When my e-friend Sarah mentioned that Monica Dickens and Beverley Nichols had co-authored a selection of light essays called Yours Sincerely (1949), can you really imagine me not immediately buying a copy? If you answered ‘yes’ then you’re either new around these parts, or you have a stronger sense of my self-control than is just.
So, back in autumn, it arrived – and I started reading it in a gradual way, such as befits this sort of book. It is great fun. I don’t know quite where the articles came from – they’re quite varying lengths, and don’t seem to have been written specially for this volume, but cover topics in the same line as Rose Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures. Everything from ‘Planting Bulbs’ (reminiscent of Provincial Lady, no?) to ‘Sensuality’; ‘Talkative Women’ to ‘Coddled Men’; ‘Losing Your Temper’ to ‘Brides in White.’ All the sort of topics of middle-class chatter in the 1940s – but feeling, somehow, old-fashioned even for the 1940s.
Indeed, Beverley Nichols has no qualms in describing himself as ‘old-fashioned, out-of-date, and generally encrusted in lichen’. Even when I agree with him, he’s so curmudgeonly that I felt like I wanted to distance myself from him… it’s enjoyable to read, but not quite the laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating whimsy that I’d expected – and which Monica Dickens delivers in spades. Sometimes he was just too saccharine and worthy for my taste…
You can’t bruise a plant and feel aggrieved because it grows up stunted or deformed or “odd.” The slightest twist or wound, in it infancy, grows and swells, till in the end the plant is an ugly wretched thing that you have to throw onto the rubbish heap.
It is the same with children. A lie, an injustice, a cruelty – these get under the skin. And they too grow and swell, till at last a miserable man or a wretched woman is rejected by society.
Undeniably true, but… am I bad person for wishing that he’d been jollier? I still haven’t read any of his books, and now I’ll be rushing towards them a little less eagerly.
Whereas Monica Dickens, after getting all serious in The Winds of Heaven, is on fine form in Yours Sincerely. Lots of smiles all round, and never too earnest. Just the sort of light essay which I adore, and which doesn’t seem to happen any more. Here she is on proposing…
We’ve all dreamed much the same dreams, I expect. You know – you’re in a diaphanous evening dress of unearthly beauty. You’re the belle of the ball. You’ve danced like a disembodied fairy and now you drift out on to a moonlit terrace, mysterious with the scent of gardenias.
He follows, in faultless evening dress, no doubt (mine sometimes used to be in white monkey jackets), and says – IT.
Or, he says IT on the boat-deck of a liner gliding through phosphorescent tropic seas, or on a Riviera beach, or sometimes at the crisis of some highly improbable adventure. He’s just rescued you – or you him – from a fire. You’re besieged in an attic firing your last round at the enemy now battering at the door below. You’re a beautiful nurse and he’s a dying soldier – but not irretrievably dying.
There are endless variations but always the same theme song : “Will you marry me?” The implication is that when one is very young the actual moment of proposal is one of the high-spots of marriage.
I used to pester my mother over and over again to tell me how my father proposed. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t holding out on me when she swore that he never really had. She couldn’t remember when he started saying and writing : “When we’re married we’ll do so and so.”
I have a small section of a shelf devoted to light essays – it is only a small section, because I haven’t managed to find very many. Alongside this and some by Rose Macaulay are Angela Milne’s Jame and Genius, A.A. Milne’s various offerings in this genre, J.B. Priestley’s Delight, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Christopher Morley’s Safety Pins, and probably one or two others which have slipped my mind. Any suggestions?
In the meantime, Yours Sincerely isn’t groundbreaking or even exceptionally good, but it’s a jolly, enjoyable contribution to that often-overlooked form of the familiar essay, and so steeped in the mores of the early 20th century that a flick through fills me with nostalgia for an age in which I never lived.