Monday 19 February 2018

Keep the home fires burning

Non-fiction: Letters From The Suitcase, Edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnegan, Tinder Press, €21.20

Life went on in London during the Blitz, and soldiers wrote love letters from the trenches too
Life went on in London during the Blitz, and soldiers wrote love letters from the trenches too
Letters From The Suitcase

Margaret Madden

Rosheen Francis never got a chance to know her father, David. A naval officer during World War II, he never made it home.

His wife, Mary, eventually remarried and rarely talked about her first love. However, just before her death, she gifted her daughter something extraordinary: a trunk which contained over five years' worth of correspondence between Mary and David. This book reveals the story of a politically aware couple, their determination to marry and their heartbreak at being separated by David's postings abroad.

The letters begin in 1938, when the intensity of their new-found love is apparent and their visits are frequent. Mary finds herself working as a secretary at Bletchley Park, while David begins his naval training.

They agonise over weekend leave and the opportunities to meet up steadily decrease. They have married in secret and dream of beginning their new life together. Their letters are full of hopes, dreams and complete devotion to each other: "Your letter was the most perfect of letters, and will be my most valued possession always, because it is the outward sign of the wonderful, unbelievable knowledge that you love me as much as I love you, completely, with all my mental and physical strength and for ever."

By 1940, David is in a Skegness training camp and his letters are light-hearted accounts of daily life on a naval base. However, the harshness of the camp's conditions are not ignored. He describes wonderful concerts, yet in the same letter he tells of the death of a man from exposure and the ongoing epidemic of bronchitis and pneumonia. All of this before they even leave Britain. The same letter ends with a note of positivity: "It's really miraculous how much one can be in love and it's even more wonderful to think that we found each other so early and so young, so that the rest of our lives will be spent together".

The letters become more intermittent as David heads for Africa, and onto India, while Mary raises baby Rosheen in the rubble that is London. The insights from the trunk-full of correspondence are entrancing and heartbreaking. David's postings abroad result in wonderfully descriptive vignettes, while Mary's independence flourishes under extremely difficult circumstances.

It is hard not to fall under the spell of this intelligent, astute and loving couple. Rosheen is very fortunate to have been given access to her parents' short, yet intense, relationship.

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