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.

33 thoughts on “Mary Hocking: Letters From Constance (1991)

  1. I am delighted you joined in with Mary Hocking reading week Caroline, and that you enjoyed this book. It is rather different to a lot of Mary Hocking novels that I have read, but you’re right it is very enjoyable with fabulous characters and would be great for a book group🙂

  2. I love how you’ve homed in on the idea that this novel has something different to say on several familiar themes in literature (motherhood, for example). As you say, it’s very refreshing to encounter this. Mary Hocking sounds like a real find.

    • She is a real find. I’m glad I discovered her. It’s very interesting what she says and she never judges, lets the readder come to his/her own conclusions. Very refreshing.

  3. I read this last year and wondered why the correspondence was one-sided. Maybe it was more interesting, and more of a challenge, to write the book that way. Thank you for pulling out so many of the things that made it special.

  4. Hey guess what? you only went and won a copy of A Particular Place – hope that’s ok. My email address is on my blog or you can Twitter DM me your UK address. Congratulations.

  5. Pingback: Mary Hocking reading week roundup and giveaway results | heavenali

  6. I am enjoying the several Mary Hocking posts that I have been reading for the week.

    I tend to really like epistolary novels. I fell that they often pack a lot of meaning into small bites.

    Including only one half of the correspondence seems puzzling and fascinating at the same time. One suspects there is a really important reason for this. I am tempted to read this for several reasons, not the least of which is to be able to form my own opinion on this mystery.

    • It is a bit of a mystery, right? While it worked, I must say I would have preferred to read Sheila’s correspondence as well. Maybe someone should write it.
      I love epistolary novels. I can’t really say why but I do. I guess it’s the feeling of looking over someone’s shoulder. I hope you’ll pick up one of her novels some day.

  7. You’ve whetted my curiosity. I imagine reading a novel composed of a letters from one person is a bit like listening to one end of a telephone conversation, and maybe the reader can fill in the gaps yourself. I read An Irrelevant Woman, and am part-way through the Fairley trilogy, but I’d love to read Letters from Constance – if I can pick one up for a reasonable price.

    • It’s a bit like listening to one end of a phone conversation, only you get more information. I was actually wondering at times, how realistic it was to paraphrase someone else’s letters to the extent she does it.
      In a way it would have been interesting – but a bit experimenrtal, if more had been implied. You see … there’s a lot to discuss here.
      This one was the only novel that seems available and not too expensive via amazon marketplace sellers. I hope you’ll find it.

  8. This is a very rich read indeed and I recall liking it very much! It has been lovely revisiting it through your post. It is one of my favorite epistolary novels and interesting that it is so well done having only half the correspondence. Didn’t they feel like real women and as if you were listening in over their shoulders? I wish I had known about this earlier and would have loved to read along, but I will pick up one of her books this year sometime–I have The Very Dead of Winter on my shelves and even had it in my hand for a moment when I was considering trying to read something–she is best not hurried, though, I think. I also have a trilogy of books that I am very keen on reading. It’s been great seeing so many posts about her work–she is being rediscovered which is very cool!

    • Very realistic. At times I had to remind myself that these are fictional characters. I was looking for your review but couldn’t find it, nly a Teaser Tuesday.
      It would have been great if you’d read along. I loved The Very Dead of Winter even more. It’s very different though. I think I wouldn’t mind reading everything she’s written. Judging from all the reviews I’ve seen, there isn’t a book that hasn’t a lot to offer. I’m looking forward to see how you get along with her other books.

  9. So far I haven’t read anything by Mary Hocking, but your review definitely makes me curious about her books. I discover thanks to you recently quite a lot of interesting books about which I was not aware until now. Thanks!

    • That’s great to know. I’m glad.
      It’s wonderful to spread the word about aujtors who are lesser known or at risk to be forgotten. It would be too bad if it happened to hear.

  10. I’d never heard of Mary Hocking until now, her books sound very rich. There is a lot going on here, I’m not sure the subject matter would entice me, but the enjoyment had from this book makes me want to read it.

    • I think there are a lot of people who’d never heard of her before Ali started her reading week series last year.
      I haven’t been disappointed so far – they are rich and the charcaters are unususal, even the more conventional ones.
      I abslutely loved The Dead of Winter – if you can get that you’re in for a treat.

  11. Wonderful review, Caroline! I found the author’s idea of including the correspondence of only one of the main characters (and making us guess on what the other wrote) very fascinating. The two main characters Constance and Sheila seem to be quite different from your description and each very fascinating in her own right. I loved what you said about the perception of others and about favourite children. I think when people correspond for many years each imagines on how the other lives and when they actually get to meet the other person, the reality seems to be so different. I think one of the reasons might be that we see the inner person revealed in the correspondence and the person on the outside might look very different from that when we meet the person in the real world. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I’m glad you liked it.
      It’s very true what you say about the picture we have in mind about people we correspond with. And that it’s the inner perosn we see. A bit like the exchange on blogs, right?🙂
      The book is also about idealizing people and their lives. Constnace always thiks that Sheila’s life is more interesting.
      I find it troubling when people say they love all of their children the same but whenever they talk about them they only mention/praise one and it’s as if the other didn’t even exist. I suppose it must be difficult to admit that one is closer to their heart.
      I think it wasn’t easy to stick to one correspondence.

  12. Oh, great review, Caroline. I don’t usually pick up epistolary novels, but have to admit I liked the few that I read. I am curious about this one and The Very Dead of Winter.

    • She’s a very subtle writer and this book doesn’t disappoint. I love atmospheric novels, that’s why I loved The Dead of Winter more but this one has a lot to offer. I hope you’ll like her, should you pick her up.

  13. What an interesting book. I do appreciate it when books are thematically rich and leave you with a lot to think about. I was sorry not to be able to join in the reading week, but I definitely do want to read Mary Hocking. Intriguing takes on the lives of women are very appealing to me.

    • I think she’s a writer for you. There are some minor flaws in the structures of her novels but her ideas are so engaging. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on her books.

  14. This is something I’d enjoy as I like epistolary novels. Thanks for the pointer.

    PS: I think that when parents say they love their children “the same”, they mean “as much”. Each child deserves the same amount of love but doesn’t need it expressed the same way.

    • I think you’d like her writing.
      Emma, I’m sure there are parents who love all of their children “as much” but very often I saw that this wasn’t the case at all.
      THey tried not to show it but you could still sense it. But I’m sure they all tried.

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