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Letters from Constance by Mary Hocking

Letters from Constance (1991)

by Mary Hocking

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This Mary Hocking novel is the one I chose to kick off my own #rememberMary month. It is the sixth novel by her that I have read – and has become an instant favourite.

The novel is written entirely in letters, letters sent from Constance to her girlhood friend Sheila. In 1939 as Constance and Sheila leave school they promise each other to keep in touch, Sheila is bound for University, Constance to begin work at the education office. The letters, warm, affectionate, always thoughtful and intelligent, occasionally angry – are sent at irregular intervals over the next forty seven years, until the two are inevitably separated. Sheila had always been the brilliant one, the prize winner, the one bound for Cambridge, and Constance is happy to bask a little in her reflected glory.

“This was your day. My mother had come to see old Addiscombe. I never can persuade her to give up hoping for academic success for me. She feels she owes it to Daddy’s memory to squeeze every opportunity dry. According to her, she said – I squirm as I write this – ‘If Sheila Douglas can get into Cambridge, I can’t understand why Constance shouldn’t be accepted. After all her father was a doctor.’
The reply, which I hope pleases you, was ‘Sheila Douglas is a quite exceptionally gifted girl for whom we have great hopes. One of her poems has been commended by Walter de la Mare, who is a friend of the chairman of the Governors.’ Later in the conversation she said, and one can imagine the glacial smile which accompanied the words, ‘Constance is amusing, but she has no mind. She will get married.’

The lives the two women live differ somewhat, although the connection between them remains strong, they can say almost anything to one another by letter, although they find talking on the telephone harder. Posted to Ireland with the WRNS, Constance marries Irish Catholic Fergus; with whom she is soon mired down in motherhood and domesticity. Settled in a miserable little Ealing flat, Fergus must contend with a job he doesn’t really like much, while Constance juggles with tiny children. Meanwhile Sheila marries a brilliant musician, the ambitiously creative Miles; theirs is a less conventional household, in a large enviable home in Richmond. Constance comes to envy rather, Sheila’s poetry writing and bohemian dinners. Later Constance, Fergus and their children manage to move out to Sussex where they settle much more contentedly. The two families visit one another from time to time and as the years pass, the children of each household become almost as at home in the house of the other, the families drawing together automatically at times of crisis. For nothing goes entirely to plan in life, as Constance and Sheila find, not everything quite living up to their girlhood dreams, and so often the realities of everyday life get in the way of friendship. The two women promise each other a holiday together as young newly married women, a holiday they never quite manage to take.

“Fergus explained to Mr Buggins (this is not his real name, but I have taken to referring to him in this way in case I should say something slanderous) that we had one or two things which we wished to talk over with him. While these things were under discussion, I stood beside Fergus, holding my new-born baby in my arms, my other children tugging at my skirts, and contrived to look both defiant and ill used, the way the gypsy women did when they were turned off the campsite near Western Avenue. Dominic, who felt it all very undignified, sulked, Kathleen glowered and Cuillane cried. It would have contributed much had Stephen cried too, but he is a cheerful baby and groped with pudgy fingers in Mr Buggin’s direction, his eyes full of delight as if another wonder of the world had revealed itself to him”

Both Sheila and Constance have to contend with troubles and tragedies – but it is in the small everyday concerns with which they mainly concern themselves. Constance is a wonderfully intelligent woman, completely underestimating her own abilities as she manages her growing family with intuition and wry humour. Constance worries for her husband, his happiness and how he truly views her something she can’t help but wonder about in her letters to her oldest friend. She watches each of her children, detecting early their differing and unique personalities, worrying for them, agonising over their education, or pious Catholicism, their explosive angers and young loves.

In Constance, Mary Hocking has created a wonderfully wry and intelligent voice that put me very much in mind of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s characters. Hocking re-creates family life with breath-taking accuracy her astute observations very much in that Taylor tradition. Through Constance, we get to know Sheila too, and feel her confusion when her life takes an unexpected turn, but it is Constance who is the star of the show, I loved her. This is a truly delightful book, which can only be fully appreciated by reading it – I gulped it down within about twenty-four hours and was sad when there was no more, a very definite five star read, which has me anticipating more Mary Hocking eagerly. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Jun 5, 2014 |
totally brilliant ( )
  fross | Jan 4, 2011 |
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Dear James, These are the letters Linnie sent to me.
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