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Clare Morgan on legacy: recreating our dead

An oil lamp

I can’t really say I liked my mother. The admission is painful, or maybe shameful would be a better word. She was five-feet-four-and-a-half-inches tall, with olive skin and near-black hair. She was vibrant and earned early the epithet ‘vivacious’.

My mother was a writer. She taught me to read when I was three. She taught me to write, too, before I went to school. I could only do capitals. When asked if I could do joined-up writing I said I could, and promptly joined all the capitals together. I found it intensely unfair that wasn’t enough.

She had me when she was well into her forties, a home birth which must have been traumatic. When I was two we went on holiday to Carbis Bay, near Virginia Woolf’s childhood home. My mother wore dark glasses that went up at the corners and a ruched swimsuit in vivid orange and ochre patternings. It was a time before motorways and it took fourteen hours to get there in our 1932 Lanchester. It broke down seven times on the way. Those orange and ochre patternings still rise before me on a dark day.

She was always singing and dancing in the house, and sometimes in the garden too. We lived in the country and there was no-one to watch except a few whiskery cows. When she wasn’t singing or dancing, or being a wife or a mother or a sister or a daughter, she was drawing or reading or writing — poetry mostly, and short stories. She sang lullabies to me every night, or her own version of light opera.

‘Veelia oh Veelia my witch of the woods/ Oh I would die for you dear, if I could.’

Unbridled passion and illicit desire opened themselves before me. Tragedy too, in the fate of the unrequited. She read to me constantly. Poems from A Flower Fairy Alphabet: ‘Who shall the chosen fairy be/ For letter C?’ The answer to which, in my head at least, must be, had to be: me me me me. Or Marmion, by Walter Scott — ‘O, young Lochinvar is come out of the West’. I still have her own schoolgirl copy of Marmion, marked at certain passages that she learned by heart: ‘For Tues’, she has written, ‘Read’. And her initials are inscribed next to certain lines that particularly struck her:

‘So faithful in love, and so dauntless in war/ There never was knight like the young Lochinvar’.

It was daring to write; that much I learned early. Seeing her, pencil in hand, with a creased forehead — the sheer concentration made me sit quiet in a kind of wonder. It seemed an entirely natural progression – being read to, reading, making those peculiar shapes on the page – LETTERS – and then writing more and more letters and words, just like (but not quite, not yet) the ones that happened in books, whose ancient and venerable covers adorned the bookshelf in the corner of the sitting room, which also contained the Holy Bible, complete with the names and dates of a host of relatives, some of them living, most of them already long dead.

The Swiss Family Robinson, 1851 edition, was a favourite:

‘Six days the storm had raged in unbridled fury’, my transcription goes. ‘On the seventh, far from showing any abatement, it seemed to increase in violence […] the ship, all whose masts were gone by the board, leaked heavily […] the alarm and terror were general, and while recommending their souls to God’s mercy, everybody thought only how they might save their lives.’

Adventure, adversity, self-reliance, invention: a whole family shipwrecked and cast up on an island — wasn’t it a lot like living as we did, out there in the depths of the countryside? Shadows from the oil lamps enormous on the walls. And always, always, there she was, a book or a pencil or a page or a learning by heart:

‘Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/ To cease upon the midnight with no pain’.

She did not die at midnight and as far as I know there was not a great deal of pain, although there was a lot of mental anguish. What causes people to die is perhaps not the important part, it is the manner of their dying that remains with you. At least, it did for me, when my mother died not long after my thirteenth birthday.

I had for some time seen her as an obstacle, and her removal was in some ways a relief. My marks at school, which had been unnaturally depressed for some time, suddenly shot up. I was released, from what was hard to say, although I now see it was the vice of emotional terror — loss, or at least its foreshadowing. My imaginative capacity was similarly kick-started. A whole world opened. I knew I could write.

One of the things my mother had approved of (she did not generally approve of me wholeheartedly, I was too big, too clumsy, too sullen, too obdurate) was my dedication to writing, the fact that I would choose voluntarily to seek solitude and write poems, the fact that at school my ‘compositions’ always got top marks. I felt and still remember vividly her crushing disappointment when she sent two of her own stories off to a magazine and received nothing but a standard rejection slip. How she lost the verve and was cast into a deep depression from which, perhaps, she never emerged again.

I learned early that writing is inextricably bound up with who and what you are in this world. That it is, in some ways, akin to life versus death.

I knew from the age of eight or thereabouts that I would be a writer. That was when my mother had her cancer diagnosis. The two things are not coincidental. I determined on a writing life –– as I knew from my own experience and from my mother’s that writing was the closest you could come to being yourself.

After she died I put it on hold, as I did most things, except perhaps an excess capacity for emotional extremes in human relationships. Deep down in my mind was, however, the wellspring of words and feelings and people and places and loss and desire that kept fomenting.

I started writing in earnest in my twenties. My mother appeared first in poems, tangentially or directly. She came to me in dreams or sometimes in nightmares. She hovered at my elbow as I formed the words, in pencil at that stage on a ruled page, rather resembling a school exercise book. She cajoled. She exhorted. But most of all she demanded expression through me, on my page, perhaps to make up for the fact that her own pages never saw daylight, her own words never attracted a readership.

When I turned to prose, she came into her own. In short stories at first, she would jog and jolt me. She adopted diverse personae to enter the stage of my imaginings. A mother, whose daughter accompanies her to the local doctor’s surgery. The mother is taken away and the girl is left to fend for herself in a world of alienation and potential danger. Then in a novel, where the male protagonist’s mother is called Zeena (a direct inversion of my mother’s name, Inez). Zeena is a creative force, febrile, flawed, valiant, who undergoes electric shock treatment in its early and brutal form, just as my mother did. The multi-threaded tale reveals that Zeena is the offspring of Virginia Woolf and Friedrich Nietzsche’s son, Stephan. As a matter of fact, neither Nietzsche nor Woolf are recorded as having any issue.

I am grateful to my mother, her shade, her ghost, her indestructible memory, for rewriting history via my hand, and allocating to herself a place on the side lines, at least, of literary greatness.

In my novella Breathing on the Moon, the mother-daughter relationship between Annie Hamilton and her mother Esmé is based on fact but diverges vastly. Esmé’s mental instability permeates Annie’s growing-up years. No Virginia Woolf this time — the literary link is Henry Miller, who in combination with a handsome and charismatic lodger called Michael, sows the seeds of emotional mayhem and ultimate destruction. Esmé kills herself and Annie must find a way to begin to grow up into viable womanhood. My mother did not kill herself but attempted to do so, albeit half-heartedly. My imaginative capability has, I suppose, never ceased in the quest to resurrect her. I have a fragment of a poem she wrote, shortly before her death from a brain tumour.

‘Oh dancing sunbeam in the sky/ Could I but change my fettered spirit/ for thy freedom, e’re I die.’

It is not a particularly successful piece of versification, but it is hers, indissolubly. I hope she will forgive me if I’ve messed up her line breaks. And I hope she may gain some rest from having a readership at last.

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