I’ve mentioned on here before that I like to have a diary or collection of letters ‘on the go’ most of the time – and yesterday I finished the current read. It’s Joy Street: A Wartime Romance in Letters by Mirren Barford and John Lewes (ed. Michael T. Wise), and was a gift from my dear friend Phoebe, who always knows what to buy me.
These letters were sent between Mirren Barford, studying at Somerville College in Oxford, and Lieutenant John Lewes, also known as Jock, who was away fighting. They take up less than two years, in 1940 and 1941, but cover a whole spectrum of emotions, thoughts, philosophies, and document the growing relationship between the young letter writers. What starts out fairly cool becomes a romantic exchange – with all the peaks and troughs that might suggest – and eventually more or less an engagement. ‘Joy Street’ became something of a symbol between them – as a destination for their future, united happiness. From the letters we grow to understand so much about Mirren and John – their differences (they almost split over his intense desire to be a soldier, and her hatred of warfare), their connections, their subtle steps towards one another and their backward glances. This between two people who only had the chance to meet ten times – the reader knows from the outset that John did not return from war. The letter Mirren writes to his parents, months after his death, is quite incredibly moving. I have never lost anybody very close to me, but I shall return to this letter when I do.
It’s always a little uncomfortable reading people’s private letters, especially without their permission. Mirren was dead when this correspondence was discovered in the 1990s by her son. Here are three interesting excerpts on this topic:
[Mirren] Once I thought I could write a pretty phrase or two, but your letter with its magnificence has shattered all my illusions and makes me feel really weak. It was a fine letter; one day I hope my great-grandchildren will take the trouble to have them published for many people would read them gladly if they had the chance.
[John] Your reception of my letter is gracious and generous; your praise is very dear to me always and on this occasion it could not have been higher than by saying that many people would read my letters gladly if they had the chance. And yet the publication of our correspondence is unthinkable, for it is so essentially private to us as almost to be written in code undecipherable to others. Readers may detect a felicity of phrase and even at times magnificence, but the significance of Penelope’s design, wherein surely its chiefest value lies, must inevitably escape them unless they are supplied with a key
[John] It is a very great loss to all who read and write letters and journals that considerations of security forbid the detailed description of the lives that are being led in the multiform war. That is a loss to history and scientific record but it is no loss to literature, for writing is only worthy of that name which submits to a discipline both of substance and of form. and so perhaps, when this war’s writing comes to be read and reckoned up as literature, it may be placed in a higher norm than the indiscriminate journalism which is so well thought of now. The things that matter are not the things that happen, but rather things that grow, and literature if it is to live must deal with life directly and not indirectly through its accidents. […] And so the Journal to Mirren is not for the curious, who would find it dull indeed. It is for a lover of life, and its purpose is to try and present another life as worthy of that love.
Usually, reading collections of letters, there are all sorts of meetings or ‘phone calls which we only hear about in passing; visits which are referred to, or the building blocks of a relationship which the reader cannot grasp decades later. With Joy Street, although there are a few meetings between the couple, we are privileged to witness the majority of their growing attachment. Almost everything that was built between them was built through these letters. And because they are real, they naturally have an authenticity that no novelist could fully craft.
In a letter which John never read, sent but not received before his death, Mirren writes:
Indeed, I want you to go on being alive. Maybe we’ll never marry, but that isn’t the most important thing. You’ll go on, and you’ll give of yourself to the world, for you have the power. And I’ll go on too. If I’m ever capable of loving someone more than I love you, then there is no reason why my little ideal should be wrecked. If you die before we have had time to be together, at least I shall have the faith and love you have given me, deep rooted and eternal in my soul. And with that knowledge, I’ll never be defeated; I may fail to do as much as I hoped but I’ll never be defeated. And if I’m killed and you still love me as you do, then – I don’t know how you’ll feel. But I do know John, that you have given me something, and I, perhaps, to you, that no man or god can ever destroy. We call it faith, ideals, hope, but do we really and truly know what it is? I don’t think so, and I don’t think it matters, either. But it does matter that it is present, unforgettable, a part of my own self.
Books to get Stuck into:
–In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill: the best book about grief that I have read, or can imagine reading.
–Love Letters by Leonard Woolf & Trekkie Ritchie Parsons: the letters between Leonard and the woman he loved after Virginia are perhaps more revealing than Leonard would have liked, and a fascinating portrait of an unusual coupling.