Time and technology have completely overtaken this beautifully plotted novel, predicated, as it is, on deception by letters. Now that the (usually) terse e-mail has replaced the (so often) considered epistle it’s possible that future readers will find the plot hard to credit, to believe in the sheer effort involved in maintaining such an exchange of letters. Physical letters, with stamps, dropped into red pillar boxes, scarcely believe!
The heroine of Rubens’ 1975 novel I Sent a Letter To My Love is a dowdy spinster, Amy Evans, who decides to have one last shot at romance. She therefore places an advert in the personal columns of the local paper. On tenterhooks for days, she finally receives her one and only reply, and as preposterous chance would have it, it comes from her own, disabled brother Stan, whom she looks after.
At this stage all Stan really knows about the lonely heart he’s written to is her description as printed in the newspaper, so Amy decides to invent a woman who can correspond with him, to literally flesh out the details. Using the poste restante service at the post office in Porth, she picks up and subsequently reads his letters to the imaginary, newly created Blodwen Pugh, and then replies to them, stoking his ardour and thoroughly confusing herself into the bargain as she adds details of both domesticity and desire to the missives she pens.
It’s a convincing and compelling plot and Rubens shows her deft hand by throwing an extra frisson of romance into the mix, when Stan starts to get embarrassingly interested in Amy’s friend Gwyneth, who calls every day to deliver the bread. But what he really wants is a roll.
This is the only novel out of the dozen Bernice Rubens wrote which is set exclusively in Wales, and its backdrop – of Porthcawl seagulls and sand dunes – is summoned up by delicate, almost pointillist touches. Although there is something clunky about some of the Welsh expressions that come out of Amy’s lips, it’s nevertheless a believable south Wales, with a strong cast of characters, not least the other hopefuls who converge on the post office to see if letters have arrived for them… There’s the woman still waiting for word from her soldier beau who hasn’t been seen for thirty years and the mother doomed to stay in contact with her daughter by letter alone, after her father disowned her for marrying an Englishman and it’s not surprising to learn that the novel started life as a play, and one imagines it being a pretty melodramatic one at that. Amy fizzes with a mixture of late-onset sexuality and reading her brother Stan’s letters, not to mention the collection of pornography stashed under his mattress which makes her fizz even more vigorously.
Life has been cruel to Amy right from the start, as we see when we read the description of her face:
She retained all her life the squat nose of her childhood, stubbed onto her face like a Plasticine afterthought, a chin too long for any practical purpose, and eyes too close together that it seemed the sole function of the bridge of her nose to keep them apart.
Over the course of the novel Amy suffers further humiliations, not least her being caught red-handed as a shoplifter. Life is, indeed, a concertina of little trials for her, wheezing out its sad music of duty and care and its painful absence of love. And there are bigger trials, too. A brief coupling with a soldier leads to a backroom abortion in Cardiff’s docklands, all made worse by the city being bombed at the time. There is a horrible inevitability about the further tortures she must endure, such as a psychological paralysis which affects her after she finds out her brother is going to marry her best friend Gwyneth. And the reader senses, just before she does that her web of secrets must unfurl, and do so devastatingly, and Rubens does not disappoint.
This sophisticated, Booker Prize winning novelist often detailed in dissecting detail the lives of siblings. In Stan and Amy she created a pair of memorable south Wales symbionts, and in Amy in particular Rubens detailed a life so empty of love and its attendant affections that it hurts like hell to read about it and chart its cloying, never-ending miseries.