In this blogpost Dr Sarah Haybittle discusses recent work undertaken using a letter written in 1917 between a soldier and his sweetheart as source material for research and her creative practice. The letter has been examined using both visual and literary theories in order to produce multiple perspectives and ‘readings’ from the same source, including looking at the relationship between the visual and verbal in the letter.
Private letters from the past can tell us about people, and perhaps about the time in which they were written. More than this, they can offer insights into past lives beyond the story of individuals. What happens when a letter is no longer a possession, a holder of memories connected to an individual, but is placed in a public domain? What can be gained by looking beyond the words written on the page, by examining private correspondence through its wider implications, and through different themes and perspectives? In so doing a symbiotic relationship can be established between the private and public.
As part of my practice-based research I have worked with correspondence written in 1917 which is part of the Semple Collection1, sourced from the Imperial War Museum. The letters tell a story of a romance between Meg Semple and a soldier named Jock McLeod. He had seen active service in Ypres, been shot, and subsequently hospitalised with a lung wound. He provides detailed accounts of life in the trenches, but what fascinated me about this collection was the fact that the letters document a tragic love story, set in the turbulent years of the First World War. Yet despite this setting, the story the letters hold is timeless – that of love and loss.
I have focused on just one (the last) letter in the collection, and a reply written by Meg. The final letter is not dated, but the postmark on the envelope is 27 May 1917, 10.15AM. Meg writes what the museum describe as a ‘draft’ reply to Jock’s last letter which is dated 13.6.17. The museum description (edited) of the archive reads:
‘A collection of 70 [letters] written to her by Jock McLeod during his training at Invergordon as an NCO with the 3rd Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, active service at Ypres Salient with the 5th Battalion (26th Brigade, 9th Division), then a period of hospitalisation back in the United Kingdom at Gosforth, Belfast and Bolton, Lancashire, with a lung wound, February 1916-February 1917, and brief service with the RFC at the Wireless Testing Park, Biggin Hill, providing useful descriptions of his training and anxiety to experience ‘real modern warfare’, the dress and traditions of his regiment, poor trench conditions on the Western Front, his narrow escape from mortar explosions, his frustration at being hospitalised during the wait for examination by the Medical Board, who pronounced him unfit for active military service, his intense hatred for ‘the hun’ and the Germans’ alleged fear of the Scottish based upon rumours of crucified Highlanders, criticisms of high prices charged by the YMCA in France, and his regiment’s contempt for conscientious objectors, with his final letter informing her of his love for another girl...’.
Multiple layers of story are detectable in the letter, what might be described as stories within stories, where the public and private are intertwined. The letter contains not just details about Meg and Jock, but also references others. Three broken hearts are evident; and the fate of a soldier named Will, described as being ‘up in the trenches’ remains a mystery. In reading, and indeed handling, these private exchanges one becomes drawn into their world, a tactile and intimate relationship is established.
The letter has been inspiration and source material for my creative practice. I have analysed and mapped the letter through varying and layered themes, yielding multiple perspectives on the same source, focusing on both the personal story, its traces, and on its broader, more objective implications. This includes separating the letter into what might be considered the ‘events’ (this happened, then that) and how those events are expressed in the writing and how much space they are given in the text.
Although the letters are addressed to Meg – the archive is ‘hers’ – her voice is seldom heard apart from in her draft reply. Jock is a narrator of sorts; their story comes to us through his words. The one-sidedness of the letters reflects only what he has to say. It is a one-way dialogue, a romance punctuated by time and space, as their romance is subject to the pragmatic restrictions of the postal service in a country at war. In the case of Jock, he moved around between various hospitals, rehabilitation centres and training sites, meaning that letters between the couple had greater potential to go missing or take longer to reach the recipient.
Looking at the writing style, the use and tone of language used by a writer, may reveal elements of their personality, psychology and emotions. This in turn may also connect to the emotions, psychological impact and physical responses of a reader, such as Meg’s imagined emotional and physical responses to Jock’s words. Considering such aspects adds different perspectives and deeper insights by delving into the emotional and experiential.
There are many cultural references found in the letter. This is also evident in the use of language, the way things are expressed, such as in Meg’s draft, ‘the heart is not of me’. It may also be reflected in the way words are physically written, perhaps driven by conventions of the time, such as Jock’s use of a capital letter for Hospital, and Nurse. The media used, pen and ink, are also linked to a time period. Geographic, medical, gender, chronological and historical implications can be found in this one letter, not connected directly to the ‘story’.
