Mary Hocking: Letters From Constance (1991)

Letters From Constance

I think it speaks for the quality of a book when you feel like discussing it. Mary Hocking’s Letters From Constance is such a book. There’s so much to discuss. Characters, themes, and even the structure of the book. As the title indicates, Letters From Constance is an epistolary novel. A genre I’m particularly fond of and so it’s not surprising that I liked this novel very much.

Constance and Sheila met when they were only kids, in 1933. They were inseparable during their school years and confident they would stay close in the future. While they stayed close emotionally, they were often separeted. Sometimes for many months, even years. During those times of physical absence, they wrote letters. The novel renders one part of that correspondence that lasted from 1939 to 1984– the letters from Constance to Sheila. Those from Sheila to Constance had to be destroyed. In lesser hands this one-sided correspondence would have felt lacking, but the richness of the letters, the depth of Constance’s analysis and feelings, and her love for her friend, make sure Sheila’s just as present as the writer of the letters.

Constance and Sheila are very different and so are their life choices. While Constance marries an Irishman, Fergus, whom she met while she was posted to Ireland in the WRNS, Sheila marries the musician Miles. Constance has seven children, Sheila has two. Ever since they were teenagers, Sheila wrote poems and Constance was sure she would become a famous poet. It takes decades and a lot of heartache before Sheila finally follows her calling. One could say, she needed a detour to land on her path, while Constance follows her own calling intuitively. There are three things that define Constance – her friendship with Sheila, her children, and her religion.

I was surprised by this book because it’s very different from the first Mary Hocking (The Very Dead of Winter) I read. I must say I loved the first one more – it was richer in atmosphere and descriptions -, but it didn’t make me want to discuss it while this one did. There are so many themes explored it’s hard to name them all. I’ll just pick a few.

Motherhood. Maybe this is the main topic and the way it’s treated is arresting because there are so many elements attached to it. We are introduced to a multitude of mothers. First the mothers of the main protagonists, then the two friends, and finally their friends and daughters. Each woman stands for another type of mother/mothering but – and that’s what’s so great – not one of them is one-dimensional or clichéd.

Love for the children. More interesting than different types of motherhood is how Constance describes herself as a mother. She’s not one mother, but seven different mothers, depending on which child she’s talking about. All the parents of more than one child I know pretend they love all of their children the same. It’s something I’ve a hard time believing and sometimes you just have to listen to them and you know it’s not true. I’m sure they try to treat all of their children the same way, love them all, but there will always be one that’s closer to their heart. Funny enough, when you ask people with siblings, they will tell you that they experienced this, that one was the mother’s favourite, while another one was preferred by the father . . . In the novel Constance, openly names a favourite child. She also says which one she thinks is the most intelligent, the best looking . . .  nonetheless she’s just and does love them all. I found that very refreshing, because it’s the way we are. Be it friends, colleagues, siblings, kids, even animals, there’s always one we feel more connected to. I suspect that a lot of heartache comes from our trying to deny this.

The role of women. The novel spans far over half a century and captures the changes in the lives of women, their changing roles, and status. There’s a lot that’s worth discussing here as well.

Religion. While Sheila’s an agnostic, Constance converts to Catholicism. Not because she’s married an Irishman, but because she discovers some writings that help her cope, understand life, and approach it in a more philosophical way. One author who is mentioned is Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), a French Jesuit priest. I looked him up and what I read sounds very interesting and reminded me a bit of Greek philosopher Epictetus.

The perception of others. For a long time Constance envies Sheila. Her life, her home, her marriage. It sounds freer, more creative. For her, seeing Sheila and her family together, making music, equals a vision of  paradise. Over the years we learn that things were very different. I think Mary Hocking touches upon something that happens very often— we haven an idea of people and, eventually, we don’t even see the real people anymore and, through comparison, we don’t even see ourselves.

