Letters from Constance by Mary Hocking

vintage writing

I initially got this out of the library for Virago Reading Week. Like the greedy girl I am, I thought I would manage three books in a week – I was wrong! More like one and a bit. So this is a very late contribution but I hope still an interesting one nonetheless. I found this book through reading about the Good Daughters trilogy over on Verity’s blog, and then reading this wonderful quote from Welcome Strangers, a volume in the aforementioned Good Daughters trilogy, over at Flowers and Stripes. Mary Hocking’s writing struck me as being incredibly beautiful, and with every finger crossed I wandered into the Mid Manhattan Library to see if they just so happened to have anything by her on the shelf. They did! Letters from Constance was sitting there, in a terribly old Virago hardback that probably hasn’t been taken out since the 90’s, as it still has a cardpocket in it, and there are no stamps on the card whatsoever! Poor Letters from Constance. I bet she felt so happy when I took her off the shelf at last! I read the back, felt intrigued, and decided to take a chance. Off I trotted home, and nearly two weeks later I finally got around to reading it. It was quite something. Such a rich and moving and true book. I highly recommend you giving Mary Hocking a try.

As the title says, the book is written in the form of letters, spanning from 1939 to 1986,  from Constance to her best friend Sheila. The girls meet at school, and though their lives go off in different directions and they never find themselves living near each other, they maintain a close bond and write to each other, on and off, in between visits and phone calls. Despite being a one way conversation, as Sheila’s letters are not printed, we get a vivid image of Sheila from Constance’s replies, and of Constance herself, whose intelligent, witty, warm, and wonderfully human voice rings out magnificently from the pages. As schoolgirls, it was always Sheila, the clever, brilliant one, who was praised and promised a bright future. Constance, whose brains are not thought much of, is not considered bright enough to go to university, and after a brief stint in an office job she hates, she joins the WRNS, while Sheila goes to the star studded lights, in Constance’s eyes, of Cambridge.

Constance is posted to Devon, then Ireland. She has a wonderful time, and discovers herself in a new way, separated from her overbearingly miserable mother, who never recovered from her early widowhood. She falls in love with a gregarious Irishman, Fergus, while Sheila’s vibrancy and intelligence lead her to Miles, a tortured, brilliant musician. Both girls marry these men in their mid twenties, and settle down into domestic life. While Constance and Fergus struggle for money and live in a dingy flat in London with their baby, Miles and Sheila live in a spacious house filled with music and poetry and artistry with their two children. As Constance produces more children, she becomes more and more suffocated by the demands of domestic life, and envies Sheila her creative, light filled household and seemingly close, devoted family, who play music together and adore each other’s company. Eventually Constance and Fergus move to a house in Suffolk, on the Downs, and will have seven children in all; Miles and Sheila stay in Richmond with their two children, and Constance continues to envy Sheila her stimulating existence. However, tragedy strikes, and Constance grows to realise that the Sheila she had created in her mind was nothing like the real Sheila at all. Both of them will suffer tremendously, and live lives far from their childhood dreams, and all the pain and joy and trivialities of life are laid bare on the pages as Constance and Sheila pour out the secrets of their hearts to one another until they are sadly parted by one of their early deaths.

Constance’s letters are remarkable in that they reveal the oppressiveness of family life. She worries constantly about Fergus and their relationship; worries that she has not made him happy, and that his life with her and their seven children has fallen short of his ambitions. Their closeness seems to fade as they grow older, and life becomes more complicated. Constance struggles to understand her children, to divide herself amongst them, and recognise the individual needs of each one as they grow, so differently from one another. She fears she has not achieved anything for herself; constantly longs for an outlet and an escape. At the same time, the small domestic life she leads is largely happy, and filled with the trivial yet pleasant joys of everyday life; family Christmases, spring flowers in the garden, holidays, dinners with friends. The sense that life is a rushing river, flowing away without her really realising, is all over this book; Constance repeatedly refers to a holiday she and Sheila promised each other they would take before they had children, and somehow, life got in the way, and they never ended up taking it.

There are sadnesses, and regrets; tragedies, and terrible losses; but there is also love, and joy, and faith, and the tremendous bond of friendship and support that lasts throughout these women’s entire lives together. What resonates strongest from these letters is the depth of love Constance has for everyone in her life, and how absorbed she is in making sure everyone she loves is happy. Though she frequently dismisses herself as boring and dull, Constance is anything but; she is a throbbing pulse of life, an intelligent, passionate, beautiful woman, whose thoughts and musings and concerns are so powerful to read. Her words show how life is made up of so many small and insignificant things, that somehow come to mean everything, in the end. It moved me immensely, and its candid honesty in exploring every facet of a woman’s life was so refreshing. I also loved how it showed the importance of female friendship; Constance and Sheila’s relationship was, in many ways, the most supremely important relationship in each of their lives, and that powerful bond between women friends who can truly bear their souls to one another is so wonderfully portrayed.

