Monday, 4 January 2010
Dear Mr Bigelow (Woodsford)
Fiona from Random House very kindly made my Christmas when she sent me a copy of Dear Mr. Bigelow. I am a big fan of what I would describe as "real social history" - where the lives of people in the past are revealed through their letters and diaries, and where personal stories are combined with descriptions of everyday living conditions.
Dear Mr Bigelow brings together an edited selection of letters written by Frances Woodford in the immediate post-war period to Mr Bigelow. The correspondence arose after his daughter, Rosalind, very kindly sent the Woodfords a number of food parcels; Frances picked up that Mr Bigelow was lonely, and tried to convey her thanks to Rosalind for her generosity by writing to Mr Bigelow each week. Because she wrote on a weekly basis, the letters are almost diary-like and give a wonderful insight into Frances' life; she lived in Bournemouth and worked at the Public Baths, where she was supposedly secretary, but actually seemed to run the establishment.
I absolutely loved this book. I loved the period details, and just the descriptions of everyday incidents such as the potential cost of learning to drive, or the member of staff at the baths who eats treacle on top of his crumpets...which are already covered with toasted cheese. She talks about her reading, which includes the comedies of William Congreve, and "for the third time" Pride and Prejudice. It brings home the deprivations of the 1950s, where rationing was even harsher than during the war, with constant shortages of basics like meat.
There are also a number of wonderful illustrations, which Frances sent to Mr Bigelow - sometimes as part of the letters and sometimes separately, and several are included here, mostly amusing cartoons relating to incidents in her life.
I very much recommend these sorts of books for holiday reading - the letter format means that it can be picked up and put down, or read in a longer sitting. I had to ration myself from my usual gallop through a book to ensure that it didn't end too soon. If you liked Nella Last's diaries, Mrs Milburn's diaries, or Simon Garfield's collection Our Hidden Lives, then I am sure you will like this book - and if you liked this book then do try one of those.