Dolly’s sad search for a man

She might have been a 1920s shop-girl bored witless by rural life and struggling to find a bloke but her letters have the power to capture hearts and minds 80 years on – including those of American academics at an Ivy League university. Steven Russell hears the story

“She was from the ‘universal aunt’ generation of spinsters who couldn’t really get married because there just weren’t enough of the right men, and suffered so over this. Then we got the history of the development of women’s sexuality. She was just on the edge of daring to have proper affairs with people, but not quite getting there. I found it immensely touching.”

Dolly, he says, lived a quiet life in the market town, though not by choice.

She worked as a draper’s assistant, was involved with the Girl Guides, and had some of her verses published by the Guides magazine – but her ambitions stretched further than Suffolk and her mind was often occupied by the quest for a male companion.

She tells one correspondent: “Framlingham lies at the back of beyond and though I have plenty of girl friends I haven’t a man pal in the world. Those in Framlingham do not appeal to me, and as I have no relations beyond an aunt and two cousins with whom I live I have had no chance of meeting those outside its environs. Indeed if it were not for my love of reading, and the fact that I’m a Girl Guide and a member of an Amateur Dramatic Society, I should feel like dying of boredom.”

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Perhaps making matters worse was the fact her three best friends escaped the gravitational pull of the town: Molly went to Canada and Phyllis to Argentina. The peculiarly-named Quempty, says Ed, “only got as far as Whitstable, but in good company, with her new husband, the Shetland-born artist Peter Fraser”. (His best-known image is the wartime poster of a jaunty fellow strolling back from his allotment beneath the slogan “Dig on for Victory”.)

“Her only close male friend is Geoffrey Herbert-Welch, with whom she falls in love, and who tells her it can’t go anywhere, seemingly because of what he calls her anxiety about the ‘more than friendship’ elements of love. Indeed he tells her twice, a couple of years apart in the early 1920s, that it would be impossible, because he’s too keen on enjoying himself, especially as regards ‘the lusts of the flesh’.

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“In a sadly-comic passage he writes: ‘My pals who know my reputation well would not believe that we spent the night together in that tent and that you remain a maiden.’

“Geoff tries hard to break away from Fram, getting as far as Eltham, in South-East London, before ending up in Ipswich. His home town had almost as tight a grip on him as it did on Dolly: keen on writing for a living, his only recorded publication is in fact the programme for the 1931 Framlingham Pageant.”

It was in June, at a London book fair, that Ed parted with �300 for a wooden chest containing about 500 letters sent to Dolly between the 1920s and ’40s – many from men looking to correspondent with a bright young thing and perhaps see it develop into something more.

Some of the letter-writers came via the Universal Correspondence Club, which Dolly joined and which Ed describes as “a slightly murky lonely hearts introduction agency”. How so? “There were public scandals about such clubs for being too close to pimping agencies!”

One fellow from South Carolina writes in 1922: “. . . my age is twenty-seven, and in the Marine Corps Band I play the cornet and double Bflat Brass voices, I like young and pretty girls who can dance, especially English ones . . . I am sorry I am not very good looking, but I have a gentle disposition, & do not smoke or drink or chew, & admire all things beautiful”.

Meanwhile, a warder in the Military Detention Barracks in Sailkot, Punjab, asks in 1931: “I am wondering if you are still desirous of receiving correspondence.” Later, says Ed, “in a subsequent and eloquent pitch which makes the Detention Barracks sound most attractive, (he) quotes some of her self-deprecation back to her. ‘So you are a shop assistant and have no prospects of being more! Little Lady – I’m afraid that’s not the spirit!’

“The brass player’s correspondence is significant, for we have her retained copy of her introductory letter to him, with her description of herself: ‘Well, I am 25, (older or younger than you, I wonder?), my height I am uncertain of but it is somewhere around five feet nothing, and I have dark hair and blue grey eyes. I believe I am fairly intelligent, but that fact I must leave you to judge of . . . I am only a shop assistant so you may not care in that case to write to me.’”

One envelope contains cheerful love poetry written by a Frank, and a slightly desperate letter from an American wanting to come to her. With them in the same envelope is a British newspaper cutting warning of the moral danger of the Universal Correspondence Club.

The more Ed read, the more enthralled he became as experiences, flawed hopes and dreams floated before his eyes. “I’ve always been a great sucker for these untold lives, and she had a great one – especially with this correspondence club business.

“I really bought it initially as an aesthetic object: that chest with letters bursting forth and that sense of life – and the sense of hoarding.

“I’m afraid I’m overambitious about these things and see it as a metaphor for the aspects of humanity by which we are all Titans in our own lives and in our own minds. When you come across these expositions of the ego of uncelebrated people it reminds you that history is not made up just of Churchills, it’s made up of all these ‘little people’. I always find it terribly moving.”

Learning about these “ordinary” lives “is the opposite of the Kerry Katona culture. Who cares! Each of us is our own celebrity”.

The collection also featured literature from the Anglo-American and Canadian Matrimonial Bureau, “run from the same address as the UCC [Universal Correspondence Club], though with no indication that she embarked on this higher level of involvement.

“The most prominent correspondent is ‘Roy’, Edward John Hawes, who works for Standard Oil, and writes from Calcutta, Karachi, Ceylon, Australia, New Zealand, U.S.A. and occasionally England.

“He refers at one point to a court case, which was in fact the lead legal story in The Times for several days.

“It is rather picturesque: he was sued for breach of promise by one Comfort Hayde who, according to the court reports, at one time had ‘an evening position at one of the dancing clubs on a commission basis’. They met in India, and he bought her a diamond ring for �150.”

