A Woman of Letters

A letter in the post.  Not a bill or a fast food flyer but a real letter.  One of the lasting rediscoveries I have made in researching and writing John’s life is that letters are a great way of making and keeping contact with other people. And in the post, this is not just any letter.

Margaret's typewriter

Margaret's typewriter: a gift from Compton Mackenzie

Inside the airmail envelope from Concord, Boston, Mass, USA is a small booklet containing a literary gem: Ann Berthoff’s essay on a very special letter-writing relationship. She captures an essential fact of island life, and Canna life in particular.

Letter writing was one of Margaret Fay Shaw’s talents, her vital connection with life beyond the island. She has left a great treasure stored in Canna House: almost countless bundles of correspondence with close friends over a long life.

Ann Berthoff’s essay examines the letters that grew out of an extraordinary relationship between two very different women: Margaret, pragmatic, witty, sometimes wise and often impatient wife of John Lorne Campbell (she did not suffer fools discreetly) and the poet Kathleen Raine, friend of Prince Charles, unrequited lover of Gavin Maxwell, romantic, mystic and vulnerable woman in need of a friend.

Ann Berthoff, I should add, is no mean letter writer herself. The bundles of letters in Canna House include her own correspondence with Margaret.  (I picture Margaret writing to Ann late at night with a whisky on one side of the typewriter and a cigarette smouldering on the other, winds buffeting her bedroom walls).

A fragment of a letter from Margaret to Ann

Fittingly, my research began with letters. And among the first were airmail letters to two dauntingly distinguished names given me by Magda Sagarzazu, Canna House archivist. Yet Ann and Warner Berthoff  – both highly regarded professors of English and visitors to Canna for 60 years – could not have been kinder or more helpful. Few first-time authors of my age can have had the privilege of a one-to-one tutorial from an authority on form and meaning, as I had from Ann in a caravan in Canna on a cold and stormy June day.

But back to the letters and Kindred Spirits, Ann E. Berthoff’s essay in the Sewanee Review, America’s oldest literary journal

In her first letter to “Mrs. Campbell” Kathleen expressed her gratitude for the chance of visiting so extraordinary a place and then asked a question of, perhaps, some urgency: “How ought carogene be bleached?” Milk pudding thickened with seaweed, one of Margaret’s favorite offerings, should obviously not remind diners of algae!

With the affection of a friend and the cool gaze of a scholar, Ann Berthoff documents a developing dialogue sustained over the course of 60 years.  Beginning with the ending of Kathleen Raine’s unhappy relationship with Gavin Maxwell, this became – as the poet described it – ‘an unwinding serial story’.

Margaret Fay Shaw

Margaret

Through this story run themes of poetry, music and history, a shared interest in the spiritual world, a delight in the wonders of nature – flowers, birds, trees, stormy seas – sharp comments on current affairs and love of good food and drink. What the two women enjoyed most of all was simple companionship ‘with the ease and pleasure of talk in the gaps between letters’. They shared another pen friend in Iris Origo, an Anglo Irish writer living in Tuscany but Margaret declined to meet the Italian countess in person even when holidays took her close by, ‘she had invented a character in letters and I think she did not want it compromised’.

Kathleen Raine

Kathleen Raine

On into old age, the letters continued now interspersed with wry descriptions of ailments and their common comfort in cats – Margaret’s punched out in oversized type on the old machine Compton Mackenzie gave her, Kathleen’s meticulously handwritten.  Though Kathleen’s visits to Canna came to an end, her love for the island and the people on it never died.

Ann’s essay ends movingly with Margaret’s lyrical passages to her old friend, tempting her to return, just once more.   “If you were here you would see from my window a flotilla of eiders on the bay, 2 sheldrakes; in the field close by are three wee Highland calves, twin lambs with their baaing mother…If you were in Canna this moment, I would pour us both an Old Fashioned with my pet Old Grand-dad, GOOD bourbon.”   Kathleen died in London in 2003 at the age of 95. Margaret  a year later aged 101.

Note: the poet’s letters to Margaret are held in the British Library and Canna House archives.

Canna in evening light

A first and last view of Canna

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