Friday 24 November 2017

Sorrow of lovers separated by war

Memoir: Letters From the Suitcase, Edited by ­Rosheen and Cal Finnigan, Tinder Press, hdbk, 480 pages, €22.98

Rosheen Finnigan with husband Cal, who together compiled and edited the correspondence between Rosheen's mother, Mary, and father, David, which feature in Letters from the Suitcase
Rosheen Finnigan with husband Cal, who together compiled and edited the correspondence between Rosheen's mother, Mary, and father, David, which feature in Letters from the Suitcase
Letters from the Suitcase: A Wartime Love Story
David, who died of smallpox while on military duty in India
Mary's passport photos

A collection of 300 letters between a young Irish woman and her soldier husband while he's on World War II duty are full of fun and tenderness, writes Eilis O'Hanlon, yet tempered by the tragedy of war Rosheen Finnigan never knew her father. He died during World War II. All she knew is that there was a suitcase in the attic at home containing all the letters her mother and first husband exchanged during their brief time together.

On her deathbed, Rosheen's mother gave them to her daughter, and "in doing so she gave me my father."

Letters from the Suitcase: A Wartime Love Story is the result - a collection of some 300 letters sent between Mary Moss and David Francis from the moment they met in May 1938 until his death in India in May 1943.

She was an immigrant, born in Dublin to an Irish mother and an English soldier father. He was the privately educated son of a company director who at 19 was secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party.

David, who died of smallpox while on military duty in India
David, who died of smallpox while on military duty in India

They met when she was sent upstairs in the shabby block of flats in London where she was staying to borrow glasses for a party, and he said she could have them as long as he was allowed to come, too. They found they had much in common, sharing a love of the same books, films and music, as well as the typical left-wing views of the time formed under the looming shadow of fascism.

"Let me know the DW (Daily Worker) line on the war every time you write," Mary writes to her new lover, "as I am rather left to the mercy of the capitalist press and my own, not always true, reactions."

As war nears, she's sent to work at the code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park, but it's "so far away from anything I consider important, and so overpopulated with quacking female and pompous male, that I can hardly breathe."

After six months, Mary resigns and returns to London. For a brief time they get to live together as man and wife, having married secretly, but the idyll wasn't to last.

Like many young men of his generation, David may not have cared for the British government, but he didn't hesitate to join the Royal Navy when war broke out. He's immediately sent away for basic training to the newly requisitioned Butlin's Holiday Camp in Skegness on the bleak east coast.

There, one young recruit is so cold that he falls asleep next to the brazier which is left running to stop the pipes freezing, and dies from carbon monoxide poisoning. "Terribly tragic to die from such a trivial cause in such a useless way," David writes to her.

Mary's passport photos
Mary's passport photos

It's touching how much more concerned they are for the other's wants than their own. The world might be at war, but the rent must still be found, and bills paid. By this point, Mary is pregnant with Rosheen, and is soon struggling in and out of air-raid shelters as German bombing intensifies. Both cling to a comforting hope that it will all be over quickly.

Some relief is at hand when David is transferred to Wales for further training as an Intelligence Officer, and the young family moves to a village nearby to enjoy "as near a normal married life as we have achieved to date". It lasts for 11 months, the longest time they would ever spend together. It ends when he's selected to join the top-secret operation to invade Madagascar, and sets to sea in a large convoy headed for Africa. It was the last time Mary would see David.

She returns with her young baby to London, and letters become more ­infrequent. Sometimes they don't ­arrive at all, or in the wrong order. Mary hears on the news that ­Madagascar has been taken with minimal casualties, but it's still weeks before she learns that he is safe and has been mentioned in despatches for bravery.

Still he doesn't come home. He's sent instead to India. Both feel the separation painfully. "I didn't anticipate seeing quite so much of the world as I have done so far, and am about to do," he says. "I don't like it."

Sadly, war takes no account of one young couple's feelings.

David's final letter from India ends poignantly. "However much I crave to be with you again, and to resume the wonderful combination of David and Mary, there is no escape - YET."

By the time the missive arrives in England, David is dead from smallpox. His mother was a Christian Scientist who refused to have him vaccinated as a child. A tragic, useless way to die, as he himself had written in different circumstances a year earlier.

Edited by Rosheen and her husband Cal, the letters in this book are wisely left to stand largely by themselves, with only brief interjections to flesh out the inevitable gaps.

They're marvellous pieces of writing, full of fun and tenderness. They quarrel sometimes, but never for long. They're young and idealistic, convinced that "our love is unique, perfect and everlasting". Reading them does feel rather like eavesdropping on something private.

The letters are also, as Rosheen notes, "strikingly modern", though perhaps what's more striking is our constant surprise that people in the past were just the same as we are now.

The only disappointment is that the book ends just where it gets most interesting. Mary lost her beloved brother Tom and her husband within the space of four months, but, apart from a few tantalising extracts from letters written to her sister-in-law in the immediate aftermath, her reaction to this shock goes unexplored. Her only message to the world is that "life stinks".

She meets another man, and "with his back turned, on a dark night, if I am sufficiently tight, he reminds me of David", and she even starts to work as a documentary film-maker; but everything is "pretty flat and dreary and I feel completely detached from life as it used to be". One wants to know more about this woman, but the book is over.

The young widow went on to marry the Irish nationalist historian Flann Campbell. In later years, they moved to Blackrock in Dublin. An unpublished novel is mentioned. Now that she has been rescued from unjustified obscurity, it feels far too soon to send the remarkable Mary Moss back into anonymity.

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