The handwriting styles of Meg and Jock can be linked to what they say and how they say it. Their different ways of corresponding may be linked to character, education or social class. Jock’s hand is fluid, cursive, it leans forwards and correspondingly his language is open and conversational. He asks many questions in his letter, he ponders, discusses. His letter spans two and a half pages and its material substance is lightweight. In beautiful script he politely proffers greetings and news, then reveals, ‘but there’s something I want to tell you about Meg, something which I didn’t mean to ever tell you, but now feel I must tell. The repetition of the word ‘tell’, three times, highlighting what was to follow, and also perhaps expressing Jock’s guilt. In contrast, Meg must have sped over those words wanting to know what followed. He does not immediately say however, protracting the paragraph, and her imagined pain, yet further, with more talk of what she will think of him, another delay in delivering his bad news.
Jock then elaborates, ‘when I was in hospital I met a nurse there and we became very friendly, it wasn’t long before I realised how much I was in love with her, so I told her and found out that she also cared for me, but, alas, she’d sworn never to marry owing to a weak heart and nothing I could say or do would make her relent.’ His letter ends by begging Meg’s forgiveness.
Meg drafted a reply, ‘The heart is not of me to tell you what and how you must do. May fate one day grant you your heart’s desire, and time be good enough to help me endure and survive this bitterness’. Her sad words trail off both literally and symbolically. The last, poignant word, ‘bitterness’ is compressed at the edge of the page, as she ran out of space in which to express her sadness.
Meg’s writing and language is solid and more finite than Jock’s. She closes the discussion through her choice of words, ‘not for me to tell you...’ and ‘I must’. Her draft reply is written on a single side of an opaque postcard. Perhaps her final act of closure was in not sending a reply? Meg kept this draft, it remained with her throughout her lifetime, possibly signifying its importance to her. Whatever her reason for keeping the letters, in doing so the collection acted as a tangible trace of a past experience.
In the private world of Meg, the letter also had different lives. The first reading on its arrival, then each subsequent reading; each time the story is retold, emotions stirred, linking a present moment to past events. In this way the story endures over time, becoming ever more distant from the original.
In addition to the story contained in the letter, its donation and presence in the archive adds another layer to its narrative. The letters, which were once a private possession become objects. This collection has been viewed approximately 25 times in the last ten years, the visitor’s name or purpose is unrecorded. Each visit is a re-telling of the original story, perpetually augmenting and extending the story, adding to the history of the letters, including my own responses as researcher/artist.
Letters present a paradox; they are enigmatic and represent only a trace of past lives, yet they make history seem human, tangible and very real. Just as clothing without a body speaks of absence, so too do letters. There are political, social, and personal dimensions to war history. Letters may be considered as silent histories, representing more emotional and psychological layers – they have the potential to reveal the human, intimate consequences of war.
Wireless Testing Park.
Thanks for yours to hand yester-
day, & sorry to hear they make you work
such long hours. You must be fed up now.
You’re lucky to have such a chum tho!
I had a letter from Will the other day, &
he says he ’s up in the trenches now, facing
Fritzy, & dodging all sorts of things.
I’ve not heard any further from the G.P.O
yet, so I ’ll drop them a line to tell them
where, & how, I am now-a-days, I think.
But there’s something I want to tell you,
about, Meg, something which I didn’t mean
to ever tell you, but now feel I must tell.
I expect you ’ll think all sorts of things
about me, but it’s better to know now than
when too late, so I’ll tell you everything.
Well, when I was in Hospital I met a Nurse
there, & we became very friendly, & it was n’t
long before I realized how much I was in
love with her, so I told her & found that she
also cared for me, but, alas, she’d sworn
never to marry, owing to a weak heart, due
to rheumatic fever or something; & nothing I could
say or do would make her relent,
but she promised always to write & let me know
how she was getting on, & she writes
yet, but never a word of love or anything of
course. So I gave it up in despair, & then
you came along, & I forgot, – but not for
long, however. Try as I might she remains with me
just the same, & won’t be forgotten.
So, althou’ you know how much I like &
respect you, you can see how hopeless it
is for me to really care for you as I ought
to. I ’m sorry Meg, Heaven alone knows how
sorry, but I won’t stand in your light
any longer & spoil your other chances.
I can only hope you ’ll meet some boy who ’ll
love you as you deserve to be loved, while
I must just go on hoping & waiting that
someday she ’ll want me & forget all the
rest. I ’ve not asked her again since,
of course, for I not only knew it was no use
but as I said before, I hoped I should
have no desire to. I know how cruel I ’ve
been to you, Meg, but try to forgive, & tell me
what & how I should do now. Won’t you write
and tell me, please? If I don’t hear from you
again I shall conclude I’ve offended
past all forgiveness; but you ’ll know
how Fate treats me if ever you hear of me
being engaged, or getting married, for
I’ll never marry any but this one girl.
So I’ll conclude, Meg, hoping I may
ever sign myself
Your sincere friend,
(Letter set as original)
1 The Semple Collection can be found at: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030005821
Sarah Haybittle, 2014 ‘help me endure and survive this bitterness’