Her Letters To Lovecraft: Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft

My first memories are of the summer of 1892—just before my second birthday. We were then vacationing in Dudley, Mass., & I recall the house with its frightful attic water-tank & my rocking-horses at the head of the stairs. I recall also the plank walks laid to facilitate walking in rainy weather—& a wooded ravine, & a boy with a small rifle who let me pull the trigger while my mother held me. At that period my father was alive & in business in Boston, so that our residences were around the Boston suburbs—Dorchester & Auburndale. In the later place we stayed with my mother’s friend, the rather famous poetess Louise Imogen Guiney, pending the construction of a house of our own. That house was never built—for my father was fatally stricken in April 1893, & my mother & I moved back to the old maternal Providence home where I was born.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 4 Feb 1934, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 219 

Sarah Susan Phillips was born 17 October 1857, the second child and second daughter of Whipple Van Buren Phillips and Rhoby Alzada (Place) Phillips. As with her older sister Lillian, Susie was educated at the Wheaton Seminary in Norton, MA. Unlike her older sister, Susie never seems to have been engaged in any kind of employment outside the home. She was likely active in Providence society, like her sister Annie, and aside from Louise Imogen Guiney also claimed some familiarity with Charlotte Perkins Gilman. On 12 June 1889 at 31 years old, Susie married Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a commercial traveller for the Gorham Silver Company of Providence, and left her parents home for Massachusetts. A little over a year later, she returned to the family home in Providence to give birth to her sole child, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, on 20 August 1890.

We know very little about Susie’s early life and marriage. There is no information on how she came to meet her husband, or any details of their courtship. It can be assumed, because of W. S. Lovecraft’s work he must have traveled extensively; and it would not be surprising if she grew homesick, especially when she found herself pregnant. Still, there was no reason to think that the marriage was necessarily unhappy. W. S. Lovecraft had purchased a home lot with the idea of building them a home, they had a son…and the young child was a prodigy, speaking and even reading at a precious age. As for her other interests, Lovecraft would write:

My mother was, in all probability, the only person who thoroughly understood me, with the possible exception of Alfred Galpin. She was a person of unusual charm & force of character, accomplished in literature & the fine arts; a French scholar, musician, & painter in oils. I shall not again be likely to meet with a mind so thoroughly admirable.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 1 Jun 1921, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 364

In 1893, W. S. Lovecraft was placed under the legal guardianship of a lawyer and on 25 April committed to Butler Hospital in Providence; an anecdote recounts that he had an hallucination on a business trip to Chicago, and had to be put under restraint and returned to Providence. His medical records indicate further hallucinations, and the records show that Winfield Scott Lovecraft suffered from “general pareisis”—late-stage syphilis. Additional rumors and anecdotes suggest that this was contracted before or outside the marriage from sexual encounters with other women, perhaps sex workers (see “The Shadow of Syphilis” in Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos).

This brings up a difficult point in any discussion of Susie Lovecraft: we have basically nothing about herself from her own hand. There are several references to his mother in H. P. Lovecraft’s letters, but relatively few of his letters from before her death survive. What we have left are passing references in other memoirs of her son’s friends and acquaintences who met her only briefly, a letter from Susie’s neighbor Clara Hess, and a good bit of speculation and gossip, passed on from second- and third-hand. So when, for example, we read that:

H. P.  used to speak of his mother as a “touch-me-not” and oncebut once onlyhe confessed to me that his mother’s attitude toward him was “devastating.” […] his mother, probably having been sex-starved against her will, lavished both her love and her hate on her only child….
Sonia H. Davis, “Memories of Lovecraft I” (1969): Ave Atque Vale 152-153

It has to be remembered that Sonia never met Susie, that she’s repeating things she claims to have heard from H. P. Lovecraft over thirty years before, and that she was publishing this after twenty years of Lovecraft scholarship and criticism had already made something of an ogre of Susie Lovecraft, blaming her overprotectedness and coddling for some of her son’s traits. So…how much of that is accurate, and how much of that reflects a tradition?

We don’t know for sure.

What we do know is that after her husband’s medical confinement, Susie and her son moved back into the family home in Providence. The lot and the dream of a house of her own was gone, and she presumably focused on raising her young son and caring for her parents. In 1896, Rhoby Phillips would die; in 1898, W. S. Lovecraft would pass away, leaving a small estate to his widow and son. In 1904, Whipple V. Phillips would die, and the state of the family finances made it unfeasible to keep the house. Susie and her son moved into smaller quarters on the same street…and there they stayed, through all the trials and tribulations of H. P. Lovecraft’s schooling and afterwards.

