by Richard Pooley
Jane, my recently-widowed 95-year old mother-in-law didn’t say exactly “Burn my love letters!”. But close enough. What she actually said was that she had put all her love letters in the small brown suitcase pictured above. They included letters written by my wife’s father to Jane shortly before he died sixty-five years ago. And if my wife, Sarah, wanted, she could keep and read those letters. But the rest, from a fiancé killed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day when Jane was just 17, and two other husbands and several boyfriends, Sarah must burn.
That last sentence has probably made you think several things about my mother-in-law all at once. And one of them is, I hope, that Sarah must disobey her mother’s wishes. Surely, at the very least, the contents of that suitcase would tell of a life well-lived and of a woman well-loved. You would be right. Worry not. Jane soon changed her mind, leaving it to Sarah to decide what to do with all the letters. The suitcase currently sits behind me on the floor of my study (close to the ashes of my step-father-in-law which await their scattering on a Welsh lake by his niece).
But should Sarah keep the letters? Okay, she will want to read her own father’s letters, a man she never really knew; he died when she was just eighteen months old. Yet they do not include the ones he had written to Jane in England before their marriage while he was serving as a colonial Education Officer in the Gold Coast (now Ghana). They had written to each other every single day. Jane had burned those joyful and passionate ones when Sarah (nicknamed Pip or Pippy) was still a child: “I don’t know why I did it. Those are the ones Pippy should have read.”
They may include some correspondence between Sarah’s father, Anthony, and Jane when they first met in Kenya in the late 1940s. He was born and raised in the British colony, son of a popular and successful cricket-mad doctor, Cliff Braimbridge, who eventually became Nairobi Hospital’s chief surgeon. Jane had gone out to Kenya by ship to join her first husband but ended up leaving him for Anthony.
Could the letters then be the basis of some racy novel entitled “Are you married or do you live in Kenya?”. But no. That notorious question, one that I first heard when my own parents lived in Kenya in the 1970s, has already been taken as a title of a book on the lives of some of the aristocratic white settlers of colonial Kenya*. Anyway, the letters our putative novelist would need are any ones written by the philandering Cliff rather than by his uxorious son, Anthony.
What then is the point in keeping these letters? And, for that matter, all the photos and photo albums that Jane will leave behind when she moves into a care home? She may have led a full and action-packed life for her first four decades. Her father, an actor and radio announcer, had some brief fame in England as the first Walter Gabriel of the BBC radio soap opera The Archers (he modelled Gabriel on a Hardyesque character he used to see and hear in the village pub). But since her third marriage in 1969 she has led a mostly happy but uneventful fifty-three years living in the Cotswold countryside. Who, apart from those who loved and knew her, would want to read these letters after her death?
I have been asking myself a similar question and failing to answer it in the forty-four years since my own mother’s death. I have, by default, become the family archivist, having been given five large suitcases of letters, diaries and photos covering over a hundred years of my parents’ and maternal grandparents’ lives. They are stored in the loft and are so heavy that I have made sure that, should they crash through the ceiling of the bedroom below, they will not fall on any occupant of the bed. I have also ended up with twenty-two family photo albums stretching back to the late 1890s and a vast scrap book put together by an ancestor in the early to mid-Nineteenth century. Then there is a wooden packing case full of my own scribblings - essays, diaries, unpublished manuscripts – and letters sent to me. Various shelves and cupboards are home to forty-seven photo albums and innumerable printed photos which tell the story of Sarah’s and my lives and those of our children. None of this includes the thousands of photos, emails and magazine articles stored electronically on various devices. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the family trees constructed by my father along with much of the paper-based research which went into their construction. That lot lives in two boxes which teeter on a shelf behind me whenever the study door slams shut.
My mother’s letters and those sent to her**, contained in those suitcases in the loft, are my biggest headache. She was a prolific letter-writer from childhood. She learned to type early in life and kept carbon copies of nearly all her own letters for some thirty years. Moreover she was a member of one of the earliest women’s correspondence clubs. These women wrote to each other at great length about the most personal matters. One of them, my mother told me, was a lesbian MP. Another was the wife of an ambassador. They used pseudonyms; I think my mother’s was Barbara. But they must have known who each of them really was. When I say personal, I mean no-holds-barred, anything-can-be-said personal. How do I know? Because, as a young teenager, I came across one of ‘Barbara’’s letters left (by mistake, my mother always insisted) on a windowsill between my parents’ bedroom and my father’s study. I have never forgotten its contents and it tainted my attitude towards my parents and my siblings from then on.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that in her wishes, accompanying her will, my mother enjoined her husband and her three children never to read any of the letters in those suitcases. Before her death she made me promise not to do so. However, she wanted them all kept “as a record of a typical middle-class family of the twentieth century”. Thanks, Mother.
We are told by today’s historians that the advent of ephemeral communication by email, text messaging and social media mean that future historians will have a paucity of material to read when telling the story of our times. Nonsense. The opposite will be true. You and I may be unable to find stuff we have stored electronically but, as an IT expert once said to me: “Nothing is ever truly deleted.”. Those future historians will be drowning in data.
So, why not burn them all? Because I might have a famous descendent who is taking part in a future version of the hit genealogy TV programme “Who do you think your are?”? Because my family’s letters and diaries would be a Twentieth century equivalent to the Fifteenth century letters of the Paston family of Norfolk?
What are you going to do with all that stuff you have kept? Burden your children with them? Or burn them?
*by Chryso Coutts (pen name of Anne Rapley)
** Fans of fellow OC writer Mark Nicholson may be interested to know that somewhere in those suitcases must be the correspondence my mother had with Mark. He first came to Africa when, at the instigation of his own mother, he stayed with my parents and me in Lusaka, Zambia. He promptly fell in love with Africa and, it has to be said, my mother.