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Oaks in the Coppice

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Shrewsbury College

3 February 1940

Dear Jerry,

No, thank you. I’m afraid I can’t see my way to it.

It looks rather bald and brutal now that I’ve written the single syllable down in black and white. I suppose the other would also be a single syllable, but although there are times when ‘No’ can be a beautiful word, I don’t imagine you will find this to be one of them (that is, unless you see this in the light of a lucky escape that you would naturally be too gentlemanly to try to bring about. I probably ought to hope this is the case, but somehow I can’t seem to manage it; I suppose the truth is that I’m being dog-in-the-mangerish about you, which is not pretty, but apparently unavoidable in the circs. I apologize.)

I really thought I could make it ‘yes’ when I last saw you, but there was a sensible (if rather small) voice in the back of my head telling me that I had better not reply just then (the moonlight glinting off the river and the barrage balloon was taking an unfair advantage, it seemed to think!) and instead would do better to ask you to give me some time for consideration. ‘In what stiff language does maidenly modesty on these nice occasions express itself’ indeed! You no doubt found it manifestly out of place; I did myself. In fact, however, I considered little else while I was scrubbing the floor of the corridor, and while I was peeling beetroot (my fingers are now all indelibly stained; Lady Macbeth has nothing on me) and while I was taking my turn cleaning the larder, none of which are conducive to irrational sentiment. In the event, this is the only answer that came out: no, I won’t marry you.

You’ll be thinking I’m quite heartless, and if I were, I suppose this would be a less difficult letter to write. The thing is, I could very easily say yes, just at the moment: it’s all very well now, when you’re in the RAF, and we meet up when we can, but marriage is not for a moment, it’s a lifetime, and the life you could offer me isn’t one that I want. I’d simply loathe to be the Duchess of Denver and all that, and you and your family ought to have someone who would do it well. Meanwhile, I have quite a different career that I want to pursue, and I mean it to be the most important thing in the world to me. When I marry, if ever, I shall want someone to look after my interests above all else (like Mrs Woolf and her husband), and that is not likely or even possible with you. I adore your family -- especially your Uncle Peter and Aunt Harriet (and Win goes without saying; I can’t help hoping this won’t make any difference to our friendship, although of course it will) -- but I shouldn’t want them for my own; I don’t want to be devoured into ‘Lady Saint George’ or worse yet, ‘Hilary, Duchess of Denver’ and they do eat people rather, in a kind way, of course, but once you’ve been eaten, does it really matter how?

I was chatting to Miss de Vine (Perhaps you remember her? She mentioned that you’d met at some affair or other at Shrewsbury; what on earth were you doing here?) in a roundabout way, with regard to my plans; she thinks I’m a dead cert for a First, along with Win, which is heartening – your sister was a foregone conclusion, of course, but I was rather more doubtful about myself. Of course she (Miss de Vine, I mean) wouldn’t give advice on such a matter as your noble self even if I’d told her any specifics, which I didn’t, but what she did say rang true; the gist being that I ought to think very carefully about what my job in life is, and stick to it like billy-oh, whether it’s love or novels or something else entirely. I shouldn’t write the books that I know are in me, if I’m not selfish now, and anyway, my talent isn’t a burnt offering, and you wouldn’t want a wife that was, would you?

Jerry, please don’t hate me. I know we seem like a good idea to you just at present, but I don’t believe you would ever have asked me to be your wife if there weren’t this ghastly war on, and the world didn’t seem to be on the cusp of ending every other day. The thing is, I would marry you if it were just for today and there wasn’t any future for us to be miserable in, but there is, and we would be. And then again, just hypothetically, if there were only today, what would the point of getting married be? Marriage is a tomorrow thing. If you just want to know that I’m fond of you, well, I am and I probably always will be. But I won’t marry you.

Please write back, and tell me you understand. I should still like to see you when we can manage it, if you don’t utterly despise the idea, though of course I’ll understand if you do. Look after yourself. I couldn’t bear it if anything were to happen to you.




