Sunday, October 6, 2013

Words that Remain

Rose Macauley (1881-1958)
I am the archivist in my family. Our basement is full of tubs full of letters, documents, photographs, slides, home movies, even old teddy bears, retrieved from my deceased father’s house. Now I’m about to fly to England to sort through the contents of my mother’s flat as she recently moved into a care home, so no doubt I will soon be taking possession of yet more family memorabilia.
If anyone ever doubted the importance of this kind of ephemera for remembering the people we’ve lost, I would recommend that they read Miss Anstruther’s Letters, a short story by Rose Macauley, truly one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read. As described by Macauley’s biographer Sarah LeFanu,

“Miss Anstruther's lover is recently dead, and her flat has been bombed [in the Blitz]. So raw is Miss Anstruther's grief that she has been unable to reread her lover's letters, but has been saving them for a time when she would be able to without giving way to despair. Now she will never read them again. Only one scrap of paper has escaped the flames: written on it one hurtful phrase that turns all the years of passion into ‘a drift of grey ashes.’”
The story is written from Macauley’s own experience. During World War I, she had worked as secretary to the head of the Italian section at the newly created Ministry of Information, a man named Gerald O'Donovan, an Irish writer and former Jesuit priest. At 47, he was ten years older than Macauley, who was still in the early stages of her writing career. Although O’Donovan was married, the two fell in love and conducted a clandestine affair for 24 years. The publisher Victor Gollancz called their relationship “the best kept secret in London.” Many years later Macauley wrote in her most famous novel, The Towers of Trebizond:

"Adultery is a meanness and a stealing, a taking away from someone what should be theirs, a great selfishness, and surrounded and guarded by lies lest it should be found out. And out of meanness and selfishness and lying flow love and joy and peace beyond anything that can be imagined."
In 1939, O’Donovan was injured in a car accident when the couple were on holiday in the Lake District and suffered a stroke. His health was never the same afterwards, and he died of cancer in July 1942. There was nothing left for Macauley to remember him by because all his love letters to her had been burnrt to a cinder when her London flat was bombed in the Blitz on May 10th 1941.

Macauley wrote Miss Anstruther’s Letters after her flat was destroyed and as Gerald lay dying. Though she changed the order of the events, the emotional core of the story – the lost last remnants of a human voice – is painfully on target.
“She went on digging till twilight came. What she looked for was not there. She was grimed from head to foot; her only clothes were ruined; she stood knee-deep in drifts of burnt rubbish that had been carpets, beds, curtains, furniture, pictures, and books; the smoke that smouldered up from them made her cry and cough. What she looked for was not there; it was ashes, it was no more. She had not rescued it while she could, she had forgotten it, and now it was ashes. All but one torn, burnt corner of note-paper, which she picked up out of a battered saucepan belonging to the basement tenant. It was niggled over with close small writing, the only words left of the thousands of words in that hand that she looked for. She put it in her note-case and went on looking till dark; then she went back to her bed-sitting-room, which she filled each night with dirt and sorrow and a few blackened cups.”