Review: Vivien Horler
Letters from the Suitcase – a wartime love story, ed by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan (Tinder Press)
Rosheen Finnigan never remembered her father. A serving naval officer, he was in the UK when she was born in August 1940, and when he was posted to Swansea a few months later, Rosheen and her mother Mary joined him for just under a year, their only period of normal family life.
Then in March 1942 her father – David Francis – was selected to be part of the planning team for the top-secret Operation Ironclad, the code name for the invasion of Madagascar, and he sailed for Africa and, subsequently, India.
She never saw him again.
For most of her life she knew almost nothing about him. Her mother never spoke of him, partly because the new husband she married in 1947 had “fearsome nightmares” that David would reappear.
But David was dead, felled by smallpox in India in 1943, the result of his Christian Scientist mother refusing to let him be vaccinated.
There were no traces of David in Rosheen’s childhood London home, no pictures, none of the music records he and Mary had loved. But all along there was a trunk up in the attic which contained the letters David and Mary had written to each other over the course of their passionate love, from their meeting in London in mid-1938 until his death five years later.
Shortly before Mary died in Dublin as an old woman, she gave all the letters to Rosheen, “and in so doing she gave me my father”.
Here was a man, charming, engaging, clever, and utterly devoted to his Mary and then to Rosheen. She writes: “Of course I fell in love with the young man who emerged from the letters. How could I not?”
David was 20 when they met, Mary 21. She was at a party in a flat in Islington, and was sent to the nice young man upstairs to borrow some glasses. He agreed to lend them, provided he could come to the party too. It was, Rosheen writes, a coupe de foudre. “In a daze they find themselves wandering in the early hours on Hampstead heath. And the letters begin.”
Mary was from Ireland, David from London. She had a secretarial job, he was working as an articled clerk for a firm of accountants. However, both were ardent supporters of the Communist Party, and both were passionate about films, literature and music.
Despite their different backgrounds, had a lot to say to each other, and when they were apart, they wrote to each other, sometimes just hours after parting. When David goes off on a pre-planned holiday to Normandy, Mary writes: “Seeing you are not available, I have taken Auden to bed with me, TS Eliot is on the floor…”
Their love was almost instantly overwhelming, and shortly after David turned 21, and was legally able to do so, they married. War was just six weeks away. At this stage Mary was working outside London at Bletchley Park, later the top-secret establishment where the Enigma code was broken.
They write to each other all the time, virtually daily – a South African used to our postal service can only marvel at how efficient the British service was at that time. They are articulate, grumpy, cheery, domestic and explicit.
War means separation. David joins the navy and is sent north to a Butlin’s holiday camp in Skegness in Lincolnshire for training. More letters follow.
One of the frustrations of a story based on letters of longing is that the reader looks forward to their meetings almost as much as they do, but there is virtually no record of their happy times together. Then they are separated again, the letters resume, and the longing rebuilds.
Eventually, after the birth of Rosheen and the family’s brief period of settled life in Wales, David is sent to Madagascar, and now there is no chance at all of snatched meetings. They write, they try to keep their own spirits up and each other’s, they love and they long. Mary’s letters, in particular, are full of the minutiae of daily life in wartime England, the blackout, the struggle for interesting food, talk of money, the dreariness of it all. She keeps David abreast of Rosheen’s development, and he, having a much more exciting life in Africa and India, sends both his girls presents. An age-long year goes by with no meeting.
Nearly a lifetime later, Rosheen gets access to the letters. After knowing nothing about her father, she is able to fill in the blanks. “It was wonderful to understand that I was part of this story – their story. It had been David, Mary – and me. We had a life together… Now I know what a sweet loving father he would have been.”
This is a warm, delightful read. One knows from the beginning that it does not have a happy ending, but the lively writing, the hope and the love make it a wonderful book.
- This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday January 14, 2018.