This book deserves wide readership in the US. It offers a window into the time of the "greatest generation" as well as a peep into a quirky relationship. The author's sense of humor is frequently evident, but this series of letters offers a social history of the less than famous, three-quarters of a century ago. I hated to come to the end, knowing that there could be no more.
A provincial British seaside town in 1952. No, not the Brighton of Graham Greene, but Bournemouth. Doesn't sound promising, does it? Yet Frances Woodsford's Dear Mr Bigelow, a collection of her letters about her life reminds us how much the world has changed since then yet so much remains the same.
On a trip up to London, she describes the ten days of 'long drawn out agony' of public mourning for the death of King George. A family numb with grief on public display, where in this case the Queen Mother appearing lonely and lost, reminded me of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
This is but one sombre note amongst a set of mostly resolutely cheerful and delightful letters describing her life. Her purpose in writing to pen friend Paul Bigelow, (who she always addressed as 'Mr Bigelow' as they had never met) was to brighten up the lonely elderly man's life. His daughter Rosalind had been very kind to Frances after the Second World War, sending her food and clothes parcels from America as it was not until 1954, fourteen years after the end of the war that rationing finally ceased in Britain. Wine, chocolate and biscuits were treats, brought out on very special occasions, not everyday indulgences as they are now.
The author comes across as immensely likeable, who hardly ever moaned or thought of herself - so refreshing compared with modern life. And Frances had every reason to moan - but she never gives in to self-pity. After her wealthy father's death, his business collapsed leaving the family with nothing. Frances, a bright student had to abandon her education and leave school to put food on the table. She took a job far below her capabilities - as a secretary working in the Public Baths Department of the local town council. Frances, her mother and brother lived in a rented flat, but despite having to count every penny, Frances filled her life with cultural riches, making the most of every precious moment of free time. She is engaged, interested, and oh so alive. Whether Frances is describing adventurous outings, the fickle British weather, or her trips to the theatre, her enthusiasm is infectious.
When she lets down her guard and reveals the real Frances is where Dear Mr Bigelow is at its most engaging. Frances confesses how much she has come to enjoy writing what she refers to her as her 'Saturday Specials.' She has a wicked sense of humour and describes the best and the worst of the people in her life, so much so that they become characters in the book.
The reason that I didn't give this a five star rating is that the structure of the book doesn't allow for a proper conclusion, but this is an editing problem, rather than a fault of the writing. When Paul Bigelow dies we never get to find out what impact that had on the author's life when she no longer had those Saturday Specials to write, nor do we find out what happened to the other 'characters' in the book. It wouldn't have needed much, just an endnote to tie up a few of those loose ends. But this isn't Hollywood, and real life doesn't always tie up so neatly, does it?
Frances Woodsford's letters are well written and interesting. We get a glimpse of Britain in the 50's, well Bournemouth anyway. The writer is intelligent and articulate so I found myself getting angry at the wasted life she chose for herself. She seems to have had only one suitor, a man she is not very interested in. She is attractive and well dressed but there is no mention of any boyfriends. Why? She seems to have lived vicariously through her tight-fisted, selfish brother 'Mac'. Frances and her mother wait on him hand and foot but he doesn't seem to ever give anything back. Frances works for the local swimming baths where they overwork and underpay her. Throughout the book I wished she would just break out of her self-imposed constraints and take a risk. Tell her boss to go fly a kite.
Her mother seems to have expected to be looked after until her death, yet she wasn't an invalid or incapable of caring for herself. No wonder the elderly are left to their own devises today. In a dreary Bournemouth shop window Frances sees a pink frothy Dior hat. She remarks that she would love a hat like that. She is soon reprimanded by her stick-in-the-mud friend who tells her that there is nowhere suitable to wear it in Bournemouth. Quite so. I had hoped that Frances would see the hat as a metaphor for the life she could have if she behaved less like a doormat and more like a woman with needs. I thank God that today women have the money and opportunities to fly where they will and wear as many pink hats as they want.
This was one of those books that you do not like to see end. Ms Woodsfords letters are witty, informative and challenging, it was like she was jousting with the recepient, Mr. Bigelow. The letters start shortly after WW11 when England did have money for purchases but there was strict rationing and goods were in short supply. While she tells of some of her daily life she never misses the chance to throw a humerous barb at Bigelow. Very enjoyable reading.