Joy Street: A Wartime Romance in Letters, ed. Michael T. Wise

I love reading other people’s letters.  It is probably the fault of the Jolly Postman.  (Incidentally, Allan and Janet Ahlberg rocked my world as a little kid, and I only wish I’d known their names so I could have investigated their other books that were not Jolly Postman or Each Peach Pear Plum.)  I think it’s fascinating when two people correspond regularly over a long period of time – much more fascinating than just reading collected letters of a single person, although that can be really really interesting too.

Joy Street is the collected letters of the editor’s mother, Mirren, and her gentleman caller, Jock.  They are both a bit high-strung and well-educated, and for the time when they were exchanging letters regularly, this was extremely engaging.  Jock (John really) sounds like the kind of person who thinks way a lot about everything and loves to hear himself talk about all the thoughts he has been thinking in his head.

Somerville [her college at Oxford] in an air-raid must be a weird sight indeed – strange enough to female eyes who know the secrets of woman off her guard: an absolute fantasy to masculine imagination.  And yet it is the sudden night hours that are the touchstone of truth and beauty.  What has been discerned by human foresight can be prepared for by human artifice.  Art and artificiality are among the most entrancing adjuncts to human pleasures: they are not either truthful or beautiful.  At best they are only the human, and therefore material expression of their spiritual realities, truth and beauty; at worst a vain albeit very human attempt to conceal their absence.  There are those people whom, if their art is good, we highly estimate correctly, because – except in the sudden night hurs (I like that phrase) – we never see the core of the goodly apple.

It got a little irritating (for me – Mirren seems to have liked it), but every time I wanted to smack him, he would say something that displayed startling self-awareness, or humor at his own expense.  And as well, their letters used all these (I feel unkind saying this) cutesy codes to each other, which sometimes got to be a bit much.  I wasn’t always sure what they were on about, and I couldn’t tell whether it was because they were referring to some inside joke, or because I don’t know anything about sexual mores in the 1940s, or what.

After Jock was shipped off to Africa, and they weren’t getting each other’s letters regularly, it all got much less interesting, and I skimmed through the rest of the letters.  (He died in Africa.  It was sad.)  What intrigues me about their correspondence is how clearly their personalities come through, or rather, I guess, their personalities as they wanted to present them to each other.  They didn’t talk awfully much about the war, being too involved in discussing Serious Matters at length, including the nature of their relationship and what they both wanted from it.  I’m pleased I read it, even though I feel guilty reading people’s private letters.  Not, you know, enough to stop, but still, there’s guilt.