Among the more unwieldy objects in my mother’s blue box of papers—the papers that provided the meat for my most recent book, The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters—were two stout bound scrapbooks with mottled orange covers and black spines.
These two volumes may contain the only evidence of a friendship between two women. Clearly, it was of some importance to both of them, inspiring one, the British Mary Woodruff, to collect, cut and paste hundreds of London newspaper articles into the handsomely bound scrapbooks, and inspiring the other woman, my mother, Mary Caperton Bingham, to keep the two volumes hidden in her closet for decades—not displayed on the coffee table.
I never heard my mother mention the other Mary. My mother was a young college student during the years these volumes cover—1926-1928—graduating from Radcliffe in 1928 and going to work for a publisher in Boston while she waited to see if my father was going to propose.
Until my father died—and this often used to be the case—my mother did not seem to value friendships with women. She distrusted widows and divorcees and refused to invite them to parties with the excuse that a lone woman would make an uneven number at the dinner table. I don’t remember that this notion prevented her from inviting single men.
She was suspicious of my girlhood friendships as well, and went so far as to forbid me to have a roommate at college, although I never dared to ask her why. I was shy and solitary, so it suited me fine but prevented me from forming bonds with other girls.
After my father’s death, Mother began to draw closer to a few women she had known for years, perhaps simply because she did not want to go out in the evening alone or did not want to be stranded at home.
I don’t believe I ever heard her pay another woman a compliment. In fact, she was sometimes harshly critical, especially of women she thought were overweight.
Her friend—and she must have been a friend—Mary Woodruff, shared many of my mother’s interests. She also seems to have shared some of her blind spots, which perhaps made her particularly compatible.
The first scrapbook, dated 1925-1926, reflects the golden period after World War One when it was still possible to call that cataclysm the War to End All Wars.
London, in Mary Woodruff’s view, was the center of the universe, “the greatest city in the world,” according to a news story picturing a fog-bound Big Ben in the days when the city was still heated by coal and bedeviled by miasmic fogs.
The nineteenth century was so close that Grey’s then-famous elegy, “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day” would be printed in a newspaper and memorized on both sides of the Atlantic.
Pictures of picturesque old village houses, the Yeoman of the Guard on parade, the Oldest Town Cryer, “Prince Edward leaving the landing on Riverside Drive,” Queen Victoria and four of her grandchildren, and a 1526 letter from Henry the Eighth to Anne Boleyn could all seem almost current.
But Mussolini became dictator of Italy in 1925 even as British and American tourists traveling there marveled that the trains were at last running on time.
And by the time of Mary’s second scrapbook, 1926-1927, fascism was on the rise in Germany and it began to seem likely that the War to End All Wars had not ended all wars.
None of this is registered in the scrapbook. Instead, Mary pasted in a photo of a fancy dress “Parade of the Stuarts”—she seemed to have a Scottish bent. But she included photos of monuments to the Scots dead in the War (still called that) as well as to the Canadian nurses killed in “The Great War.”
She seems to have composed the verse, written in dark, unfaded ink, next to a news story about the death of Lord Kirchner, ending, “He seeks his mansion through the hero’s gate.” Literate people in both countries were still writing and memorizing poetry, or at least verses, a skill that has passed into oblivion along with the hero worship that often attended it.
And, perhaps more movingly, Mary includes a story about the death of King Charles II, who is said to have murmured, “Don’t let poor Nelly starve”—Nelly Gymn, his mistress and mother of his children. The article ends with a statement about how Nelly bewitched the helpless king with her wild ways.
What did these two stout scrapbooks mean to my mother? She was spending time in England during the summer, sometimes with the man she wanted to marry, sometimes with women friends. Perhaps the two Marys met at a genteel garden party or attended the same play. I wonder if, in addition to the scrapbooks, they wrote each other letters. If so, they were not saved. But somehow, my mother couldn’t throw away the scrapbooks. They represented so much effort, so many of the shared interests and prejudices that were sometimes the reason friendships between women endured.
The Second World War probably ended their correspondence. London was being destroyed by German bombardments, and British Mary, if she survived, would have been spending many nights sleeping on the pavement deep in the subway. No time for scrapbooks, or for the nineteenth-century pieties that sustained a life unshadowed by war.
It’s almost enough to make me envious.