Tuesday, 29 December 2015

To Our Mothers

In years to come, I will look back on 2015 as the year I lost my mother.  It is an experience most of us eventually share, an unwanted bonus of advancing age.  Yet we never quite know what to expect until it happens to us.

Theresa Sassoon died in 1947, aged 93, having lived through two world wars.  By the time of her death, she had lost one son, seen another become a literary figure of international importance, and her eldest son, Michael, was settled with a wife and children close to where she lived.  Her son Siegfried wrote that he could not face attending her funeral: "I just resolved not to indulge in feelings".  Although he was by now a father, his marriage to Hester Gatty was effectively over, but the dutiful Hester would have attended the funeral (despite past friction with her mother-in-law) had Siegfried not instructed her to stay away.

Georgiana Theresa Thornycroft was born in 1853, a member of a notably artistic family, and Siegfried's own drawings show that he had inherited a modicum of talent.  Theresa's mother and father were both sculptors, her father Thomas being best known for his statue of "Boadicea and her Daughters", which can still be seen on London's embankment, beside Westminster Bridge. Theresa's brother, Hamo Thornycroft, would become at least as well-known as his father, producing such notable works as the statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester city centre and that of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament.  Hamo had in fact obtained a commission from the wealthy Jewish Sassoon family early in his career, when he was chosen to sculpt Rachel, the older sister of Alfred - the young man who would become Theresa's husband.

Theresa was perhaps doomed by her gender not to equal her male relatives in renown, despite early success as a painter.  Had she not met and married Alfred Sassoon, eight years her junior, and had this not sparked a family split that resulted in Alfred being cut off financially from his rich relatives, her career might have been very different.  As it was, she gave birth to three sons within the space of four years.  Even with servants to deal with the humdrum domestic duties, the boys' upbringing made demands on her time.
Siegfried Sassoon’s feelings towards his mother seem to have been rather ambivalent.  He bitterly regretted the loss of his father, who left the family when Siegfried and his brothers were all under ten years old, and died when Siegfried was nine.  Effectively left without a male role model, he often turned for comfort not to his mother (who could hardly have been expected to preserve a “normal” family life while bringing up three boys without a husband) but to family friends and sometimes servants, such as Tom Richardson the groom, immortalised in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man as “Dixon”.  Anyone who has read the passage where young Siegfried returns to the house in embarrassment, after his horse runs away, will have observed the annoyance with which he receives the clucking concerns of the maids about his welfare.  Only Dixon – by his very silence - recognises the importance of allowing the child to retain his dignity.

Incidents like these convey the apparent loneliness of Sassoon’s early life as well as explaining his attitude towards his mother.  Siegfried expresses no anger over Theresa's part in his parents’ marriage break-up - she was clearly the wronged party, if there was one - yet it does sometimes appear that he resents her in some small measure and partly blames her for his father’s desertion and death, and thus for his own loneliness.  This is reflected, perhaps subconsciously, in the way he turns her into a spinster aunt in MFHM. The loss of her youngest son, Hamo, at Gallipoli, caused her to flirt with spiritualism, resulting in the incident that Robert Graves recorded for posterity in Goodbye to All That.  Despite his own sorrow at Hamo's death, Siegfried found her conduct an embarrassment. 

Nevertheless, their relationship was a close one.  There were certainly moments of conflict over the years.  Theresa was conservative and did not like it when her son took a job with the Daily Herald; she liked it even less when he considered standing as a Labour MP. Although she initially took to Siegfried's lover Stephen Tennant, she came to disapprove of the relationship, just as she had disapproved of his first lover, Gabriel Atkin.  By the 1920s, she and Siegfried had become somewhat estranged; he had begun to feel that they belonged to different worlds.  

In 1928 Sassoon produced "To My Mother", a poem dedicated to Theresa and published in a limited edition, illustrated by Stephen Tennant.  In this he recognised the "selfless duty" with which she had brought him up and cared for him even in adulthood.  Perhaps it was the re-living of childhood for his fictionalised memoir published in the same year, that had caused him to appreciate her efforts more fully.  In conversation, Siegfried affectionately called her "Ash"; the origin of the nickname would appear to be a supposed resemblance to a cleaning lady called Mrs Ash, once employed by the family. 

Some of her letters to Siegfried are held by Cambridge University Library and images can be seen on-line: https://specialcollections.blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=5533 

After Theresa's death, her son was once more able to recognise her best qualities, commenting that "Somehow she seems nearer to me than before she died."  This strikes a chord with me in my present situation and others have made similar observations.  When someone close to us becomes ill and too old to enjoy life, their death can come as a relief and perhaps even free us from feelings of obligation, guilt and shame that may have been troubling us for years.  We gradually learn to remember them as they really were, and to view their imperfections, such as they were, in realistic proportion. 

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