Book of the Week: Letters From The Suitcase

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I found my father in a suitcase of love letters: How a World War II soldier’s daughter discovered the truth about her parents’ romance following her mother’s death

LETTERS FROM THE SUITCASE 

Edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan.

Dated Saturday, May 8, 1943, the last letter David Francis sent home to his ‘beloved darling Mary’ from his naval posting in India seethes with frustration.

Separated from his struggling wife and daughter for more than a year now, the ambitious young officer was ‘frittering away his time and life and thought . . . in cinemas, bathing, badminton and dances whilst hundreds of our generation are fighting and maybe giving their lives in a war with which we are all inextricably associated’.

He yearned to be where he was needed: either at home or at war.

Rosheen Finnigan was just three when her father David Francis died in the Second World War

Rosheen Finnigan was just three when her father David Francis died in the Second World War

But he would never engage the enemy or hold his wife again. Three weeks after writing this, Francis died of smallpox, against which he had no resistance, as his mother was a Christian Scientist and did not believe in the vaccinations that protected his colleagues.

It was a heartbreakingly unnecessary way for Rosheen Finnigan (nee Francis) to lose her father. She was only three at the time and had not seen him since she was two.

He vanished from her life as photos, records and even the glorious old leather-horned gramophone he called ‘Griselda’ disappeared from the house.

Her mother sometimes mentioned there was a suitcase of his letters in the attic and even showed her a glimpse.

But, for the most part, they were kept ‘out of sight because my mother’s new husband had fearsome nightmares about the sudden reappearance of my dead sailor father — her passionate lover’.

Decades passed with ‘the mystery and neglect’ of the letters tormenting Rosheen until, shortly before her death, Mary handed them all over.

‘In doing so,’ writes Rosheen today, ‘she gave me my father.’

By publishing the couple’s intense and witty letters, Rosheen gives us an enthralling love story, which splices vintage detail with David and Mary’s surprisingly frank and modern attitudes on everything from sex to politics.

Her mother Mary (pictured) rarely spoke of him following his death but left her a suitcase of letters as a dying gift

Her mother Mary (pictured) rarely spoke of him following his death but left her a suitcase of letters as a dying gift

On the surface, David and Mary were an unlikely match. She was the daughter of Irish immigrants and he a privately-educated English toff.

But they were both clever, energetic, artistic and had become committed members of the British Communist Party, whose ranks swelled in response to the fascist threat.

Their initial meeting in 1938 (when Mary was 21 and David was 20) ‘ran like a film script’, according to Rosheen.

‘A party given by friends, Mary sent upstairs to borrow glasses from the young man in the flat above. She knocks, David opens the door, she makes her request, he replies yes, but only if he can come to the party. He does . . . coup de foudre. In a daze, they find themselves wandering in the early hours on Hampstead Heath. And the letters began.’

The early correspondence is, inevitably, rather patchy because David and Mary were together in London.

But Mary’s first letter declares a love that ‘scares her’ and casts her beau as a ‘superior swine’ whom she pictures with a ‘melodramatic cigarette and an uncertain expression’. Weeks later, he is on a family holiday in France and it is clear they are already physically intimate. ‘Why, oh why do you have to keep writing of double beds?’ sighs Mary, ‘I miss you enough as it is . . .’

Balancing her yearning with humour, the former scholarship girl adds: ‘Seeing you are not available, I have taken Auden to bed with me, T. S. Eliot is on the floor.’

Reminding us that sex didn’t begin in the Sixties, David writes in admiration of her ‘young yet matured breasts’ and later writes that just to be able to caress them ‘would be worth spending a month in jail for’.

He asks her to defy convention and live with him as he could not marry without parental consent until he was 21 (his parents did not approve).

Mary stalls on the grounds that co-habitation would upset her mother: ‘She cannot bear the thought of my being your “trollop” as she describes it, in the eyes of people she knows and who know me, and she implores me to marry you . . .’

LETTERS FROM THE SUITCASE Edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan

She even threatened to break off the relationship without a wedding: ‘I cannot be happy at the expense of my mother, especially when happiness for you and I could be won so easily . . . So my darling David, you have my full permission to say goodbye to me finally on Sunday. I can never be unhappier than I am at this moment, so don’t be afraid to hurt me . . .’

But David didn’t. Clever Mary was posted to the intelligence hub at Bletchley Park and the pair were married once David turned 21, just six weeks before the outbreak of war (without telling his family).

He applied for a commission in the Navy, which meant they lived mostly apart from the end of 1939.

Readers are reminded of the bitter cold at military bases in England by David’s regular pleas for warm gloves, scarves, socks, pyjamas and an oilskin. Mary was bogged down by knitting, work and pregnancy.

Normally affable and empathic, David strikes a rare patronising tone when he cautions Mary against ‘resenting’ their child.

Mary hits back: ‘While I could never resent your baby, I do resent the possibility that I may degenerate into a shapeless, toothless wreck because I cannot afford a real maternity corset or get the right amount of calcium in my diet.’ The couple were convinced they were having a boy, but were smitten when little Andrea Rosheen arrived. David writes after visiting them: ‘The baby is beautiful. The momentary disappointment about the sex disappeared completely when I saw its grumpy, indignant face . . .’

Like modern mothers, Mary received unwanted advice on how to balance her life as an essentially single mother with her desire to return to work. When a child psychologist says she would damage her ‘emotional link’ to Rosheen by sending her to nursery before she is two, Mary dismisses the woman’s ‘bloody bourgeois guff’.

Meanwhile, David was sent with the intelligence service to Africa and then India, where he bought Mary ‘exotic and erotic’ clothes.

Living 4,000 miles apart, the pair ached for the simple pleasures of Sunday lunch and lie-ins, while Rosheen spun a yearning yarn of a daddy who was ‘on a ship — on the sea — on the water — in the bath’.

Her daddy never did come home. But, at last, thanks to her mother, she learned all about him — and her parents’ ‘crazy, passionate, maudlin, mawkish, cynical, inconsequential, inexorable, wonderful, death-defying love’

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