I would love to read more of Mary Hocking’s work. She seems to have written quite a few books, but they’re all unfortunately out of print. However, they’re not expensive, so do try and get hold of a copy of this if you can. I’m going to try and get the Good Daughters trilogy yet; I have a feeling I’ll be in for a treat.

42 comments

  1. This sounds absolutely fantastic. I picked up Good Daughters during Virago Reading Week but wasn’t particularly moved by it; I liked the writing style but was frustrated by the lack of plot development or tension in the first fifty or seventy pages. I hope you have more success with it! This, on the other hand, sounds much more to my liking. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it as unfortunately my library doesn’t have a copy that I can rescue from exile on the shelves as you did!

    1. Hi Claire! Maybe it was a bit slow moving because it’s a trilogy? First books in trilogies always take a while to get going in my experience. Thank you – I am looking forward to giving it a go!

      I think you’d enjoy this, and the epistolary style makes it a really different read. I hope you find a copy!

  2. Female friendships can mean so much, that communication and sharing, especially when other aspects of life are difficult, this sounds like a lovely book. (I have an aunt Sheila I used to write letters to when I was younger, she really helped me.) Although now we email instead of sending letters, I often wish I still wrote to people on paper more often! (Maybe I will send you a Florida postcard!)

    Also, here’s a post about someone who went to the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum, which you might enjoy.

    1. Yes, they really can. I am so lucky to have several dear friends who I can tell everything to, and I treasure those friendships so much. They provide a source of comfort and joy that family relationships sometimes can’t.

      That’s great about your Aunt! And yes, I completely agree – sending letters is so important, and I try and send letters frequently to friends at home while I am here. Oooh I would love a postcard from Florida!!

      Thanks for that! I loved that post!

  3. How lovely to read your review. I was at home at the weekend and searched for my Mary Hocking to bring back up to London and re read. Alas it wasn’t on my bookshelves. What ave I done with it? Your post makes me wish to find it even more.

  4. My Letters from Constance is on the shelf and I may now bring it down again and have a re-read, more than 20 years since it was published. What a great review. I thought the book was wonderful when I read it all those years ago, so I’m delighted that someone else now agrees with me!

  5. How lovely to have a library that keeps hold of its old books. My library would have binned that years ago to make way for computers/DVDs/coffee shop. (The coffee shop that nobody ever uses because the library is surrounded by dozens of livelier coffee shops that do far better coffee.)

    1. I know – it’s quite fun to see what they have on the shelves. My old library in the London was the same – only brand new paperbacks and DVDs and the only old books they had were Penguin Classics. Such a shame!

  6. Re m’s response, here in our town, and against the current grain, we have a brand new library and I have to say its coffee shop – whilst the tables are so small you couldn’t possibly read a book whilst sipping your coffee – is rather attractive. Furthermore, the coffee is the best in town if a little expensive (but then, good coffee was always thus!) As for the books – as the library is so new it has fewer books, or so it appears, than the former library, and the selection isn’t (generally speaking) to my personal taste, but I’m sure the majority of those using it will find it adequate or even more than adequate and it’s a bright, fresh and welcoming place.

    1. I think it’s good to make the library a social space, especially in small communities where other options for meeting people are limited. I think most people’s tastes are met by their local library; those of us with more discerning tastes are obviously in the minority, judging from the bestseller’s lists!

  7. I love the sound of this and will have to order it when our library reopens (SHUT FOR THREE WEEKS – ARGGGHH!); I was disappointed by another non VMC, but still Virago, Hocking that I read post VRW, The very dead of winter, but this sounds much more my style.

    1. I’m sure you’ll really enjoy it. It’s a shame you didn’t like the other Hocking you found, but hopefully this will be more up your street! No library for three weeks!! That’s torture for you!!😉

  8. Thank goodness the library is holding on to that gem! Our library discards books depending on lending frequency and I have been known to sign out Pym’s books, among others, just to keep the circulating numbers fresh.

    Thanks for highlighting a new author, Rachel! R and I are planning a trip to Toronto this Saturday for a book scrounge so I will be on the lookout!

    1. I know! I feel like I have done my bit by getting it back in circulation! Good for you, Darlene – keeping those treasures alive!

      You are welcome Darlene – I know this would be right up your street so fingers crossed for some book serendipity for you this weekend!

  9. This sounds wonderful, and like motheretc, I am a sucker for epistolary novels. I’ve never heard of author or title, so thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    1. It really is a brilliant book- I’m surprised it’s been so little read. I don’t often read epistolary novels but this reminded me just how good they can be, and how emotionally immediate. I hope you manage to read some Mary Hocking soon!

  10. Yay for epistolary novels! But I have to say, I am amazed that the library hasn’t already purged this novel. I know that Constance was doing teeny little high fives with her neighbors on her shelf as you pulled her off to checkout!