The Dower House
Bredon Hall
Duke’s Denver

28 February 1940

Dearest Harriet,

… In other news, I’ve just had a visit from Gherkins on a short weekend (Helen was quite miffed that he chose to come down to Denver instead of staying with her in Town, but she really has only herself to blame), and though the car will never be the same again – he apparently thought that the ability to fly aeroplanes meant he could fix it; the car disagreed -- this will make it easier not to use petrol. It was quite nice to see him, even if he did look pretty well extinguished, instead of in his usual rampaging spirits, not even managing to break any of the Crown Derby china, which I decided after all not to put away for the duration. Digging the Great Lawn for vegetables is one thing, but the china is quite another. Of course he didn’t talk to me; one doesn’t to a grandmother, I suppose, at least I was always terrified of mine, but I gather from Winnie’s last letter that his pursuit of Peter’s ward, Miss Thorpe (at least she was his ward, but I don’t suppose there’s any term for a once-warded, or is there?) is not going well. One doesn’t like to interfere in these matters; at least I never did with my own three, and don’t intend to with any of the next generation either. Such a mistake to give advice, when they never follow it unless they already wanted to anyway, and it’s always a terrible temptation to say ‘I told you so’ afterwards, which is the most shattering phrase in the language, don’t you think? If she has definitely refused him, one can’t blame her in the slightest, for Gherkins is many things, but not, I dare say, uxorious. Certainly neither his grandfather nor his father were, and Peter is the exception that proves the rule.

In any case, I mention it because you and he were always good friends (you and Gherkins, I mean, not you and Peter, though of course, you are as well, which is far rarer in married couples than you might think), and I thought perhaps you might just wish to sound him out and see if he’d like to talk to you about it all. If there is a Wimsey failing, it is disguising (poorly) reserved feelings with excessive frivolity. Bottled up things must have a vent, I suppose, but it tends to result in explosions, which don’t blend well with aeroplanes, or at least so I imagine.

Now about those cretonnes from Liberty’s – it will be difficult to match the pattern at present, so I think what we had better do is…

(the rest of the letter has to do with shopping.)



Great Pagford, Herts.

20 March 1940

Dear Jerry,

While you’ve honoured me with your confidence almost from the moment we first met, I can truly say that it has never touched me so much as your last letter did. Thank you. In return, I shall be completely frank with you, which – though you may not enjoy it, exactly -- is the best proof of affection that I can bestow.

Of course you are not being a nuisance (to me) though I can’t speak for how the young lady in question might feel. Or rather, perhaps I can. Though you don’t precisely say so, I feel you want me to use my influence with her, to get her to reconsider, but I don’t think it would do the slightest bit of good, and even if it might, (here comes the candour; prepare yourself!) I shouldn’t wish to do so. Hilary has always struck me as a young woman who knows her mind, and I don’t suppose you’d want a wife who had been bullied into marrying you by good advice and interference from all and sundry, especially sundry. In any case, you tell me that while she has admitted to being quite fond of you, she chooses not to pursue this, in favour of her career.

It is four years since I published a novel, and while there have been many reasons for this – among these my strong feeling that while dictators abroad provide murder in such plentitude, no sane person would wish to read about it for pleasure or escape – one of them is of course that my creative energy is now spent elsewhere, and most often on the boys. I can’t regret it – how could I? – and it is not as if a detective novel more or less could matter much to the world, but it is something I think of from time to time, with a strange wish to see what I might have written, if things had worked out differently, and I never shall. Hilary isn’t willing to give up that vision – and it is no good pretending that she wouldn’t have to if she married you. Perhaps this War will change many things, but I can’t imagine it will change that. I will say I think the better of your taste knowing its object; Hilary is not at all the girl I thought you would like, but I’m immensely pleased to be wrong on that score.

Now we come to the most important matter: don’t allow this episode to make you bitter. I offer advice to you that I was never able to follow, in the general pattern of the advice giver, but it is good nevertheless. Some of life’s worst disappointments often transmute into something ‘rich and strange,’ even as we rail against them. Things that I hated at the time – being tried for murder, for instance – have gifted me with invaluable things. ‘And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope.’ I find most of St. Paul utterly preposterous, but this particular bit is noteworthy for its good sense. You were endowed with a great many gifts at the cradle, but where there is an easy road, you’ve always taken it, and there have been plenty of easy roads offered to you, engaging scapegrace that you are. Now is your chance to show what you can do for others, and not yourself.

I was turning out the attic last week, and I found some of your Uncle’s journals from 1916-1918. I am enclosing them in this parcel. I don’t hesitate to say that he would want you to have them. He too was greatly disappointed once, but he was able to transform his unhappiness into something grand, and a great many people, myself included, are a living testament to that.

