Friday, 21 March 2014

Love letters from the Front - Literature of the First World War

I have been slacking terribly these last two weeks when it comes to this series but all my Friday's were strangely busy. But now I've got something different for you guys. In this "series" of First World War Literature, in which I am discussing a piece of literature or art, inspired by or created during the First World War up until the 28th of June, the anniversary of the assassination on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for many marking the beginning of the First World War.



This week I wanted to do something a little bit different than the last few weeks. I have discussed some poetry and some novels and all of these are attempts by authors to work their experiences into a narrative. As such, they go through a layer of interpretation and change and I thought that for this week, and possibly the next few, it would be interesting to look at letters. I will be talking about the first two letters from this article in the Guardian. What I love about these letters is that rather than show how the War stopped or changed everything, they are proof of how certain things will always occupy human minds and how things like love will always occur.

The first letter the article discusses is by Dora to Cecil, a school friend who is now a lieutenant and surprised her with a marriage proposal when he was at home recuperating before returning to the front. I feel her letter expresses perfectly both the fear and prospect that came together during the First World War. On the one hand, she is terrified because the future is so uncertain and she has just realised that her own emotions aren't even really under her control. On the other hand, the first line,
I have come into that little wood and am sitting under a tree only about 10 yards away from where we sat together and you asked me to marry you
comes across very composed and calm. If you think about the letter as a literary piece of work, this spot in nature is very much at the centre of their relationship. By going back there, Dora has already, in some ways, shown how attached she is not only to Cecil but also to the memory of them together. Going there helps her think and clearly, since the 'sitting' is in present tense, she is writing from there. This suggests that although the letter still seems to convey doubt, she has already made up her mind.

The way Dora describes her realisation of her love is beautiful to me. Having gone from her daily life but still being a regular presence, she had never really thought of Cecil with anything but a liking. Upon her understanding the danger he is in she clearly re-assessed her feelings, no matter how clinical that sounds. I think it is incredibly honest to admit that often love or affection come from realising you might not be able to have something you have been used to. One of the things I find so unnatural about a lot of contemporary romance fiction is that immediate love in which there is never any time apart. Absence does make the heart grow fonder if there is love there. It is only natural, therefore, that Dora now fears that Cecil doesn't love her as much as she loves him. Her love is fuelled by the fact she had to stay behind and has to wait, uncertain of what will happen, whereas she probably thinks of him as in the middle of the heat of battle.

His reply to her letter might be one of the sweetest things I've ever read in a letter. Whereas I can imagine that to some extent her letter must have hurt him, since she admitted to not really loving him before, he tries to comfort her from afar. The way he describes loving her, 'together with my Mother and my Father and my honour, but on a different scale altogether', shows how deep his affection is. One painful aspect of the exchange is the presence of the War and the fact that Cecil feels he should not have asked her during the conflict because he feels it put pressure on her. Here, I think, we get to see quite a different aspect of the War, one we didn't see in any of the other literature so far. Clearly these two are only just out of school, yet they are already coping with massive issues and feelings. I feel that their trepidation and possibly fear can be deduced from the way they word their letters. Both are very careful in their word choice, as if they aren't sure how to express themselves without changing something minute yet important.


It will hopefully make all of you happy to know that Cecil did survive without any bodily damage and the marriage happened. Some things simply can't be stopped by violence.

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