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Love Letters from the Front

This time next week, I’ll be spending my bank holiday at The Hay Festival, the annual celebration of literature, art, politics, history (and more) held in the beautiful ‘town of books’, Hay-on-Wye. While the programme is always impressive, there was just one event I knew I had to see for a second time: Letters Live. When I talk to those who haven’t heard about the show before they seem slightly bemused about the concept. Essentially, a group of actors, usually announced only a few days beforehand, spend an hour reading and performing letters. 

To the uninitiated, this might not seem to have the makings of a stand-out event but anyone who has spent a prolonged period reading correspondence collections will know just how fascinating and revealing they can be. My interest was initially sparked when I heard about the performance of a series of letters written by Bessie Moore and Chris Barker, who were good friends with my grandmother. The letters offer a window into Bessie and Chris’s romance during World War II. They are extremely passionate and intense, but equally humorous and light-hearted at times, with wonderful anecdotes illustrating their day-to-day experiences.

Having spent many hours in archives looking at letters from both world wars, I am particularly intrigued by the way in which people coped with such troubling experiences and intense emotions. With this in mind, I was interested to discover a set of love letters that convey the deeply felt anxieties of separation in our First World War portal. 

Papers of Roger Courteville © Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 

In the letter below, Lieutenant W. O. Wightman begins by expressing his disappointment at having received no news from his wife in two days. This mild rebuke must have stung a little more accompanied by the observation that his mother has ‘been most faithful in her letter writing’ having sent four letters in five days.



Private Papers of Lieutenant W O Wightman © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


Indeed, the relationship between Wightman’s mother and his wife is a returning theme in the letter and the complexities of the relationship become clearer in the excerpt below, which continues in a similar vein for most of a page:

Private Papers of Lieutenant W O Wightman © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 


Wightman’s mother sounds like a formidable woman as he explains that she ‘takes a lot of convincing about people’ and her reference to his ‘sweet little wife’ is just a quotation from his letters and should not be taken the wrong way. He goes on to say, ‘you mustn’t feel at all hurt if mother takes a little time to take you to her heart as she is a person who bestows her praises sparingly and always needs a lot of convincing about any lady’. Yet, in the heartfelt passage that follows he clearly feels that if anyone can win his mother’s affection, it is his new wife who is described by his mother as ‘nonesuch’ which, as he explains, means that she ‘represents the very best of everything’.

Private Papers of Lieutenant W O Wightman © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 


The final passage is perhaps one of the most illuminating. Wightman talks of his ‘horrible and deplorable existence’ which he hopes will not continue to haunt him once he returns home. Instead, he is convinced that ‘the mere sight’ of his wife will make his current life ‘seem but a dim and distant past’.

Private Papers of Lieutenant W O Wightman © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


Such optimism might seem a little naïve to us reading the letters now. Yet, the letters of Wightman and those of Bessie and Chris serve as a reminder to ‘fully appreciate’ the gifts we might now take for granted and which gave people hope in the darkest of moments. And, perhaps they also show that a ‘little thought of the past’ can make us all a little more cognizant of the present. 


To see this document in full click the images in the blog

The First World War: Visual Perspectives and Narratives is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at info@amdigital.co.uk





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