Your affectionate Aunt,




15th April …I was asked the other night if I missed Intelligence work, and I’m afraid I laughed in the chap’s face. I suppose he was thinking of being out of this damned trench. Taken all in all, it can be great fun, when it’s just ciphers and puzzles, but then you see the blood and bone behind it. Like that Indian fellow from St. John’s being shot in the street. I knew him, not well, but I knew him. He’d bowled that spectacular over when we persuaded him to make up numbers and play, rather against his will. What an epitaph! It’s queer to think that a man killed – quietly, of course -- in Berlin one week, could mean the winning of two feet, more or less, of this blood drenched earth. Do the scales balance? I suppose we must go on in the belief that they do, but how do we measure these things? I remember when I first reported to Col. R. and he said, “If you do well, you’ll get no thanks, and if you get into trouble, you’ll get no help.” I suppose he must say that to all the recruits. But how do we tell the difference between the two? I couldn’t do it any longer, I suppose; too much nerves and nose, as my Uncle Paul would say, but is it any better on this scorched ground? At least here we all face the fusillades together. It all seems futile, and somehow all I can think of is Barbara, and her lily-white hands. I must blot it out somehow…

3rd August …it’s brutally hot here, and all I can think in the night is that I want one cup of water that doesn’t taste like warm tin – cold, fresh water seems like a dream, and green fields and peace. I think from time to time of Barbara, but she’s like a dream too. It’s only her name on my lips; I can’t see her. Donne said it best, “Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one” but if I ever had it, she is gone now, and I shall never gain entry there again…

20th February …here at the Somme, overwhelmed by wind, rain, and snow. Did I ever in nursery days think that being a soldier would be some great adventure? One of my men died last week, from trench fever; he must have had a dicky heart. What an inglorious end… I simply could not face sending him back to be buried in the British cemetery, twenty miles hence, ye gods, escorted by a dozen fellows on foot. Cui bono? I had him interred in the village cemetery instead. The Staff has not yet recovered from this wild departure from the norm; fortunately, it seems Seargent Bunter is a dab hand at queries, for he had to answer no less than six thousand on the matter. There must be better ways, but no one speaks for them; the Staff is as far away as the moon. What is the point of all this if we can’t care for our own?...

10th April …the endless shells make me feel as if the world’s gone mad; it seems impossible to imagine quiet, with no screams or the constant ack-ack-ack of the guns. Another ‘blighty’ today, and yet I’m meant to keep ordering them forward, when I’m never sure if I can stick it myself. Trying to buck up the men, but I have forgotten my role as court jester, and I’m not sure if I shall ever remember it. I’m so tired...

19th August … I can no longer get the stretcher bearers to pick up wounded Boche, and one can’t blame the chaps. Still, if this war is to leach out all our humanity, what will there be left at the end? I picked up one end of a stretcher myself today, and they fired on us as we carried their own comrade. Is this what it was like when Rome fell? And yet, in these grim, small moments, perhaps the true test lies, and the moment where we must refuse to acquiesce and keep refusing...



RAF Biggen Hill

24 August 1940

Dear Hilary,

It’s been ages since I’ve seen you, and all my three-minutes-in-the–call-box are spent ringing up the mater to let her know her blue-eyed boy is still alive and kicking, so if I want to tell you something, I’ve got no choice but to write it. Not a very entertaining letter, darling, for which my apologies. I’m afraid I’m out of practice, and rather tired, but I’m not sure when I’ll next get a chance to put pen to paper, and I thought I had better do so when given the opportunity. I think I told you in my last letter that Aunt Harriet found Uncle Peter’s diaries from the last show in her attic, and sent them along, thinking no doubt they might ‘edify and amuse.’ I suppose I ought to say I was inspired, and in a way, I am, but I know I’d never have the stamina for it. Built all wrong, I suppose. There’s a certain stick-to-itiveness those old boys had, down there in all that mud, that I can’t quite imagine, and there’s an odd, touching gallantry to the whole bit – unremembered and unsung – that I don’t suppose I’d ever be able to reach: living for others, more than the grand -- and hopefully quick! -- gesture of dying for them. Probably that’s what you want in a man, and I hope (sincerely) that you find it. But it’s ‘one crowded hour of glorious life’ for me; that’s all I’m fit for and all I want anyway. Better to go this way if I must than in another hellish smash-up with no reason behind it at all. You’re not to think that I want to peg out or anything like that; far from it. You instructed me to look after myself, and I plan to. But I should have to alter my whole way of life if I come through this, and I’m not sure I want to change. If it does happen, remember that, and remember me. Perhaps you’ll put me into a novel? Only be merciful, and don’t make me out to be too much of an ass.

Yours, as ever



3 September 1940

…though it seems unimaginable now, those oaks that Gerald planted last year in the coppice will grow tall and all this madness to them will have been just a blink of an eye... Not much comfort now, though, but still we go on…