    1. I know, me too- Manhattan library seems to hang onto books a lot longer than others, and whatever gets bumped from the shelves seems to go into storage or to the reference library so it’s still technically accessible, which is great! Hehehe I like that image! I can imagine them all cheering for Constance, her first time out on a date in 10 years!

  11. Isn’t it exciting to find just the book you are looking for hiding on a library shelf, as if it were waiting for you for decades to come and discover? I get all silly when I discover a book, long languishing right there, in public, with the old pocket and card still in it.

    I enjoy a book written in letters – and, I enjoy a library with coffee. When the new library opened in Elmhurst, they included one. It was a wonderful day when residents, young and old, formed a long line from the old library to the new to pass the very last book on the shelf from one to the other. Speeches and such then we all went in for a look, and to check out books, and there was the coffee shop, filled with pastries baked early that morning by the little French nuns who ran it. Alas, the nuns eventually had another calling, but, the coffee stop still is there and it is a wonderful addition to the library. Oh dear, now I’ve gone on and on again.

    As always, Rachel, a beautiful review inviting your readers to take a turn. Your portrayal of Constance especially has me eager to one day read this book.

    1. I know, it’s wonderful! I was really quite surprised to see how it had never been taken out, and yet was still kept on the shelf. Hopefully the fact that I took it out will keep it in circulation a little longer!

      A cafe staffed by pastry baking nuns?! That sounds incredible! What a service! I’d love to have a library like that.

      Thank you, Penny – I am certain you would enjoy this immensely. I hope you manage to get around to it one of these days.

  12. I absoloutely have to get this book. I adore books written in letter format. I live in Ireland and have a pen friend in Cincinnati . We write very very regularly and have done so since we were fourteen years old.We are now in our fifties. I will be on the search for this book. Its great to read the review. I will pass it on to my penfriend so she can read it too.
    Thanks
    Nora

    1. Hi Nora! What an incredible story! I hope you’ve kept your letters – perhaps a book could be made out of them one day! How wonderful that you are still in touch after all these years – that really is such a special thing.

      I hope you find the book and that you and your penfriend can enjoy it together!

  13. Rachel, this book sounds like a wonderful collection of letters. Friendship whether we are single or married seems to be a necessary part of life; having someone with whom we can confide all our joys and troubles is definitely to be appreciated.

    Thank you so much for putting a link up to my blog! I really appreciate it.

    1. It really is, Virginia. It’s so wonderful to read a book that celebrates the power of female friendship.

      You are so welcome! I want everyone to read it, it’s marvellous!

  14. Oooooo. Yay to this. I will read any epistolary novel, basically any epistolary novel in all the land. It’s been a while since my last one. I love the theme of creating a version of someone in your head — it’s so true how that happens! (And so nice when you see someone after a long absence and find they are just the same as you remember them.)

    1. Well I will be returning it to the library tomorrow, so you should sweep right in behind me and pick it up so that we keep it in circulation! Yes, it is very interesting. And made me think about sometimes I idealise people and they turn out to be very ordinary and facing just as many struggles as me!

  15. I have GOT to read this.
    I just received a long e-mail from my glamourous globe-trotting oldest friend (we met at 15). I can’t claim to be a Constance but I do compare my life (without regret) with hers and wonder how mine might have worked out.
    It seems as though the nub of Mary Hocking’s story is the need to truly see ourselves and each other, how honesty can lead to contentment with one’s lot.
    This may sound unfashionable but here’s to the homemakers! (For they shall keep themselves going with wonderful books. And blog friends).

    1. How wonderful that you still stay in touch with your friend! My oldest friend has been in my life since I was 6, and we were sadly parted at 23, when she went off to South Africa (and is shortly about to be married to a South African) and I stayed behind in London, and now I am in America and she is in South Africa and it will shortly be a year since I last saw her in the flesh. It’s hard! But we are both having a wonderful time and it’s thrilling to read of our different adventures and think back to when we met all those years ago in a little Victorian classroom in a primary school in South East London – little did we know where our lives would lead us!
      Yes – I think you are exactly right. Each of us has our own beauty in our lives and constantly comparing to others and making their lives into ideals that they are probably not leads to nothing but dissatisfaction and unrealistic dreams.
      Indeed!! I hope you manage to find this book Chrissy – it is cheap on amazon.

  16. Try Islington Libraries (Finsbury) if you live in London: they have a large number of her titles in their Joint Fiction Reserve (at least they are listed in their catalogue).

  17. Hi Rachel – not sure if you are aware – but I am a huge Mary Hocking fan – and I am again hosting a Mary Hocking reading week. I am in the process of preparing a blog post about it – and came across your old blog post about this lovely book. I notice you use a photo of the author that I have never seen before. Would it be ok if I use it on a Mary Hocking readers facebook page please? and possibly in future blog posts/reviews on my own blog.

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