7 March 2015

My Dear Bessie by Simon Garfield, Chris Barker and Bessie Moore

Hey everyone,

This last week I’ve taken a break from reading Romance and have instead become absorbed with My Dear Bessie, a non-fiction book edited by Simon Garfield. I was draw this this book because it contains some of the five-hundred plus letters exchanged by Chris Barker and Bessie Moore during the course of WWII.

The book:

In September 1943, a twenty-nine-year-old postal clerk from North London named Chris Barker found a spare hour to write to a work colleague named Bessie Moore. His letter was innocent enough, but Bessie's response was unexpectedly enthusiastic. By their third exchange, it was clear to both of them they had ignited a passion that would not easily be extinguished. Within a few months, the couple had agreed to marry.

But there were complications, such as not actually seeing each other. Barker was serving as a signalman in North Africa during the war, and their passionate romance through the mail would have to survive three years of unusual obstacles, including ruined cities, enemy capture, disdain from friends and the army censor. The couple exchanged more than 500 letters, and this book distils the most alluring, compelling and heartwarming. 

My thoughts:

I loved reading My Dear Bessie for the romance it contained, for the way it humanised the War experience and for the glimpse it offers the reader into the past. When Chris and Bessie first start corresponding they are merely friends and yet it was Bessie’s first crucial reply that would change both of their lives forever.

‘I was quite OK before I got your first letter. I was rational, objective. But now that you have my ear – I must give you my heart as well! No doubt it is wrong, certainly it is indiscreet, to blurt out such things when the future laughs that only presents conditions make me like this. But I am like this.’

Due to practical reasons explained in the books introduction the majority of the letters in My Dear Bessie are written by Chris and yet the reader is able to gain such an insight in to both Chris and Bessie’s personalities. Both are strong Labour supporters; Chris leans heavily towards Socialism even during the Greece occupation and Bessie helps Labour with the 1945 election. They are pragmatic yet romantic, youthful yet mature, unconventional yet traditional.

Although the War is an ever-present backdrop to their relationship, it was interesting to see that they had similar concerns to modern couples. For example Bessie worries during one letter that Chris will not love her any more as she has had her molars taken out. In response Chris replies:

‘You do want me to tell you, here, that I love you though you be molar-less? I do!’

Like any courting couple they send gifts and trinkets to each other, with Chris in particular sending Bessie fruits and nuts during his time in Italy and Greece. Likewise Bessie keeps Chris up-to-date with the political developments back home, sending him newspaper articles and clippings of interest.

We, the reader, are able to watch as the tone of their letter changes, something particularly noticeable after the couples two meetings. These meetings affirm their love and commitment to each other, and yet it also makes the physical separation harder.

‘Don’t hold out on me. Let me have you, every bit of you that I can. You are wonderful.’

Towards the end of the War Chris starts to question the affect it will have had on his fellow soldiers, whether they will able to return to civilian life unburdened by their experience. Arguably it was his love for Bessie that kept him grounded as it allowed him to imagine a home and a life beyond the war. It gave him something to return to, something to hope for that perhaps some of the younger soldiers lacked.

Overall this was a wonderful book and I would highly recommend it to anyone. Allow yourself to be swept away by Chris and Bessie’s love for each other.

My rating:
Happy reading everyone and see you next time!