Tag Archives: mothers and sons

The Belting Inheritance: Julian Symons (1964)

In The Belting Inheritance from Julian Symons, a long-lost son, thought killed in WWII returns years later to the family mansion to claim his estate. But is he an imposter?

The book’s plot is not original, but it’s the way this story is told which makes The Belting Inheritance so entertaining. The narrator is Christopher, who is orphaned at age twelve and subsequently taken in by his mother’s aunt, the autocratic Lady Wainwright. Lady Wainwright had four sons: Hugh, David, Stephen and Miles. The two eldest boys, Hugh and David were killed in the war, but the younger two–although well into middle-age, still live with their mother. The house is vast, gloomy, and it’s ruled completely by Lady Wainwright. She dominates her sons and brooks no one else’s opinions on any matters.

The story, which is told in retrospect, has a Victorian feel to it, and this is partially due to the Victorian matriarch who supports unemployed sons (of nobility) who can lounge and enjoy lives of leisure. The plot itself, a lost heir who arrives to claim his fortune seems Victorian. Author Julian Symons wisely notes this fact several times in the novel, and even makes a comment about “what Wilkie Collins calls detective fever.” The massive house, Belting, which is marvelously described, seems an edifice from a long-past era, but then Lady Wainwright runs her establishment with old fashioned rules:

But the thing I hated the most was the prevailing gloom. The house was dark, Lady W was mean in small matters, and at the same time in the past she had been told that daytime lamps were better for the eyes than ordinary yellow electric light. The hall and all the corridors, both upstairs and down, were bathed in a funerael blue glow. 

Uncle Stephen, a rather petty-minded nasty character lives at Belting with his tweed-sporting, dog-breeder wife Clarissa who bemoans “the impossibility of getting a decent kennel maid.” Since Lady Wainwright’s sons only escaped her in death, Uncle Miles also lives at the house. Lady Wainwright becomes terminally ill and lo and behold a man shows up claiming to be the long-lost David. He has a plausible sounding story and knows facts about Belting and its inhabitants that only a family intimate could possibly know. Stephen and Miles are hostile to David’s claim as they stand to lose a great deal of money, and Clarissa goes as far as to threaten to set her dogs on the man who claims to be David. But Christopher, at first, believes that David is not an imposter.

Family politics are often messy and the plot makes good use of the idea that Christopher may be a Wainwright but he’s still an outsider. When a murder occurs, Christopher becomes more curious about the man who claims to be David, so he begins an investigation of his own which alters his rather protected, privileged world: he discovers that the Wainwrights are not universally liked.

While the story gets to the root of the claimant’s authenticity it’s also a story of a controlling mother who hobbles and isolates her sons by encouraging their artistic pretensions which are supported by remaining at Belting. As the plot develops, Christopher becomes his own person, gains objectivity about his family, and has a romantic adventure. The Belting Inheritance is very entertaining and for crime fans, it’s well-worth reading. It’s marvelous in its characterizations of a fading, privileged family who cling to tradition, brook no criticism, are close knit, but loathe each other:

There was something about the passion with which Stephen tore a bread roll into pieces, the savage loving care with which he dissected a piece of fish, that remains with me still.

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Burning Secret: Stefan Zweig

Pushkin Press just released the Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig which includes the following titles:

Burning Secret

A Chess Story

Fear

Confusion

Journey into the Dark

collected novellas

Burning Secret is the story of a young boy who’s staying with his beautiful mother in an Austrian hotel in Semmering when their quiet, idyllic, and at times boring stay (f0r the boy at least) is interrupted by a young man, “a baron from a not particularly illustrious noble family in the Austrian civil service.” With the Baron’s “inability to tolerate solitude,” the first thing he does is to check the hotel register. He’s looking for a “little light-hearted flirtation,” to ease the boredom. In the dining-room, he sweeps a gaze over the guests and a first glance leads him to think there’s “no chance of even a fleeting adventure.” We don’t exactly get a good impression of this baron. He’s:

a man who will never overlook any erotic opportunity, whose first glance probes every woman’s sensuality and explores it, without discriminating between his friend’s wife and the parlour-maid who opens the door to him. Such men are described with a certain facile contempt as lady-killers, but the term has a nugget of truthful observation in it, for in fact all the passionate instincts of the chase are present in their ceaseless vigilance: the stalking of the prey, the excitement and the mental cruelty of the kill. They are constantly on the alert, always ready and willing to follow the trail of an adventure to the very edge of the abyss. They are full of passion all the time, but it is the passion of a gambler rather than a lover, cold, calculating and dangerous.

This isn’t the entire quote, but it’s clear that Zweig made a study of this type of man. The Baron is a Ludic lover, and woe to the woman who takes him seriously.

Just as the Baron has accepted that a boring stay at the hotel awaits, another guest appears in the dining room: “a type he liked very much, one of those rather voluptuous Jewish women just before the age of over-maturity, and obviously passionate, but with enough experience to conceal her temperament behind a façade of elegant melancholy.” But she’s accompanied by a small pale boy named Edgar. The boy could be an impediment to seduction or a way into her company. …

There’s a wonderful scene in the dining room with Edgar’s mother very well aware of the Baron’s presence. She pretends to be unaware of his existence, but everything she does at the table becomes a performance for him. The Baron and ‘Mama’ are two erotically charged magnets. The Baron knows that “only sensuous attraction could stimulate his energy to its full force,” and that signals “the game could begin.” As for Edgar’s mother, “she was at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice.”

The Baron makes a point of befriending the boy and promises him a puppy…

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to reveal. While the Baron and Edgar’s mother are central to this story, Burning Secret is really a coming-of-age story, and as such, in some ways the novella reminded me of Agostino. In Alberto Morovia’s novel, a boy is left to his own devices for the summer while his mother spends time with a lover. Agostino is extra baggage, and so is Edgar. The difference between the two boys is that Edgar is drawn into the affair and is more than a spectator; he’s a participant, and this episode in his life becomes a major factor in his relationship with his mother.

While I am not overly fond of stories told from the view of a child, Burning Secret (and this was made into a film BTW) shows the confusion experienced by Edgar as he’s courted by the Baron and then dumped. Edgar is too young to understand what is going on, but he senses that the Baron is a threat. Zweig captures the child’s mind with Edgar’s observations–observations that the child cannot fully understand–why, for example, are his mother’s lips redder than usual, and what is the connection between being sent out of the room and what happened between his father and the French governess? The meaning of these events seem secret to Edgar and he longs, in his loneliness, to understand the adult world that whirls so mysteriously around him.

Zweig creates a story, a child, and a chain of events that we can identify with. He’s a lonely child, confused and possessive, a protective son, and at times an annoying boy who is used as a pawn in a love affair. With a brilliant ending, Zweig winds up the story, creating a segue from the child to the man.

The other novellas will be covered in additional posts with the exception of Confusion which is here.

Translated by Anthea Bell

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