Relationships between mothers and daughters are sometimes harmonious, often troubled, and always contradictory. Daughters want to break away, be independent, yet have the approval and advice of their mothers; their mothers, in turn, want to protect and defend their daughters, while willing them to stand on their own feet. This push-me-pull-you dynamic frequently remains unresolved.
Virginia Reynolds (nicknamed Boogie) was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1883, the daughter of former slave-holders and transplanted New Englanders (she was, proudly, a second cousin once-removed of Emily Dickinson). Her daughter, also Virginia (Ginnie), was born in 1908, and was given a cosmopolitan education that included a period in Biarritz and tuition in New York at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and from Martha Graham. On what was planned as a brief visit to England, she met and married a Guards officer, and settled down to a county existence among the gentry.
Three decades of letters between the two followed, and, edited by Ginnie’s daughter, they paint a picture of daily life in a very specific socio-economic group between the 1930s and the 1960s. When the letters begin, Herbert Hoover was the president of the United States and Benny Goodman was making his first recordings; by the time they close, with Boogie’s death, Kennedy had been assassinated and the Rolling Stones were storming the charts.
Boogie was the more interesting character of the two, and immeasurably the better writer. She was cultured, she went to lectures, concerts, theatre (including the Ballets Russes, and Paul Robeson in Othello), and she read widely in history, literature and even philosophy, taking in the Existentialists in her sixties and defending Diderot to a friend at the age of 83.
Ginnie, despite her avant-garde New York theatrical phase, quickly took on protective colouring, becoming stalwartly dull and philistine. ‘Jane’s brother goes to America next week to lecture... His name is Dylan Thomas and he is apparently a well-known poet — have you ever heard of him? (I haven’t.)’ Her vocabulary is equally of her time and adopted class: VE Day is ‘too gay’, the Coronation is ‘marvellous’, the invasion of Hungary ‘too dreadful’. The Beveridge Report is reduced merely to a subject of interest to her children’s nanny: Beveridge ‘is marrying Mrs Mair next week, and Nannie was with the Mairs for about 12 years’.
This banality becomes terribly moving, however, in the depiction of daily life during and after the war. Ordinary life in extraordinary times is wonderfully well evoked precisely because it is not special: the earth-shaking events, rendered in spectacularly humdrum prose, make the reader feel what tens of thousands were going through, whether it was the ‘pure gold’ of a wartime parcel from America that included soap, a dozen razor-blades, two pairs of socks and a cardigan, or the desperate, grinding shortages of the postwar period, when ‘the electrician says that if he can get some plugs he might be able to put in 2 power points — but the electric plant is on its last legs anyway... We might be able to get gas points but we cannot get gas fires for hire or buy.’
Just as evocative of a time and place is the way both women discuss race and class. Ginnie outside a nightclub sees ‘two jews with bleached blondes... Gerald [her husband] remarked that if you haven’t got a jewish nose and a Rolls-Royce there is no point going to London nowadays and I believe he is right’, while Boogie counters ‘there are a great many negroes in the service and it is difficult to get good domestic servants’. This sort of reference is scattered throughout the text, and the revelations of Auschwitz and the development of the Civil Rights movement do nothing to change them.
Ultimately, though, what comes through is the ferocious love of a mother for her daughter. Both write only elliptically of bad times — the death of Ginnie’s first child is simply ‘your troubles’ — and this makes Boogie’s occasional outbursts of maternal yearning all the more moving: ‘Of course no one can, or could, or would, ever take your place with me. That is final.’
Husbands, children, houses, friends, each takes second place to this enduring mother–daughter bond, here displayed, in all its mysteriousness, over two lifetimes.
Judith Flanders’s Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain is published by HarperCollins.