The background to Dear Mr Bigelow

Barbara Bass, selector of letters for Frances Woodsford’s Dear Mr Bigelow, published by Chatto and Radio 4 Book of The Week, relates the genesis of this remarkable portrait of postwar Britain.

If, like me, one is born on a 13th, one tends not to be superstitious. But the coincidences which culminated in my submitting this book to Andrew Lownie, make one wonder if it was fated to happen.

The letters, published by Chatto & Windus, were written to Paul Bigelow by my cousin, Frances Woodsford, when she was in her 30s and 40s, from 1949 to 1961. She will be 99 next month and predictably still feisty. (And, irrelevant coincidence, I think Andrew shares her birthday.) Mr Bigelow lived in Bellport, New York State. His daughter, Rosalind, lived in Alton, Missouri, hundreds of miles away.

My cousin began writing to Rosalind as a thank you to her, an erroneous one as it happens, for sending Frances a box of wonderful second hand clothes. Frances received this welcome but anonymous parcel back in Bournemouth after a touring holiday in USA in 1947 when the UK still had rationing after WW2. Frances assumes now the parcel must have been sent by one of three American strangers she happened to have chatted to about rationing (about which the American ladies were totally unaware) over lunch on board a boat sailing up the Californian coast. Frances had to explain to them why she was wearing a skirt she made from parachute silk that had landed in the garden and a hat she also made from multi-coloured cellophane paper removed from sweets. The box arrived with no explanatory note inside but had Rosalind’s name and address on it written under a cardboard flap, so Frances wrote to her with genuine gratitude. When Rosalind wrote back saying, “Well, obviously once my box, but not my clothes! Would you like some more?” Frances accepted the offer with alacrity and they went on corresponding.

She was not to know that Rosalind was married to a million dollar steel magnate and had a generous nature. Frances received birthday gifts from her and food parcels for the whole family at Christmas. She couldn’t afford to send generous gifts herself so when she heard that Rosalind’s father enjoyed snippets Rosalind sent him from Frances’s letters she offered to write direct to the octogenarium, now widowed, deaf and increasingly lonely, as a sort of present to Rosalind. He was looked after by a housekeeper and had friendly neighbours. He shared the letters with these good people and Frances’s escapades became a topic of conversation and laughter. He lived another twelve years after the correspondence began and my cousin wrote at least once a week. Because they knew they would never meet, my cousin wrote very openly, always entertainingly and everything was grist to her mill, so eventually Mr B. had a box made to keep the correspondence safe. He often revisited her letters so he could accuse her (entirely amiably) of being inconsistent!

After he died Frances asked for the letters back because she knew they were a remarkable weekly record of how things were in post-war England. She was told they must have been discarded when his house was sold. That was 1961.

Move on to 2006. I drove to her flat in Bournemouth to take her out for the day, as she had given up driving “before I kill someone on a roundabout!”. She was in radiant mood. She’d had a phone call. Her letters had turned up in Virginia, still in Mr Bigelow’s special box, in the basement of the house lived in by the housekeeper’s daughter and her husband. They had retained them after the death of the housekeeper, who must have treasured them and saved them from destruction, Her son in law, like Commodore Paul Bigelow in his younger days, was a keen sailor. One day he was delivering a yacht to New York with a small crew and happened to talk about the letters to a crew member who happened to be married to an in law of the Bigelow family. Hence the letters were kindly returned to the Bigelow descendants. And I, having dabbled with free lance features and then, with some very talented school boys, won 3 school national newspaper competitions, happened to be with Frances to offer to try to get them published in the very week Frances heard the letters had turned up.

I tried going direct to a publisher at first ( 3 very polite and slow rejections) because this was never going to be a book-a-year income for an agent. But my cousin wanted to hold that book in her hands and she was 96. I couldn’t wait for the slow returns from appreciative publishers who wouldn’t take a risk on an unknown writer. So I picked up a copy of Writers News. I have subscribed to this for years and sometimes I never even open it. In that copy there was an article by Andrew. I am so glad there was. I e-mailed him hoping to obey every bit of advice clearly presented on his website. And one of the many great things about Andrew is that you get a reply remarkably quickly. Frances enjoyed her 96th year enormously, as a fêted author, but I think the publication was fated as well.