Letters from a woman of letters
Although they never met, a school reunion led to Mary Scott-Parker’s 25-year correspondence with Margaret Forster
30 January, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
Margaret Forster with her journalist husband Hunter Davis
THEY would drop through the letterbox with a carefully crafted calligraphic script, and inside would be a handwritten letter by the novelist Margaret Forster.
The letters were addressed to Mary Scott-Parker, a writer based in Carlisle, who has penned nine history books about the Lakeland area. She has now published a book that tracks the correspondence from Margaret she received over a 25-year period. It is packed with essays on life in Carlisle in the mid-20th century, and reveals a personal history of the novelist, who died last year.
The correspondence came about after Mary went to a school reunion for former pupils of the Carlisle and County High School for Girls, Margaret’s former college. As the book reveals, after a pleasant evening with childhood friends, Mary set up a newsletter to help people stay in touch and share memories.
“When it was time to start thinking about a second newsletter I was wondering how I was going to fill it up, an old girl told me about an article she had read in a newspaper supplement written by Margaret Forster – our school’s most famous old girl,” writes Mary.
She wrote to Margaret, asking permission to reproduce the piece. Having read the article, Mary decided to find a history of the school – and discovered none existed. In 1993, she turned again to Margaret, detailing her plan to write a history of the school, and got an encouraging reply.
“There wasn’t a history of the school and I thought that was a real shame,” she said. “It was one of the best schools in the north of England and I wondered why no one had done it.”
Mary sent Margaret a draft of her history, and received a letter in return praising the work and saying she would happily write a foreword.
“Congratulations,” wrote Margaret when the book was completed. “How weighty and important the finished volume seems. I shall treasure it.”
And as Mary embarked on chronicling the history of the city, in various publications, Margaret was always happy to offer help.
“I’d write to her and say ‘please could you…’ and she would reply ‘of course I can…!’ We didn’t write about personal things, families for example, just I would ask her anything about Carlisle and she’d come back to me.”
Both would trade stories, photographs and information. And she also allowed Mary to reproduce articles she had written that referenced the school, including a piece for The Oldie magazine about a teacher called Miss Wynne.
When the original school building was demolished, Mary took a piece of sandstone from its walls and had a stonecutter carve the school’s initials in it. She had a small wooden frame made, wrapped it carefully and posted it to Margaret as a present.
“I thought it would look nice on her desk,” she said. “I remember it cost £8 to send and Margaret wrote back saying she would offer me the cost of the postage, but she knew I’d refuse it.”
When Mary wrote a history of Silloth, a seaside resort favoured by Carlisle residents, Margaret sent her a long essay on her own memories of a train journey there, of staying in caravans and donkey rides. More local history publications followed. There was, for example, an area of Carlisle known as The Lanes, which Margaret described in detail. She recalled being “slightly afraid of them”, and that her father would visit the area to pay his subscription to the Oddfellows Association, “a sort of provident society”.
“My other childhood memory of going into The Lanes was one of humiliation,” she added. “Today, when to dress from charity shops and jumble sales is boasted about in the area of London I live in, it makes me laugh to think my mother was so mortified at visiting a second-hand shop in The Lanes.
“You’d have thought we were visiting a brothel the way she had to brace herself to go in – it meant acknowledging her poverty.”
Margaret continued to offer contributions to Mary’s local history books, including a passage for called Carlisle, Down Memory Lane, published in 2013, which was full of personal detail about her childhood.
“It was always pleasant to see a letter arrive on my doorstep with Margaret’s handwriting on the envelope,” she recalls. “I would really enjoy reading them. I would feel very privileged.”
And she says Margaret’s carefully crafted writing was a legacy of her own time at the school.
“We were taught calligraphy there using ink pens, and the importance of writing a good letter,” says Mary.
Margaret’s husband Hunter Davies writes in the book’s introduction about how she would spend an hour at the end of a day of writing novels penning letters to friends, relations and fans.
“She never typed, always wrote with her trusty Waterman fountain pen,” he recalls. “I always used to shout at Margaret for spending so much time writing letters and cards to people she had never met. “I would say why not write an article for a paper and get paid?
“It was a tease, of course. I was proud of the fact she answered every single letter and card from anyone who had read any of her books and bothered writing to her. They were always proper, personal letters and cards and of course always in her immaculate, bold, clear, best high school handwriting.
“She loved writing to Mary and it is amazing they never met.”
This comes across in this fascinating book, offering an insight into the interests of a bestselling and celebrated novelist who shunned publicity and the adornments of the literary world, and instead used her writing to forge friendships with people through the power of her pen.
• Dear Margaret… Correspondence with Margaret Forster. By Mary Scott-Parker, Amadeus Press, £6. All profits from the sale of the book will be donated to Marie Curie Cancer Care.