Although poor John Keats and his letters to Fanny Brawne got set aside, his replacement, a fictional correspondence between two friends that lasts more than forty years, has proven to be a much better fit for my reading mood of late. As a matter of fact I liked Letters from Constance so much I've been adding more of Mary Hocking's books to my reading pile. If it's a little voyeuristic to read published diaries, letters might almost be more so. There is something very intimate about a private conversation between two people even if the conversation happens to take place long distance and on paper. As much as I love the immediacy of email, there is something special about getting a letter in the mail, knowing that it began its journey in a different place and in different hands and then traveled so far from mailbox to mailbox.
Epistolary novels are quite interesting and can be an unusual, maybe even slightly artificial way to tell a story. Hocking pulls it off remarkably well, however. I had expected to fly through the book, which begins in the late 1930s and follows the lives of Constance and Sheila, two young women who enjoy a lifelong friendship, no matter the distance, situations or directions each life takes. The two, however, are true letter writers and their correspondence is filled not just with frivolities--the minutiae of their daily lives, but also with their hopes and dreams, pains and tragedies that fill everyone's lives. Faced with so much thoughtfulness it's not surprising that the letters had to be read with care and attention. Meaning the reader must slow down and take it all in. And with such a long friendship, covering so many years, it's not just a glimpse into the intimate worlds of these two women but a broader look, too, at how the world at large changed and affected the women themselves.
"Sheila was one of those highly intelligent people who are unable to come to terms with the telephone--a disability which I sometimes think altered our lives. Whenever one phoned her it was sure to be the wrong moment. At best, she was stilted, at worst, abrupt and uncommunicative. She was, however, adept at letters of apology, explaining that she had been in the garden, the bath, hair-washing, plucking a chicken, sickening for 'flu... So, in place of the trivialities people so often exchange over the telephone, we wrote letters."
Sheila's life is viewed entirely through Constance's eyes. The letters in this book are only those written by Constance, so it's perhaps a slightly skewed view, but Sheila's presence is nonetheless always felt. Constance's letters tell the story of her life but they are also a reaction to Sheila's life as well. A poet who enjoys a certain fame, Sheila asks Constance to destroy her letters when the time comes, but she's unable to do so. She's on occasion referred to as "the absent one", but aside from their youth and a few times as adults where they live close enough to visit in person, it's the times when the two are separated that the reader is privy to.
Constance and Sheila meet as girls in a summer camp and realize they live only a few streets away from each other. Their lives, of course, will follow very different trajectories. It's Sheila who is seen as the intellectual and gifted one. She goes off to university while Constance dives straight into war work joining the WRNS. Though both marry, Constance's life is one of oppressive domesticity. Sheila marries a musician and becomes a poet, whereas Constance marries an Irishman (to the consternation of her family who decide not to attend the Catholic wedding in order to avoid having to explain the situation to their friends) and finds herself faced with a large (not exactly according to plan) family.
"I am become to dull, Sheila. I have no conversation, no interests, not much in the way of thought at all really. Now, I can barely perform the functions of housewife and mother. I go to bed drained and wake exhausted. Even my kitchen has turned against me, each implement has become a dead weight."
"I don't remember what I did at Christmas. The house was full of people. I suppose I fed them."
Constance sees Sheila's life as one of opportunities and creative outlets, but in the end it all comes at a price. At times Constance looks at what Sheila has with envy, but on reflection her own life is filled with as much happiness with her husband and children as anyone can hope to have.
"I can see, looking back, that for years I have been presenting you with my view of your life. It seemed to me that you were uniquely fortunate in having such a close, all-embracing relationship. You're right. As the walls went up around you, I stood by and applauded. I did indeed find cause for congratulation in the disorderly house, the wild garden, the empty hearth and the untimely meals."
This is a beautifully written story of two women's lives. It's as much about the struggle to find happiness and meaning in life as it is about a deep and enduring friendship fraught with difficulties but ultimately one filled with love and caring. I have Melwyk to thank for picking this book up. I will definitely be reading more by Mary Hocking (whose books are sadly out of print it seems). Next up I am reading Just a Very Pretty Girl from the Country: Letters from Gertrude Stein's Paris by Sylvia Salinger, which is a book of actual letters written just before WWI. I have a small (and growing) stack of other books of letters (fiction and not) that I am looking forward to reading over the course of the year.