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 …

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Letters

Savage & His Mother June 14, 1984