“More than kisses, letters mingle souls” – John Donne.
In 1938, a 21-year-old Irishwoman named Mary attended a party in London's Angel House on Pentonville Road. When her friends ran out of glassware, they sent her upstairs to borrow more from the man who lived above them - and it was at this moment that she met the privately-educated 20-year-old David Francis.
It wasn’t long before the headstrong duo were married in a secret wedding ceremony, against the wishes of their parents.
A short time later, the couple welcomed a child together; a daughter named Rosheen.
Tragically, their little girl never had the chance to get to know her father. During the Second World War, the young officer was sent to the other side of the world, where he lost his life in 1943.
Years later, when she was a grown woman herself, Rosheen was given a suitcase of old papers in a suitcase – and soon realised that she held in her hands a collection of letters that spanned David and Mary's "short but passionate love affair”.
"From their meeting in May 1938 until his death in India in May 1943 they wrote constantly," she explains. "In their first year [they would pen notes] sometimes only hours after parting, such was the intensity of the relationship - with extra thoughts about love and life. The letters flowed whether they were in borrowed flats or on borrowed floors, in training camps or on ships at sea..."
Painstakingly penned across a five-year period, the handwritten notes chronicle the couple's intense longing for one another, their unwavering devotion, and their hopes for the future.
They finish, finally, with Mary’s experiences of raising a baby alone.
Here are just two of the letters from the collection…
My beloved David,
This is to supplement and complement for the letter I didn't send yesterday. The theme of that letter was that I love you far too much. Je t'aime tant, je t'aime trop. Far too much anyway to be really happy or interested when you are not there, and far too much to be really bored or wretched while you are within thinking distance. And far, far too much to be free for a moment from your voice, your face and your touch. Pauvre singe. A poem has been following me about all day, like your shadow:-
Oh westron wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rains down may rain,
Christ! That my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
No wonder I can't type accurately today. Je t'aime trop. I hate fog. The fog that rubs its back against the window pane, ugh. I hate the winter altogether. The days are so short and the sun so rare, and there is something ominous and alien in the air, anywhere for me there is. I wish I could hibernate, be a dormouse or a squirrel, and sleep until the spring liberated me once more. I hate trees without any leaves, black against a sullen sky. They are stark and uncompromising and infinitely poignant, like people stripped of all fantasy and pretence, who though admirable, are nevertheless embarrassing. Anyway November (horrors), December, January, February, March, and then the blessed April when the westron wind will blow again, and my love will be in my arms.
Writing letters to the beloved one at a moment of acute tenderness is a poor substitute for personal contact, but it has its own peculiar bliss. Anyway my treacherous fingertips keep curling, as if to stroke your hair.
Regarding Sunday, if there is no rain and no horrible menacing fog, please, please let us go out early and get the last of the summer, before everything turns to leaf mould and decay:-
Cue for song.
Les sanglots longs
Blessent mon coeur
Poor David, how boring to be afflicted with a frustrated poet, especially one stuffed with such indigestible quotations. I will go and live by myself on an Irish mountain, and add another wraith to the Celtic twilight. Goodbye, world and the light of the world. Today's too late. The wise died yesterday.
I think I had better stop this letter. I feel the old urge sweeping up, and YOU MUST NEVER DISCOVER HOW CRAZY I REALLY AM. I hope I find a letter from you this evening or tomorrow morning as a talisman against cold and damp and the creeping sinister fog.
Fare thee well thou best and dearest,
Fare thee well thou first and rarest,
no more room on the paper.
My darling beloved Mary,
Reading through your letter makes me feel very humble and yet strangely proud. At each crisis in our lives, you've always revealed such a depth of character and understanding, and an inspired sanity, that I feel both very humble and immature beside you, and yet terribly proud that I have such a wonderful person as my wife.
That sounds rather like sycophantic adoration, but isn't meant to be at all. But the more I know of you and the more I meet other people, particularly other women, so much the more am I lost in admiration for you and so much the more am I bewildered at my luck in having such an exemplary wife. This feeling is cumulative and each reminder of the depth of extent of my love and admiration for you only serves to kindle again that searing, devastating nostalgia for you and to resurrect that awful feeling of terror that something may happen to me before I've had a chance to see you again and tell you just how much I love you.
Oh darling, darling, if you only knew the agonies I go through sometimes when I think of the thousands of miles that separate us. For my own peace of mind, I repress and repress the thought of that distance, but sometimes it is quite impossible. I daydream much too much of the past, reminiscing mentally of all our wonderful happinesses together, hoping wildly and blindly that tomorrow will see us together again, by some miraculous stroke of the good fortune that used to be ours in days of old.
Tomorrow is a lovely day – when tomorrow comes. I'm afraid that when I do come back I shall be nothing but a humble and devoted lover, fearing to raise my voice lest it displease my lovely lady, or to be angry lest it distress her. Can you imagine me that way? Asked that question a few years ago, I should have replied ‘Bloody nonsense’, but knowing now the acute feeling of remorse that occurs when I recall quarrels and bickerings, as we only knew how, and how much I wish I hadn't said a lot of things I did say – I can only reply in the affirmative.
Do you see what you've done to me, even at these thousands of miles distance. Oh Mary, my beloved darling Mary, I love you to eternity and am only existing for the day we come together again – physically, mentally, spiritually and in any other way in which we can absorb each other into the one being. Existing till the moment I can hold you close in my arms, fuse your body with mine and say: ‘Time stand still’, ‘Time don't move’, and stay locked with you till the end of eternity.
Rosheen explains that she was never really allowed to see the letters between her parents until after her mother had passed away.
"[They were] out of sight because my mother's new husband had fearsome nightmares about the sudden reappearance of my dead sailor father, her passionate lover," she says. "But not out of mind.
"For although all other traces of my father rapidly disappeared - photos, records, and Griselda, his wonderful gramophone with its huge leather horn - the letters she kept with her for the rest of her life."
After carefully and lovingly editing the collection, Rosheen is set to publish the notes for the first time next year with Tinder Press.
Speaking about the collection, Publishing Director Imogen Taylor says: “I fell in love with these letters from the first; they are so incredibly vivid and detailed about their secret marriage, David’s membership of the Communist Party, Mary’s experiences at Bletchley Park and his experiences of war.
“They are evocative and poignant, and highlight the lives of two remarkable young people.”
Tinder Press will publish Letters from the Suitcase in June 2017.
Images: Rex Features, Tinder Press, iStock