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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.

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