the thought that I could count on his friendship when I got there made the move seem a great deal less of a plunge into the void. He was a good friend to me while I was finding my feet, and remained so thereafter.

It came as a considerable shock to me to learn after his death that he had been one of those my mother had done her best to turn against me. As soon as she learned of my impending move to New York she began to bombard him with revised versions of her Ritz tirade, warning him that he would be well advised to have nothing whatever to do with me, and building up a formidable case for my untouchability. She could not bear to think that he might be fool enough to befriend me or think well of me. I was not to have anybody’s friendship or regard.

I fear that my tale grows tedious, and I will only add one more thing to it. In the year after John Gunther’s death my mother entered into a literary relationship with a certain Gordon N. Ray who has described the resultant book, which deals with her affair with my father and its aftermath, as a collaboration between them. She read, Ray tells us, the successive drafts of his story as he worked them up, corrected his errors of fact, and “filled in the inevitable omissions of a narrative based on fragmentary materials.” It is clear from this, I think, that my mother knew of everything that Ray included in his text, and contributed substantially to its content. This means that if she did not actually invent the nasty story in Ray’s book that ascribes my existence to a very dirty trick played on her by my father, she at the very least passed it for publication. Ray encapsulates it in the following words: “In an angry moment, when he feared that Rebecca might leave him, Wells intentionally omitted his usual precautions in the hope that pregnancy might bind her to him.”

What was it all about? Why were we so fiercely at odds, and for so long? The root causes lay a long way back, I think, in my grandfather Charles Fairfield’s character, in the timing of his final breach with his family, and in his eventual death, alone, in a Liverpool rooming house. My mother seems to have felt his disappearance from her life, soon after she began to menstruate, as a double rejection, both of her femaleness and of her love. The extent to which she was wounded by the event, and affected by her interpretation of it, was shown by the frequency with which she lapsed into an androgynous and chappish style in her transactions with her women friends, and by the defiantly sexist remarks so often found on the lips of her characters in her later novels. The archetype of these observations is her Rose Aubrey’s exaltation of sour grapes: “I had a glorious father, I had no father at all.”

She was clearly making a fetish of her ability to get along very nicely without any help from men. Speaking in her own person, my mother never says that she found her actual father’s behavior glorious—all that she ever said about him to me, and it amounted to remarkably little over the long haul, indicated that she held his habits of being absent, and of spending what money he could get hold of outside his home rather than on it, very much against him. Alert Freudians wise to the significance of the word “spending” in Victorian English argot will know what to make of this change, and they will perhaps be right to take it as a symbolic one.

The point comes up again in relation to the question of my mother’s more than perplexing choice of a fresh name after she had decided that the one that she had got from her father, Cicily Fairfield, was too weak and missish for professional use. Lou Andreas-Salomé, who had been Nietzsche’s friend and Freud’s, and who resembled my mother in more ways than one, observed of Ibsen’s Rebecca West that she incited Parson Rosmer’s wife to suicide “out of a fierce and tender craving for her late father.” Although I feel that with this Frau Lou puts her finger on something in the play that spoke to my mother, I can’t help clinging to my original view that the real purpose of the provocative and defiant gesture was quite simply to give notice to the English literary world that she intended to play the old Byronic attention-getting game of coming on as someone “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Had she been making her bid for notice twenty years earlier she might have proclaimed herself a satanist with anarchist sympathies in company with Max Beerbohm’s Enoch Soames.

But by the beginning of 1912, when she swapped the names, that bus was long gone, and the tone of her generation’s mind was being determined by the recent publication of the English translations of Nietzsche’s major works. The young heroes like Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, whom my mother was meeting under Ford and Violet’s roof at South Lodge, were full of talk of the “morals of masters,” the “moral freedom of the Übermensch,” and of the necessity for rejecting the slave ethics of Christianity, particularly in the degenerate form they had assumed as part of the ideology of secular humanism. Although the language that Nietzsche addressed to his audience in his day can now be recognized at first glance as the rhetoric of protofascism, my mother, like many others in her age group, was badly taken in by its false vigor, and was soon, despite her reservations about his antifeminism, adapting his tropes for her own purposes.

Jane Marcus was being shrewder than she knew when she gave the first part of The Young Rebecca, her anthology of pieces from my mother’s earliest writings, the title “The Lamp of Hatred.” It derives from a sentence in one of her contributions to The Freewoman that shows how passionately she wanted to prove herself a genuinely tough egg in the Nietzschean mode of those days. “A strong hatred,” it goes, “is the best lamp to bear in our hands as we go over the dark places of life cutting away the dead things that men tell us to revere.” Although she was clearly writing this at speed, and for effect, it is nonetheless discernably a considered recommendation of indulgence in one of the more sterile and destructive emotions as a creatively motivating force and a credible source of illumination and insight.

But it wasn’t just that she was saying desperately silly things in those years of decision between 1911 and 1913. She was also getting ready to do them. Calling herself Rebecca West had been a declaration of intent, and within three years of assuming her new name she was up to her neck in just the sort of trouble that the gesture might have been calculated to produce—she had by then located her Rosmer and his Rosmersholm in the shapes of my father and the country house in Essex that was the center of his life and the home of his wife Jane and their two sons.

Jane Wells was not the woman for the part of poor demented Mrs. Rosmer, and when she was told, in due season, that my mother was to have a child by her husband she did not make for the nearest bridge and jump off it. She merely said, “Poor girl,” and let it be known that if she could be of any help, there she was. It was an enormous shock to my mother to realize, after she had brought me into the world, that Rosmersholm had not gone into voluntary liquidation, and that life there was going on—so far as was possible, considering the outbreak of the 1914 war—just as if nothing had ever happened. She was, in the vulgar phrase, stuck, with nothing to show for her trouble. So far from having demonstrated her right to acceptance as someone capable of doing anything, no matter what, and of getting away with it, she had shown herself incompetent to make a go of the most banal and despicable of female maneuvers in the book.

The lamp of hatred flared up at that point, and she was to spend the rest of her life steering an uncertain course by its dismal light. She was never to be able to forgive my father, Jane Wells, or me for being involved in her debacle, and most of all she was never able to forgive herself. In the end her story is one of self-hatred, and that is for me the saddest of its aspects, not least because having received it as her heritage she endeavored to pass it on to me.


Savage & His Mother June 14, 1984