The period of 1904-1914 is one of the most poorly attested in Lovecraft’s life. We know he suffered various illnesses, that he failed to graduate highschool, that he attempted a correspondence course, read voluminously, kept odd hours, etc. How much of this was due to his mother’s permissiveness or particular parenting is unclear. What she occupied herself with is also unclear. One incident that stands out:

My mother was, in the year 1906, thrown to the floor of a car which started prematurely; & sustain’d a nervous shock whose effects never wholly left her. The company made a moderate settlement out of court, after a litigation had been prepar’d against them.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 13 Dec 1928, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 191

This may or may not be the earlier “breakdown” that Lovecraft mentions in another letter (Letters to Rheinhert Kleiner & Others 134). Money issues were no doubt a major issue on Susie’s mind; as a young man Lovecraft seems to have been both rather spendthrift, had failed to obtain an education, and showed no inclination of getting a job. Neither is there any record of Susie Lovecraft obtaining any sort of employment; perhaps a reflection of her clinging to her family’s social status in Providence. So they were living solely off the slowly-diminishing funds at hand, and that included a sharp downturn in 1911 when her brother lost a chunk of the inheritance money, presumably on a failed business venture or bad investment (LMM 295).

It was presumably during this period that Susie might have participated in suffragette meetings:

Our acquaintence with the Lovecraft family stemmed through my husband’s mother’s having once met Sarah Lovecraft at a women’s suffrage meetings, although I never learned whether or not Howard’s mother really believed in equal rights for women. Mrs. Lovecraft had confided in my mother-in-law that her son was a truly gifted writer, and someday she knew he would be famous. She raved about him.
—Muriel E. Eddy, “The Gentleman from Angell Street” (1961)

In 1914, H. P. Lovecraft became involved with amateur journalism, and amateurs began to show up at their rooms, and met Mrs. Lovecraft. Some of these individuals, Susie apparently did not approve of, others she warmed to. We get only bits and pieces, never a complete picture; the majority of visitors were more interested in Howard than they were in Susie.

I was greeted at the door of 598 Angell Street by his mother, who was a woman just a little below medium height, with graying hair, and eyes which seemed to be the chief point of resemblance between herself and her son. She was very cordial and vivacious, and in another moment had ushered me into Lovecraft’s room.
—Rheinhart Kleiner, “A Memoir of Lovecraft” (1949): Ave Atque Vale 99

In 1919, Susie suffered a nervous breakdown of some sort, and went to stay with her sister Lillian. While we do not have any confirmed accounts from this period, her neighbor Clara Hess wrote an account in a letter, later published as “Lovecraft’s Sensitivity,” which has become the source of many rumors and allegations, part of which reads:

Later when she moved into the little downstairs flat in the house on Angell Street around the corner from Butler Avenue I met her often on the Butler Avenue cars, and one day after many urgent invitations I went in to call upon her. She was considered then to be getting rather odd. My call was pleasant enough but he house had a strange and shutup air and the atmosphere seemed weird and Mrs. Lovecraft talked continuously of her unfortunate son who was so hideous that he hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people could gaze at him. […]

I remember that Mrs. Lovecraft spoke to me about weird and fantastic creatures that rushed out from behind buildings and from corners at dark, and that she shivered and looked about apprehensively as she told the story.

The last time I saw Mrs. Lovecraft we were both going ‘down street’ on the Butler Avenue car. She was excited and apparently did not know where she was. She attracted the attention of everyone. I was greatly embarrassed, as I was the object of all her attention….
—Clara Hess, Letter to Winfield Townley Scott (1948) in Ave Atque Vale 165-167

Scott, who later gained access to Susie’s medical records, would write:

A psychiatrist’s record at Butler Hospital expresses this another way: it says she was “a woman of narrow interests who received, with a traumatic psychosis, an awareness of approaching bankruptcy.” She entered the hospital March 13, 1919, and at that time Dr. F. J. Farnell found disorder had been evidenced for fifteen years; that in all, abnormality had existed at least twenty-six years. There is only a mention of her husband’s death in the hospital record of her case, but the reader will note that twenty-six years before was the date of the establishment of a legal guardianship for Winfield Lovecraft, the year Howard (“Have been in execrable health—nervous trouble—since the age of two or three”) was three years old.

She suffered periods of mental and physical exhaustion. She wept frequently under emotional strains. In common  lingo, she was a woman who had gone to pieces.
—Winfield Townley Scott,  “His Own Most Fantastic Creation: Howard Phillips Lovecraft” (1944) in Lovecraft Remembered 15-16

Whether or not Scott’s presentation of Susie is accurate or not, Scott’s appraisal of Susie is almost unrelentingly negative. For a woman who had suffered considerable personal losses, possibly been exposed to sexually transmitted disease and the resulting social stigma, and lived under mounting financial strain, in a social situation which made many solutions possibly untenable—even if she had been willing and able to work (a large if, considering her apparent mental health issues), it is not clear what work would have been available for a widow with no prior experience in the 1910s. Susie appears to have been all-too-keenly aware of financial disaster.

