Simon Garfield delights in informing his readers that My Dear Bessie has been published in response to “what I can genuinely claim to be popular demand”. My Dear Bessie, a compilation of World War Two-era love letters, has come to publication after readers responded strongly to an abridged version of the same vein in Garfield’s last book To the Letter: A Curious History of Correspondence. Unlike To the Letter, however, My Dear Bessie is not a compilation of letters from historical figures; it is, instead, a narrative constructed from the love letters of Chris Barker and Bessie Moore.
By and large, this patchwork approach to constructing a love story works well. Bessie and Chris are endearing and interesting co-authors and co-protagonists. Chris, a postman-turned-soldier who dreams of owning a second-hand bookshop, gives readers an interesting insight into the locales of the Mediterranean front, while often being comically out of place in all of them. Bessie’s insights on life on the home front are similarly interesting and her narrative voice is the more captivating of the two. This is particularly apparent in aphorisms like: “We will regain the name of perfidious Albion again before this war is through.”
Unfortunately and rather ironically, Bessie is also the touchstone for a number of problems in the book that bears her name. Due to many of Bessie’s letters being lost during the war, the reader unfortunately doesn’t get to hear from her until about a third of the way through the book, and then not very much at all after that. Readers will still be able to follow Chris and Bessie’s narrative, but it feels disjointed. Garfield anticipates this problem in his introduction, claiming that, despite this discrepancy, Bessie “is present on almost every page”. This feels like a poor excuse for the imbalance of voices in the book.
More problematic is Garfield’s odd editorial decision to include letters of a sexual nature, especially when he admits to having omitted many letters for various reasons in the introduction. The inclusion of these letters adds nothing to the makeshift narrative, and it lowers the book to a an almost voyeuristic tone at times. A smarter decision by Garfield is to include two short postscripts by Chris and Bessie’s son and granddaughter. These brief addendums provide a satisfying and personal epilogue to Chris and Bessie’s story.
Garfield’s sometimes-clumsy interlocution aside, My Dear Bessie is an enjoyable compilation that is destined to find its biggest fans in lovers of epistolary novels and students of social history.