(To see Parts 12345678910 and 11 in this series, click on the links.)

Doing fathering at a distance, and re-creating ‘home’ in words

In this post I’ll share my first thoughts about the letter from my great grandfather to my grandfather that I reproduced in the last post.

There are many aspects of this letter that are reminiscent of the first letter in the sequence. The structure is very similar, beginning with apparently trivial practical matters (‘I received your letter yesterday acknowledging the Undershirt’) and a complaint about Arthur not coming home on leave, but moving quite quickly into spiritual exhortation, then returning briefly to practicalities before a final blessing and signing off. As before, the spiritual life is represented as a constant battle against temptation, a battle that requires persistence, courage and hard work.

Just as in his first letter, Charles Robb makes frequent use of what look like direct quotations from scripture and hymns to reinforce his fatherly Christian advice: this is reflected in the use of capitals in the middle of sentences, suggesting that these phrases have been ‘lifted’ from elsewhere. At one point, towards the end of the letter, it’s as if the writer actually breaks into song, reproducing lines from a familiar Methodist hymn (‘Shun evil companions. Bad Language Disdain’). It’s as though Charles is trying to re-create the familiar world of church for his distant son, in an effort to keep him on the right, Christian track.

However, there’s a sense of crisis pervading this letter, and this marks it out as different in tone and mood from the first example in the series. In that first letter, the unity of Christian and military vocations appeared to be accomplished quite quickly and easily. Here, the final resolution is similar – the letter ends with a familiar identification between serving ‘King and Country’ and serving Christ – but it seems much harder won, and takes much more time and effort to achieve.

A tension has opened up, for the writer of the letter, between his son’s military and spiritual callings, and he is patently beginning to wonder whether his son’s soldierly mission might actually undermine, rather than strengthen, his Christian vocation. (It can be argued that this is the perpetual struggle of the Nonconformist, seeking acceptance by an Establishment whose values s/he suspects are, at the end of the day, inimical to his/her own. A certain kind of Marxist analysis would suggest that the ‘respectable’ working-class conservative – a description that certainly fits my great grandfather – is caught in a similar bind.) A mood of anxiety pervades Charles’ references to the reputation of Arthur’s regiment, and to those familiar ‘sins’ (to puritanical Methodist eyes) of drinking and gambling.  My great grandfather tries a number of gambits to bring his son into line and remind him of his Christian commitment.

First he uses the strategy of referring to the impact on Arthur’s family, urging him to avoid temptation ‘not only for your sake but for my sake and all your Brothers and Sisters.’ This emotional blackmail is reinforced later on when Charles slips in the information that he himself has ‘not been at all well’ and that his life at home has been ‘quiet and lonesome’. Then he reminds Arthur that there is a ‘Higher Sake’ to consider and that he also owes a debt to Jesus for his salvation of sinners.

As well as the imminent threat of spiritual backsliding, this later letter is also shot through with an irritable, testy tone that is absent from the earlier letter. Charles is only halfway through the first sentence when he starts to express disapproval of Arthur’s failure to come home on leave, and to suggest that all is not well with his son’s behaviour: ‘it does not appear to be altogether as it should be with you’.

The whole letter highlights for me the difficulty of ‘doing fathering’ at a distance, especially when you perceive that your own values – the values which you hope you have inculcated in your child – are at variance with those of the world with which s/he is now engaged. Charles tacitly admits in this letter that the influence of Arthur’s peers, who are with him every day, may be more powerful than that of his geographically remote father and family.

Charles’ strategy for dealing with this difficulty is, as I’ve suggested, to ‘make present’ to Arthur, through his writing, the world of home and the values and way of life that it represents. The mini-sermon in the middle of the letter, complete with its scriptural quotations and almost audible hymn extract, attempt to dramatically reconstruct the familiar routines and values of church, Sunday school and Scouts that Charles referred to in his first letter. And the appeals to family feeling, including the reminder to Arthur to write to his convalescing sister Carrie, widen this re-presentation to include the world of home and family. Even the apparently trivial mention of the undershirt right at the outset can be seen as part of this strategy: its very physical presence, as an object sent from home, making it a tangible token of that familiar world.

Charles opens his letter with an irritable question as to why his son hasn’t been allowed home on leave. The letter itself can be seen as a response to that absence: if Arthur won’t come home, then Charles will bring ‘home’ to Arthur through his writing, in the hope that its re-creation in words will be powerful enough to overcome the influence of the seemingly sinful environment into which he has fallen.