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‘The Conscientious Objector’s Wife’, edited by Kate Macdonald ****

I came across The Conscientious Objector’s Wife: Letters Between Frank and Lucy Sunderland, 1916-1919 whilst browsing a list of Handheld Press’ publications. The book really caught my eye, and after a quick peruse of my local library’s catalogue, I had found and reserved a copy. The Conscientious Objector’s Wife is part of Handheld’s Research collection, and the letters within have been collated and edited by Kate Macdonald, a literary historian, and the company’s director.

Frank and Lucy Sunderland were English pacifists, vegetarians, and ‘fervent supporters of Labour politics and the New Town movement.’ They had moved from London to Letchworth, the first Garden City, to give their three children – Dora, Chrissie, and Morris – a healthier lifestyle. The pair were highly involved in local politics and schemes; in 1917, for instance, Lucy began to run the committee at the town’s Adult School.

In November 1916, the couple were separated for almost three years, when Frank, who refused to be conscripted into the British Army during the First World War, was sentenced to hard labour for being a conscientious objector. He was first incarcerated in Wandsworth Prison in London, before being moved to Bedford. Frank was finally released in April 1919, at which point the letters in this edition stop.

Letchworth, in Hertfordshire, was a town ‘designed for social and environmental harmony’; it was predominantly Quaker, and many were pacifists. Almost all of its inhabitants supported the family, in contrast to the attitudes of their families in London, who viewed Frank’s ‘stance as unpatriotic’. During Frank’s incarceration, Lucy had no option but to support her family financially. She took over Frank’s work in collecting insurance premiums, and also took in sewing, and the odd lodger.

As well as strong contemporary details about what it was like to live in Britain during the First World War, these letters demonstrate ‘how their shared ideology of a socialist pacifism upheld the couple in separation, planning for a better future in a more equal society for all.’ Perhaps one of the saddest parts is the outbreak of scarlet fever which occurred in 1917; although all of their children pulled through, they did have to be hospitalised, and took rather a long time to recuperate. Due to the strict rules regarding how many letters conscientious objectors could receive, Frank did not find out about their illness at the time.

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife includes an introduction written by Macdonald. Here, she sets out her aim to ‘reframe’ histories of the First World War, which so often exclude women. She writes about Frank’s belief ‘in a universal brotherhood of men and women, which gave him the strength of purpose to resist incorporation’ into the Army. Macdonald goes on to comment that the Sunderland family ‘lived very familiar lives, making this… a human story of value to us all.’

The letters themselves are heartfelt and, particularly given the circumstances, they tend to be quite moving. On the 9th of November 1916, when Frank has been held in a barracks awaiting trial, Lucy writes: ‘I feel your spirit always with me. It helps me throughout the loneliness of the night. I haven’t time to feel lonely during the day.’ When Frank is sentenced, she sends the following: ‘I really feel quite at peace because I am sure we are taking the right stand. If our thought is too advanced for the present state of civilization we cannot help that, but must be true to ourselves… but all new teaching must have pioneers and its martyrs although we little dreamt in talking about our future that you would be one.’

There is some joviality here, too; on the 11th of November 1916, Frank writes: ‘You might let me have the interpretation of Morris’s letter as I can’t make head nor tail out of it.’ Like Lucy, he can be incredibly tender too. In February 1917, when his initial sentence is increased by two years, Frank writes: ‘… I assure you of my true Love to you and I feel that though we are parted in the flesh, Love leaps all boundaries of flesh and we are still together. Be brave little woman and I’ll try also, and together we shall gather strength to walk through the maze of sorrow and tribulation. I have written just as I feel knowing that you will be able to read my heart.’

Frank and Lucy wrote freely to one another; some of the letters read almost as streams of consciousness. Each one, however brief, is engaging. The couple recorded what was going on around then, as well as their hopes and dreams for a better future, lived together. Lucy does not shy away from writing of the loneliness which she feels, and the money troubles which often plague her.

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife is an accessible collection, which is worthy of so much attention. I was rather saddened when I went to rate it on Goodreads, and saw that I was the only person who had read it. The letters really give one a feel for how fraught things were during this period. The strength of both Sunderlands, and the way in which they took every difficulty in their stride, is inspiring. I also admired the way in which Frank and Lucy’s letters were turned into a family project, with different generations typing and collating everything which they wrote to one another, and the intention to turn the letters into a published book when the opportunity arose.

I feel grateful that I have been able to read these sometimes very private letters between a loving husband and wife. They reveal much about a still relatively little known group of people, who stood up for their pacifist beliefs. The Conscientious Objector’s Wife provides a window onto an important piece of social history, and I can only hope that more readers pick it up in future.