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.