Midnight Again: The Wartime Letters of Helen Ramsey Turtle, edited by John Wilson Foster, Mahee Island Press / Blackstaff Press, 514pp, £19.19 ISBN: 978-1527294110
This is a powerfully elegiac book of letters written by an American woman, Helen Ramsey Turtle, who married into an upper middle class Northern Protestant family and found herself cut off from her sister and mother in Denver, in the years leading up to and during the Second World War (1939-45). “If you sit down and think what the continent of Europe must be like,” she writes on November 22nd, 1939, “it would drive you bugs – Czechs, Austrians, Poles and Spaniards – all with nothing and all refugees wandering around and whole populations on the move – sisters, it certainly stinks!!” In the space of a few months she is writing to a friend (March 5th, 1940): “there is no desperation or urgency about war work we women do; and apart from the growing consciousness of a changing world and the four daily news bulletins of war news our lives [in Belfast] are peaceful enough”. A little later again (June 2nd, 1940) in the family’s second home, a cottage in the wondrous Strangford Lough of south county Down, we get a flavour of Helen’s almost Woolf-like self-dramatisation:
The garden is a picture – with half the length of the border a bloom with lupins, a laburnum tree showering “garden rain” (the German name for it) yellow poppies, orange wall flowers, pink and red painted daisies and everything else ready to burst into flower … I love to walk around this house at night – there is such a summery feel to it, tennis shoes on the bare floors, airy curtains or none, and of course the outdoors right there. Every night nearly when I am ready for bed, I just walk out of the bathroom and one step more out the front door and the night air, stars and smell of the sea always hit so afresh and I like it all over again every night.
The book, which can be read on different levels – as autobiography, social and cultural history, even in part as fiction – reveals a bustling, energetic life, full of cinema-going, lunches, teas, suppers, dinner dances, meetings of the Drawing Room Circle, charity work, family rearing, reading (lots and lots of reading) and much else. Centre stage are various places – Belfast (Belmont Road, Malone Road), Mahee Island (Strangford), Dublin (yay, party-time!) – and places off-stage including London, and several other British and commonwealth towns and cities, and Denver, the family home base in the US.
Also centre stage is the radio, the lifeline for this bright and fascinated woman, keen to follow what is going on in the world while her husband, the wonderfully named Lancelot, when not looking after his bees and their home from home in Mahee Island, does a little stock-brokering on the side.
A cast of hundreds play through their and their daughters’ lives as war encroaches from rumour, false dawn, false hope, phoney war, and then reality hits, with the loss of friends’ husbands and sons and the shock of the Blitz in Belfast (1941).
The progress of the war falls like a cyclorama around each and every day – rationing, travelling in darkness, undisclosed anxieties and tension. All feeds into a powerful narrative of “getting on with it”. But the portrait of a class which emerges from these pages – linen, manufacturing, fabrication, ship- and aircraft-making magnates ‑ and their “Big Houses” scattered across the Northern landscape, is a little-enough-known tale. It is here in abundance and deserving of serious study when the reiterations of national identity are discussed in Ireland, North and South.
At times this reader became irritated by the endless rustle of gossip and complaint about cooks, nurses and maids and there is a discomforting beat of Highs and Lows about who is meeting whom and why. But these are minor notes as the intelligence and sheer love of life of Helen Ramsey Turtle shines through, even in the most challenging of moments: “Most unluckily I have to have an operation on Thursday,” she writes on July 26th, 1943; a few months earlier that year she had given birth to Mary Lee, her third daughter.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in August, she writes bravely about her radical treatment and recuperation: “Now it is 2 weeks tomorrow and I really feel fine – don’t even take a nap after lunch and sleep like a top from 10 to 7 every morning and have I been spoiled – I always have 2 vases of flowers in my room ‑ … I personally am as optimistic as a June bug ‑ I even take a warped pleasure in having had so awful a thing – cancer at my age is sensational but I am as sure as eggs is eggs that it is gone where the woodbine twineth and the wang doodle mourneth’ [Helen’s italics; she is quoting from a popular American song, the omniscient editor informs us.]
Helen busies herself with all sorts of activity, helping out when the American troops arrive and trying to comfort the young boys listening to their stories about home and family. I was intrigued to read about a somewhat earlier experience of Helen’s which confirms a story I had heard as a young boy in the Belfast of the late 1950s. My mother spoke of how my grandmother, her mother, had befriended and sheltered in the family home in Duncairn Gardens refugee families, many of whom were en route to Canada. A much fuller story emerges from these rich and abundantly realised pages.
There is much to commend here in John Wilson Foster’s extraordinary editing and afterword, along with the foreword and postscript by Julie Turtle Mackie; it must have been a massive task. Running alongside the texts of letters there is Foster’s historical and cultural record of each and every reference, which lifts Midnight Again to a completely higher level of scholarship. These form not merely an ancillary narrative (of footnotes) but are an essential part of this momentous book; a truly significant recovered voice from the 1930s and ’40s. (As someone who used to get weak at the knees at the request of publishers to compile an index, I have to say ‑ with clenched teeth ‑ that Midnight Again really could do with an index such is the range and scope of cross-references and maybe a dramatis personae could help identify all the numerous names for ease of access.)
There is very real creative potential here, too. Midnight Again awaits a stage treatment and certainly it is ideally placed to make a series of entertaining and challenging excerpts for radio broadcast. I was greatly moved by Helen, even if some of her opinions grated and on occasion a kind of impersonated snobbery crept in here and there, along with very rare cultural stereotyping (reflecting its time) but no longer acceptable. Here she is, however, describing a November day in 1941:
There has been a gale blowing for nearly 48 hours now right smack against the front of our house and we spend our entire time battling with the elements inside the house. Every single window leaks even the steel one in the dining room and in this, our new living room, it is like a bubbling spring to listen to and like a flood to deal with! We have towels, bathmats, tea towels, chamois and wash cloths on all the window sills and we have to renew them two or three times a day. The noise of the rain on the windows is deafening, the wind howls and roars in the trees and around the house the telephone rings and tinkles all the time but doesn’t work and great gray waves with white tops crash against the wall all day because it has been raging since Saturday evening and this is Monday afternoon … I listened to the radio and told the children a story at lunch-time.
Helen didn’t make it beyond her thirty-fifth birthday, as her daughter Julie informs the reader, but the tragic loss of such a dynamic questing presence is somewhat redressed by the legacy of her thought-provoking, entertaining, contradictory and humane letters. I found them alive and alert to their time and ours like the writing in one of those first-class novels she devoured with such relish.
Gerald Dawe’s Northern Windows/Southern Stars: Selected Early Essays 1983-1994 and Dreaming of Home: Seven Irish Writers are published by Peter Lang. His sequence of poems Revenant, with images by John Behan, has just been published in a limited edition by Ashfield Press.