Structure. This is another of the things I would have loved to discuss. Why did Mary Hocking choose to include only one part of the correspondence? And why did she choose Constance’s? Maybe it’s unfair, but I often thought that Sheila sounded like the more interesting woman.

As I said, I didn’t love this as much as The Very Dead of Winter, even so it is a wonderfully rich novel. One that would make a particularly great choice for a book group. I’m pretty sure it would lead to fascinating discussions.

Unfortunately I don’t know a lot about Mary Hocking. I wonder whether she was more like Constance or more like Sheila – I guess the latter.

This review is part of Heavenali’s Mary Hocking Week. She read and reviewed Letters From Constance last year. Here’s the review.

Are You Ready for Mary Hocking Week?

#Remember Mary Hocking

I discovered Mary Hocking last year, thanks to Heavenali‘s Mary Hocking Week. So, of course, I was keen on joining when I saw she was going to do another week this year.

Last year I read the wonderful The Very Dead of Winter. This year I will read Letters From Constance, which I first discovered a while back on Danielle’s blog here.

Letters From Constance

Here’s the synopsis should anyone be interested in reading along:

In 1939, as they leave school, Constance and Sheila vow to keep in touch. Posted to Ireland in the WRNS, Constance marries Fergus, a gregarious Irishman. Before long, stifled by domesticity and motherhood, she envies Sheila, writing poetry and married to the fiercely creative Miles. Gradually, however, a different reality emerges, for Constance has unacknowledged talents of her own, while Sheila’s public success is bought at great personal cost. From the war to the 1980s, Constance writes to Sheila of her everyday hopes and sorrows, and through her we learn much of Sheila’s gallantry and courage. We learn, too, of the social and political developments that challenge and shape her values, until finally outside events come too close and the fragile balance of Constance’s own world is threatened.

There are many Mary Hocking novels that sound amazing but they are not easy to get. Many are out of print. I managed to get a used copy of Letters From Constance.

Mary Hocking Week starts next Monday, so if you want to join, you have to hurry up a bit. Here are the details.

Will you join as well? What are you going to read?

Mary Hocking: The Very Dead of Winter (1993)

The Very Dead of Winter

I’m so glad I came upon Heavenali’s Mary Hocking Month and discovered the brittle beauty of the novel The Very Dead of Winter and its cast of eccentric characters.With her wry humor and sharp eye for social comedy Mary Hocking can be firmly placed in the tradition of British women writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Susan Townsend Warner, Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark.

Take a dysfunctional family, put them in a snowed in cottage at Christmas, with one of them slowly dying, and watch what will happen. I can guarantee you it will never be boring. The sisters Florence and Sophia used to spend their childhood holidays at the cottage. Now, in their sixties, they have come here for a special family reunion. Sophia is the owner of the cottage; Sophia’s sister Florence, her dying husband Konrad and their grown-up children Nicholas and Anita are guests.

What would be a testing moment for any family turns into a sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious adventure. With the exception of Sophia and Konrad, these are some of the most selfish, narcissistic people I’ve ever come across in a novel. Florence is a master manipulator but she’s not very subtle, which leads to hilarious moments. Anita, her daughter, a child psychologist who doesn’t like children, has been under her thumb her whole life. Being with her mother is like being on a battle field when both parties are too tired to strike. They say the nastiest things in the world to each other but they can’t really fight openly.

“My mother is too big for me: She dwarfs everyone around her – except my father,” Anita shouted in to the wind. “There’s never any peace where she is, nowhere I can feel I am me. All my childhood I had to stay clenched tight, ready to parry thrusts from my mother.”

Nicholas isn’t any less dysfunctional he just handles it differently and doesn’t really communicate with any of them.

The book offers wonderful character portraits and an abundance of scenes I’m not likely to forget. In one instance, Florence decides to go to church in the middle of the night, right through the snowed in forest. What would be challenging during the day in summer turns into a dangerous expedition. Anita, although she’s terribly annoyed with her mother, feels obliged to go with her. Of course, it’s far too exhausting and Florence collapses in the middle of the woods. She’s a heavy woman and slender Anita isn’t capable of carrying her. Luckily they stumble over a half-frozen pony, and because she has no means to guide the animal, Anita takes drastic measures. I’m not going to reveal what she does. It’s nothing tragic, just wildly crazy.

