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?