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

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

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

David’s head­stone

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