They returned to England on the same ship and spent several days in a London hotel together – just the one room. “She won the case, but was awarded no costs and a farthing’s damages; the judge’s way of saying she was no better than she ought to be.

“Roy writes to Dolly about the case ‘Thank you very much for your frank letter of 15 July but if you are willing, I just want our friendship to go on as usual & as if nothing had happened. There is no reason at all why it shouldn’t.’”

He seems quite candid about the legal proceedings “and makes the startling suggestion that ‘you could come up to London again for a day & probably be a witness for me. You see with all my friends & people I like, I always find myself right and never make any secret of the fact that I’m still married & this misguided girl was told & therefore knew, altho she’s trying to make it a point that she didn’t know. Evidence will be taken out here on commission & I can get any amount of it but you on the spot could be a real help, after which we could celebrate together again in town.’

“Roy may have had a girl in every port, for the court report refers to a previous broken-off engagement in the early 1920s. Although he certainly knew Dolly then, there’s no indication that it was she.

“He was either playing a very long game or was genuinely happy just writing, for they seldom met: once or twice for a date in London. There are some elements of mistressness in the relationship – gifts, sometimes of money, are passed, and in 1923 he proposes that she become the heir to an investment he is making.

“A critical moment in their relationship happens in 1928: ‘Dear Dollie [the spellings vary] I’ve tried to make you forget me, but I see it’s no use. I thought after I told you I was married (altho’ unhappily) it would make a difference. But it doesn’t seem to have done so. Between real friends there’s no reason why it should. I thought it unfair to let it go on for your sake. However we’ll let it go at that, if you are willing . . . Can you forget my horrid treatment this last year & let us go on as we used to do?’

“This letter uniquely is double-folded, and looks like it was carried for some time in a purse or handbag – misery is best kept close – and next to it in the chest is a desperate verse written on the back of an envelope.” (“If you leave me, I shall not die” – but – “I shall be dead.”)

“Clearly this crisis was overcome,” explains Ed, “for a year later they’re planning a weekend in Paris, though this never came off, for reasons which are unclear, and instead she takes a trip on her own to Switzerland.”

The Berkeley Square bookseller reckons Roy was “clearly a cad, but a cad with a heart. One suspects they never did, despite all the talk about trips to Paris. Obviously she was desperate to, but scared of it at the same time.”

Judging by Ed’s enthusiasm for Dolly’s legacy, she obviously managed to draw him in . . .

“She did! It often happens with these ‘dead people’. It’s pretty intense, sometimes. It’s not the first time I’ve spent far more time than I ought to on the memory of someone who otherwise has been forgotten! You take the objects and tell the story from them, rather than history being an academic exercise. You’ve actually got the stuff of history in your hand. It’s exciting reading these narratives; I never get tired of it.”

Dolly’s papers were sold in about 2000 at an auction in Woodbridge – probably as a “sale of chattels”, Ed surmises. A box of her diaries, poetry and other writing was bought by a woman who donated it to The Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University.

The incoming mail – the collection Ed bought this year – had a separate life, passing through several different hands and “wandered about in the trade”. It’s now been sold, for about �1,250, to Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University in Connecticut. “They were interested in it both from the point of view of women’s history – English social history – and the development of sexuality, because of the whole Correspondence Club thing.

“They fell in love with it at Yale the way I did, really, at first sight. It’s a sort of coup de foudre thing” – an intense feeling of love, striking as suddenly as a bolt of lighting.

Kevin Repp, curator of modern European books and manuscripts at the Yale library, says: “It is a splendid trove for a place like Beinecke, especially for our Osborn collection, which is very strong in social and cultural as well as political history of Britain.

“Traditionally the Osborn collection has focused on the 17th and 18th centuries, but recently we have been extending it into the 19th and 20th. The chance to look into the life of a single woman from the provinces will no doubt be irresistible for students and scholars, both at Yale and perhaps from elsewhere.”

There was initial interest, too, from the Bodleian – the University of Oxford’s main research library.

Was it a wrench to part with the letters?

“No. I’m a dealer for whom things come alive when I sell them,” says Ed. “I fall in love with them, and if I can persuade someone else – if I can convey the story – then the stuff has been brought back to life and that’s my job done. I don’t need it any more: I know it and have it in my heart – which sounds very pretentious, but there’s truth in it. Some people need things by them; I don’t.”

Did he ever feel a bit, well, grubby and intrusive, reading the letters and talking to other people about them – as if he were lifting stones and exposing the writers’ innermost secrets?

“A little bit. But I also find it irresistible. Dolly kept the letters; she wanted the story to be known.

“She was on the cusp. The sexual revolution hadn’t begun, but things were opening up fast. She had a foot in the 19th Century in terms of morality and another foot in the 20th Century, and was a bit torn apart by it, really.

“It was the most intense time of her life. If you think day-to-day life was probably pretty boring, in the draper’s, this was a time when her heart sang. Being in love is a wonderful thing, even when it ends in tears, because, being in love, you feel alive, don’t you? You feel like you exist, and things matter; and this was the time that it did.”

An Essex man

ED Maggs, a born and bred Londoner, is now a committed East Anglian. Maggs Bros Ltd – one of the world’s oldest and largest dealers in antiquarian, first edition and rare books – might be based in a pleasant town house in Mayfair but his home is in Essex. Burnham-on-Crouch, to be precise, where he’s lived permanently for two or three years.

“Before I came here, I thought East Anglians spoke about the sky only because there was nothing else to talk about,” he laughs, “but I’ve been completely converted and am utterly smitten by it.”

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