Number 19 in the 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About is a double-whammy. Actually, since the 1930s these books haven’t been published separately, as far as I’m aware, so hopefully I shan’t be done for false advertising or anything.
Step forward, Helen Thomas. No, not my aunt (though I do have a very nice aunt of that name) but rather the widow of poet Edward Thomas. Y’know, the ‘Adelstrop’ one. After Edward was killed in the First World War, she wrote As It Was, an autobiographical (though pseudonymical) portrait of their courtship and marriage, up to the birth of their first child. She wrote it cathartically, and was only approached with the idea of publishing a while later (1926). This she did, and followed it a few years later with World Without End (1931), which started where As It Was left off, and continued until David (Edward) leaves for war.
A thick mist hung everywhere, and there was no sound except, far away in the valley, a train shunting. I stood at the gate watching him go; he turned back to wave until the mist and the hill hid him. I heard his old call coming up to me: ‘Coo-ee!’ he called. ‘Coo-ee!’ I answered, keeping my voice strong to call again. Again through the muffled air came his ‘Coo-ee’. And again went my answer like an echo. ‘Coo-ee’ came fainter next time with the hill between us, but my ‘Coo-ee’ went out of my lungs strong to pierce to him as he strode away from me. ‘Coo-ee!’ So faint now, it might be only my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death.
Then with leaden feet which stumbled in a sudden darkness that overwhelmed me I groped my way back to the empty house.
Throughout Helen’s writing, Edward/David doesn’t come off as the best husband, but what saturates these books is Helen’s passionate, loyal and unshaking love for him – the sort of love which would seem a bit far-fetched in fiction, but is obviously true here. Such simple books, but will move you a huge amount, I guarantee it.
I thought they’d gone out of print, but managed to find a new edition called Under Storm’s Wing, which has the two novels alongside some photographs, letters and memoirs. Haven’t looked at the letters and memoirs yet, but I await them with pleasure. They can only add to the touching honesty with which Helen Thomas has written simple, beautiful, affecting works.