The History Makers students came to interview me after my performance of Helen’s Story at Shrewsbury Museum. It is part of a piece of work I was commissioned to create and perform in connection with World War I using letters and archival items. I was interested in the people that didn’t go to fight but stayed behind: the women, the men who worked the land, conscientious objectors. I was offered a Letters Book written between 1917 and 1920 to read in Shropshire Archives to give me a sense of background, the home front. Then I began to read these six women’s letters to each other and fell in love. The Letters Book is a sort of Facebook group of the 1900s: round-robin letters sent between six women who schooled together, each letter addressed to all, sent bundle by bundle, each woman adding her reply to the last and sending them on in a full round until one of the women copied them out into a notebook – the Letters Book. The book contains the 49 letters sent between six women, across three years, 23,000 words.
Each and every one of those letters is beautiful, detailed and shot through with the girls’ foibles, humour, enquiry and vitality. A wealth of material, which in a sense need not be touched or dramatised – it is their stories in their own words. Handwritten in two different hands, the Letters Book had never been transcribed. (This is not unusual – resources and time are limited in archives, while the wealth of information that is stored there is not). I spent last summer reading, transcribing, re-reading, transcribing, again and again. Squinting over the letters on paper in the hushed rooms of the archives and then squinting over photographs of the letters on my iPad in a garden in Ludlow. I got to know the girls, aged 19 when the book begins, 21 by the time it ends. Their names are (in the order the letters are sent round) Helen, May, Stella, Hester, Dorothy and Nella.
I, however, still had to complete the task that had been set: ‘To make a short piece, easily tourable, that could be placed within festival or event contexts.‘
I changed the goal posts (slightly): I would still create a short piece focusing on one of the girls, using only her letters, but I would also create a longer piece, more theatrical in form, that would attempt to do justice to the stories of these six women.
Why Helen’s Story
For the short piece I chose to tell Helen’s story, that of the woman whom I felt closest too, for a reason that I could never quite articulate. This is the piece which the History Makers students came to see at Shrewsbury Museum. My loyalties swayed and changed with the girls as I read and discovered actions and events in real time (their time), shocked or infuriated by their responses to each other in a variety of situations, but Helen always felt like the guiding hand. Her words have a literary quality and an underlining sense of the politics and frustrations of the time. Helen was the woman who wrote a letter of such searing honesty and emotion that I could hear her write the words. Helen, who I spent time with, laughed with her sisters, cared for her brother and her fiancé, knowing that what I was looking for, answers to questions about her family, had, in fact, long since happened. But I had read them in real time, last summer, as if she were telling it to me.
So I made My Dearest Girls: Helen’s Story: a low-tech, low-key storytelling piece, focussing on Helen’s words, her life and her experience from 1917 to 1920.
A meeting at Fordhall Farm
My first performance was at Fordhall Farm. Afterwards a small crowd formed as a woman introduced herself as Sue Hayward, the granddaughter-in-law of Helen. I hugged her as if I knew her already. She had bought with her pictures of Helen, her sisters and her brother Jack. Words stuck in my throat as I looked at the picture of the woman I had spent time with in my head, a choking on the image of Jack, her brother in his uniform. I listened to Sue, who when first marrying her husband (Helen’s grandson), had lived with Helen in her later years, at Brockton House, where she copied out these letters all those years before. Sue, of whom I asked whether would it be possible to meet Helen’s daughter, Sue’s mother-in-law. I was delighted when she agreed. This, the reality of delving into someone else’s history, to meet a person who fills all the gaps beyond and between the Helen I met in the letters and Helen as she grew older. It felt at once a privilege, a connection and a responsibility as stories were exchanged and continued of this family, Sue telling me about the charity work she does in memory of her husband Jon Hayward, at Jon Hayward Trust , bursaries for music lessons for children in Shropshire. Helen’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren that were all to come in this woman’s life when I first met her in the letters to her friends when she was 19. What now? A new friend and connection with this family, I hope. And perhaps more connections after that with the other five women’s stories and continuing stories in the pages of that book: May, Stella, Hester, Dorothy and Nella.