This might have been the first time in Lovecraft’s 28 years when he was not in regular daily contact with his mother, and while they had exchanged notes, birthday cards and the like before this—Lovecraft apparently had a habit of writing her poems for her birthday, some of which survive—this is the true start of their correspondence:

My mother, feeling no better here, has gone on a visit to my elder aunt for purposes of complete rest; leaving my younger aunt as autocrat of this dwelling. My aunt does splendidly—but you above all others can imagine the effect of maternal illness & absence. I cannot eat, not can I stay up long at a time. Pen-writing or typewriting nearly drives me insane. […] I am assured, however, that my mother’s state is not dangerous; that the apparent stomach trouble is neurotic & not organic. She writes optimistic letters each day, & I try to make my replies equally optimistic; though I do not find it possible to “cheer up”, eat, & go out, as she encourages me to do. Such infirmity & absence on her part is so unprecedented, that it cannot but depress me, despite the brightest bulletins of her physician—whom, by the way, she writes that she is now well enough to dismiss.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 18 Jan 1919, LRKO 129

By March, her condition had gotten to the point that Susie was admitted to Butler Hospital, the same mental health facility where her husband had died. Lovecraft probably never visited the hospital building itself—at least there is no record of it—but would visit her on the wooded grounds, and continued to write her letters. Two of his letters to Susie survive from this period, and give an idea of what their correspondence must have been like:

My dearest Mother:

I was greatly pleased to received your letter, and thank you in addition for the small primroses,—which still adorn this apartment—the Weekly Review, the banana, and the most captivating cat picture, which I shall give a permanent place on the wall.

The Amateur Journalists’ Conference of Tuesday, February 22, was a most distinguished success in every way […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Sarah Susan Lovecraft, 24 Feb 1921, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.25

With Susie absent from home, Howard began to make day-trips to Boston to visit with his amateur friends. Much as he would later describe his travels in detail to his aunts, Howard gives a blow-by-blow account of the Boston conference—although he left out meeting Sonia H. Greene.

My dearest Mother:

I was glad to receive your letter of Sunday, and must thank you exceedingly for the Reviews, apples, and beautiful picture of the Taj Mahal, which reminds one of the fabulous Oriental edifices in Lord Dunsany’s tales. Just now I am taking a breathing spell before plunging into a fresh sea of Bush work—he has snet a new rush order which ought to bring in a considerable sum […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Sarah Susan Lovecraft, 17 Mar 1921, LFF 1.30-31

One has to wonder if the reference to Lovecraft’s revision work for David Van Bush were a way he had of trying to alleviate, if only a little, her economic stress. Very unusually, both of these letters are closely typed rather than handwritten; perhaps this made it easier for his mother to read than his handwriting.

While his letters to his mother are bright and chipper, Howard’s references to his mother in letters from 1919-1921 show his genuine concern at her health and prolonged absence from the home. At the hospital, Susie underwent surgery for the removal of her gallbladder. She succumbed to an infection a week later, and died on 24 May 1921. Her son had not visited her during this final illness, but it was not known that it would be fatal until too late.

Despite my mother’s nervous illness & presence at a sanitarium for two years, the fatal malady was entirely different & unconnected—a digestive trouble of sudden appearance which necessitated an operation. No grave result was apprehended till the very day before death, but it then became evident that only a strong constitution could cause survival. Never strong or vigorous, my mother was unable to recover. The result is the cause of wide & profound sorrow, although to my mother it was only a relief from nervous suffering. For two years she had wished for little else—just as I myself wish for oblivion. Like me, she was an agnostic with no belief in immortality, & wished for death all the more because it meant peace & not an eternity of boresome consciousness. For my part, I do not think I shall wait for a natural death; since there is no longer any particular reason why I should exist. During my mother’s lifetime I was aware that voluntary euthanasia on my part owould cause her distress, but it is now possible for me to regulate the term of my existence with the assurance that my end would cause no more than a passing annoyance—of course my aunts are infinitely considerate & solicitous, but the death of a nephew is seldom a momentous event.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 1 Jun 1921, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 364

Susie’s son did not take his own life—and managed to shake himself out of the grief of his bereavement. Howard involved himself deeper into amateur affairs, and in his growing correspondence with Sonia H. Greene. For the rest of his life, H. P. Lovecraft would cherish the memory of his mother, and wrote with all sincerity that:

It takes no effort at all—especially when I am out in certain woods and fields which have not changed a bit since my boyhood—for me to imagine that all the years since 1902 or 1903 are a dream…… that I am still 12 years old, and that when I go home it will be through the quieter, more village-like streets of those days—with horses and wagons, and little varicoloured street cars with open platforms, and with my old home at 454 Angell St. still waiting at the end of the vista—with my mother, grandfather, black cat, and other departed companions alive and unchanged.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 9 Aug 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 73

Lovecraft’s oldest surviving note to his mother—a little poem asking her to let him sleep in instead of dragging him to his aunt’s for Thanksgiving dinner—was published as the first “letter” in the Selected Letters published by Arkham House. This note and two surviving letters from Howard to his mother are published in Letters to Family & Family Friends volume 1; they have also been digitized and can be read online at the Brown University Library website.

For more information on Sarah Susan Phillips and Winfield Scott Lovecraft, see Kenneth W. Faig Jr.’s excellent essay “The Parents of Howard Phillips Lovecraft” in An Epicure in the Terrible.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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