In a lengthy essay for the Dublin Review of Books, Ann Kennedy Smith discusses Dale Salwak’s recent book, Writers and Their Mothers, published by Palgrave Macmillan. The piece includes a discussion of Beckett’s relationship with his mother, May, and recounts a trip they made to England in the mid-thirties

In the summer of 1935, Samuel Beckett and his widowed mother, May, took a three-week road trip together in England. It is not clear whose idea it was, but Beckett, who was living in an almost destitute state in London at the time, seems to have gone along with the plan willingly enough. With his mother paying all expenses, he hired a small car and took her on what he called a “lightning tour” of English market towns and cathedral cities including St Albans, Canterbury, Winchester, Bath and Wells. They covered hundreds of miles, driving as far as the West Country and spending almost three weeks together.

Beckett described their trip together in letters to his friend Tom MacGreevy, later the director of the National Gallery of Ireland. After they reached the West Country, he told MacGreevy, their hired car struggled with the “demented gradients, 1 in 4 a commonplace” around hilly Porlock and Lynton. They decided not to spend a night in the seaside resort of Minehead: one look at it was enough. Instead, they spent almost a week in a comfortable hotel in Lynmouth, close to where Shelley was said to have stayed. From there they went on day excursions around the coast and toured the literary locations of North Devon, including the Exmoor of Lorna Doone and the bathing place of Westward Ho! on Bideford Bay, named after Charles Kingsley’s famous book.

This holiday in 1935 was, according to the writer Margaret Drabble, “a most extraordinary interlude” in Beckett’s long, tempestuous relationship with his mother. It forms the centrepiece of her essay “The Maternal Embrace: Samuel Beckett and his mother May”. Drabble knows the West Country well ‑ she tells us that she is writing in Porlock Weir, overlooking the Bristol Channel, and loyally speaks up for the charms of nearby Minehead ‑ and in focusing on the Becketts’ unlikely westward journey that summer she pinpoints a rare moment of relative harmony between mother and son which she feels has been overlooked. It was mentioned only in passing in Deirdre Bair’s 1978 biography, but James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (1996) gives the background to the holiday more fully, drawing on the letters to MacGreevy held at Trinity College Dublin.

Bair describes Beckett as “his mother’s child … thin, with the same angularity and sternness of bearing, the cold blue eyes and fair hair”. Biographers agree that May Beckett was an austere figure, who wore plain dark dresses, tailor-made mannish suits and kept her hair pinned up under a succession of fashionable hats, “her one vanity” (Bair). She was ambitious for both of her sons, but while Frank gradually became more obedient and settled, Samuel went in the opposite direction as he grew older. As Knowlson puts it, ever since Beckett’s childhood “they rarely saw eye to eye on anything concerning himself”. The situation went from bad to worse after Bill Beckett died in 1933 and May’s fierce attention became fixed on trying to convince her younger son that she knew best. Financially dependent on her as he was, Beckett’s options were limited, but in early 1934 he persuaded her to let him move to London to take up psychoanalysis (then illegal in Ireland). There his writing stalled, and he existed in a state of penury. Agreeing to take his mother on a road trip allowed him briefly to escape his grim existence, and to focus on beautiful cathedrals and literary sites, including Stratford-on-Avon (which he found “unspeakable”) and Jane Austen’s Bath. It provided them both with a welcome distraction for a brief time ‑ her from grief for her husband, him from financial struggles and anxiety over his failure to write.

The truce did not last beyond the holiday, and their familiar pattern of warring resumed. By October 1937 Beckett was preparing to leave Ireland for good. His mother too was moving, exchanging the family home of Cooldrinagh for a bungalow called New Place. As he packed up his books and looked around his old home for the last time, Beckett saw things through clear eyes. “I am what her savage loving has made me,” he told MacGreevy, “and it is good that one of us should accept that finally.” He knew that he had to make a break with her, and Ireland, while acknowledging that she was also a big part of who he was. It was one of life’s little ironies that less than three months later Beckett was stabbed in the street and May flew to Paris to be at his hospital bedside. Vulnerable and weak as he was, Beckett was touched by her concern. “For a few days she had him where she needed him to be,” as Drabble puts it, “dependent, grateful, in need of her care.”

After Beckett recovered, the relationship went back to its old footing, and they remained apart. He was there, and not there, when she died in 1950 in the Merrion Nursing Home by the Grand Canal in Dublin. As Knowlson says: “Beckett felt peculiarly alone in his sorrow … he whose relationship with his mother had been the stormiest but also the closest felt that her loss left him suddenly alone.” Eight years later, he evoked the memory of his mother’s death in Krapp’s Last Tape (1958):

“the house on the canal where mother lay a-dying, in the late fall, after her long viduity … There I sat, in the biting wind, wishing she were gone. Hardly a soul, just a few regulars, nursemaids, old men, dogs … the blind went down, one of those dirty brown roller affairs … I happened to look up and there it was. All over and done with at last.”

Her death, and the intervening years since then, allowed him to feel tenderness towards her, perhaps for the first time. The longer she was dead, and the closer he drew to old age himself, the more pity he felt. “She was a part of him, for better or worse,” Drabble observes, noting that Footfalls (1976) seems to capture the insomniac May Bennett’s restless pacing, “haunting Cooldrinagh, haunting New Place, haunting her son”, while Rockaby (1981) shows Beckett’s compassion for the old, frail and grief-stricken.

His continued references to her long after she was dead – his mother, but no longer his mother ‑ show Beckett’s growing understanding of her separateness. In an early version of Krapp’s Last Tape the old man forgets what the word “viduity” means and looks it up again, in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary (1755). May Beckett’s own long viduity, or widowhood, had begun not long before their English holiday together in 1935, when, to please her, Beckett took her to towns associated with the writers she loved. After he dropped his mother off at the end of the holiday and before returning to London, Beckett made a pilgrimage alone to Lichfield, the home of the great lexicographer. In Krapp’s Last Tape, with a nod to a forgotten word and a long-ago time, he was paying tribute both to the English language and to English writers, and recalling the summer when he and his mother were able temporarily to abandon their usual entrenched positions and find common ground. For once they were relatively happy together, touring a scenic no man’s (or woman’s) land in their little hired car.

Read the complete essay at the Dublin Review of Books website.

Posted by:Rhys Tranter

Rhys Tranter is a writer based in Cardiff, Wales, UK. He is the author of Beckett's Late Stage (2018), and his work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of books and periodicals. He holds a BA, MA, and a PhD in English Literature. His website is a personal journal offering commentary and analysis across literature, film, music, and the arts.

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