Florence is a great character, she’s scheming and manipulative, driven by fear of abandonment, which makes her do foolish things. She lives in constant disappointment with everyone around her, always expecting them to serve her narcissistic purposes. She’s only interested in what people can be or do for her, but takes no interest in their personalities. She has no idea for example who her husband is, where he came from – he is German – or what his dreams and hopes are. Once it’s obvious he will die, filled with the horror of future loneliness, she clumsily tries to capture a widower who lives near by. The ensuing scenes are some of the funniest. Desperate as she is, she even thinks she can manipulate her grown-up children to come back to live with her. One of her favourite techniques is finding her own faults in everyone else.

“Dear God,” Florence said. “What has happened to me?”

Standing there, in the center of the room, it was as if she had come on stage to find herself in an unfamiliar play. She was, above all else, a performer, and to find that she had got the performance wrong was deeply disquieting.

I really liked The Very Dead of Winter are great deal. Not only for its wry humour and psychological insight, but also for some lovely descriptions. It’s not a flawless novel, there are a few instances of shifty point of view, but that didn’t diminish the experience one bit. I’ll certainly read more of Mary Hocking, might even re-read The Very Dead of Winter.

I leave you with two final quotes, one from the beginning of the novel, the other can be found towards the end:

The beginning of the journey had been enchanting. Porcelain blue sky and the sparkling white canopy transformed dingy streets into fantasies of unimaginable purity and, passing out of town, they came to broad fields where sunlight reflected the trellis of branches like veins across the snow.

She stood there a long time while the shadows crept towards her, deeps of blue from which a tree stump rose like the funnel of a sunken steamer. On the other side of the hedge, and between the bars of the gate, the sharpness of outline blurred into a mist of pink and grey shot through here and there with a shee of palest turquoise.

Some Plans: Spanish Literature – Japanese Literature and Mary Hocking

Japanese Literature Challenge

I’m not good at sticking to plans and projects these days. Especially not when I add reading lists to my intro posts. That jinxes it every time. Therefore, I’m not going to make the same mistake again and just let you know that I will take part in three events. Maybe these announcements will inspire the one or the other to join as well.

First up is Heavenali’s Mary Hocking Reading Month. I’d never heard of the author, nor was I familiar withHeavenali’s blog before I saw an announcement on Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings. Browsing told me that Mary Hocking is right up my street and I decided, if I can get one of her many novels (many are out of print), I’ll join. So this is the only plan I’m sharing. I’ll be reading Mary Hocking’s The Very Dead of Winter.

The Very Dead of Winter

Here’s the blurb

This is a portrait of a family forced to confront the grievances of their shared past. In the very dead of winter they assemble at a remote country cottage enveloped in snow. Mary Hocking has also written “Good Daughters, Indifferent Heroes”, “Welcome Strangers” and “An Irrelevant Women”.

Should you want to join, there are quite a lot of used copies available. She’s written a lot of books, many of which have been published by Virago and are still in print. You can find a list on Heavenali’s blog.


July is Spanish Literature Month hosted by Richard (Caravana de Recuerdos) and Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog). Two years ago, when they hosted the first Spanish Literature Month I had some wonderful plans and failed miserably. This year it should be different. I’ve been collecting books for the event, the general direction might be crime, but I’ll decide what I’ll read spontaneously.

Japanese Literature Challenge

Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Month 8 has started on the first of June and runs until the end of January 2015. On Bellezza’s blog you’ll find reading suggestions and links to the review site. This year I will read whatever I like, without taking into consideration whether or not the book has been translated into English. Hopefully I’ll be in the mood for something that has been widely transalated.

Will you participate in any of these events?