A few months ago, my cousin handed me a folder containing letters that she had inherited from my late Aunt Lella in 2011. My Aunt was an upright, formal woman, all tweed and tradition, with a passion for the arts that often inspired her to write letters to actors, playwrights and authors she admired. Many high-profile figures responded, and their return letters, dating from 1927 to 1993 are now The Theatre Collection’s newest accession.
They range from short, perfunctory replies from JB Priestley – ‘Many thanks for your letter and I am glad to learn from it that you have enjoyed “Instead of the Trees” so much. It was good of you to write’ – to longer replies from actresses including Peggy Ashcroft, who thanks Lella for sending in a script for critique – ‘Dear Miss Raymond, Thank you for letting me have the script on “The Bronte Affair”. If I may I will keep it and suggest it again to the Apollo Society. It might well be an Aldwych Theatre Project.’
Other letters from non-theatre stars, kept with the collection for the sake of provenance, include a notecard from Jessica Mitford complaining of the earthquakes in Oakland, California (below), and one from writer Vera Brittain, stating ‘I hope you are liking your nursing work better than I liked mine. The day may still come when your experience will be similar to mine – though I hope not!’
Other correspondents offering their greetings, thanks, and interesting tidbits from their lives include Evelyn Waugh, Celia Johnson, Cicely Courtneidge, Sybil Thorndike, Wendy Hiller, Miles Malleson, John Betjeman and Rachel Kempson.
It is a lovely collection, and it is a pleasure to think that the fruits of my aunt’s dedicated letter-writing career might go on to inspire and inform researchers well into the future.
By Helen Kavanagh, Keeper of Theatre Archives