Letters in a suitcase
A discovery in her mother’s attic brought startling revelations to author Rosheen Finnigan of young love cut short by war – as well as a long forgotten connection to Suffolk. Catherine Larner hears her extraordinary story
A heartrending story of lost war time love and a father who was found
“THERE’S nothing for you in there,” she was told firmly when, as a young girl, she had stepped into the attic one day. She had glimpsed a large old suitcase but had no idea that what it contained would hold such significance. Hundreds of letters were stored inside, buried away, detailing a passionate love affair tragically cut short by the war. It was the correspondence between Mary and David Francis, her mother and father.
“My mother never talked about my father to me,” says Rosheen Finnigan. “It was a taboo area. She always thought it didn’t have much to do with me, which was the funny thing. She thought it was her tragedy, he was her lover.” But as Mary neared the end of her life, she began to soften and ultimately handed over the entire bundle of around 300 letters. “In doing so, she gave me my father,” Rosheen says. The letters were extraordinary.
“They wrote everything. It’s a revelation about young people’s lives at the time. When you are young and bright and busy, and in love, life is good, even though there’s a war.” Mary and David met at a party at Angel House, near the City Road, in London. She was 21, born in Ireland but London-raised, he was 19 and privately educated. They married, against David’s parents’ wishes, and soon had a young daughter.
They revelled in London life, delighting in the films they saw, the music, literature, the community and conversations. Disillusioned with world affairs, they pursued the promises of peace and plenty offered by the Communist Party. Then, called to action for the war effort, Mary became a secretary at Bletchley Park and David joined the Royal Navy. Here, he played a major planning role as part of Mountbatten’s staff in the invasion of Vichy Madagascar before moving on to intelligence. But five years after he met Mary, David died in India.
“It was very traumatic. My father and my mother’s brother died within two months of each other,” says Rosheen. “My father was in India and she must have thought he was removed from danger. She was young and very bright and intelligent, but to have that loss - I think she just buried everything so deeply.”
David and Mary had written to each other frequently, sometimes two or three times a day, and on his death Mary’s letters were returned to her with David’s effects.
“Often collections of letters are one-sided,”
“We got absorbed by it. It took years to put it all together. But we thought all along that we should have the letters published”
says Rosheen, “so it’s unusual to have both sets. And they’re wonderful – wonderful because they’re so good! It was almost as if they were writing for posterity, but they weren’t. Imagine if these had been boring letters!” Many of the letters were dated or in franked envelopes, so Rosheen was able to put them together in a rough order of chronology while her husband, Cal, then started to fill in the gaps by investigating the references.
“It took a lot of untangling,” says Cal. “Ro’s mother hadn’t talked about any of this. There were some astonishing discoveries.”
“We got absorbed by it,” says Rosheen. “It took years to put it all together. But we thought all along that we should have the letters published. We wanted people to see them.” Cal and Rosheen looked to other family members to give them another perspective on the material and received great encouragement from TV’s Richard and Judy. Cal’s sister is Judy Finnigan, and both she and her husband Richard Madeley, have been very supportive of the project.
“We had left the synopsis with them when we visited, and Richard rang us when we got home to encourage us to publish,” says Cal.
“It was all very exciting,” says Rosheen, “and so interesting to see the response that people had when they read the letters.” While there is a great deal which will be of interest to social, political and military historians, Rosheen’s own story of an unorthodox upbringing is no less extraordinary. She has made some fascinating personal connections through reading the letters, not least getting to know something of her father’s character after all these years.
“I fell in love with him in a way. He was bright, not as serious or as intense as my mother, and he was passionate and faithful.” She was also able to understand her mother more clearly.
When David died, Mary took a job in documentary filmmaking and sent Rosheen away to school – at the age of three. It was seven years before the two would live together again permanently and it remained an often distant and unusual relationship.
“She always saw things in relation to herself. It would have surprised her to think that I really would have loved to have known about my father. I grew up slightly one-sided, in a sense.”
While mother and daughter sometimes struggled to bond, Cal and Rosheen have enjoyed a happy family life in London and Paris and, since retiring here 20 years ago, in the Stour Valley. They thought themselves drawn to this area through visiting an elderly aunt, but it seems the pull was stronger yet.
“I found I actually lived here!” says Rosheen. She knew she had been sent to school, but the letters revealed where that was. “It was just down the road at Assington!” A modest discovery, but no less a delight. ‘Letters from the Suitcase’ is published by Headline Books, £18.99 and is available in a Kindle version.
David in uniform
Cal and Ros Finnigan