A Brief Introduction
In this edition of Stories From The Archive we will be exploring some of the prose and diary entries of Hetty Munro. Much is remembered and celebrated of Hetty’s life in Caithness and approaching the task of writing a blog about her collection was rather intimidating. The broad extent of her writing includes diary entries, short plays and fiction, poetry, published books, articles in magazines and a myriad of loose sheets found throughout her notebooks. These loose sheets often detail observations and perceptions of both sadness and joy. Being able to find out more about Hetty as a person, a women, a soldier, a writer and a Caithnessian has been delightful and made all the more special for being conveyed in the intuitive and poetic style of her own words.
We’ll focus today on some of those loose sheets, found amongst her diaries, that set out in the form of short prose her experiences of love during the second world war. We’ll explore the fascinating context this short prose adds to her diary entries of the same period, 1943 and 1944. In this way we hope to impart a story perhaps less known or told, now preserved by the team at Nucleus: The Nuclear and Caithness Archives.
Author: Henrietta Munro
Henrietta Munro (1912-1989), better known as Hetty, was born in Thurso and is remembered across Caithness as the owner of the antiques shop The Ship’s Wheel, as a former member of the Auxiliary Territorial Army (A.T.S.) during the second world war, as the author of diaries documenting her experiences throughout that war in Orkney and across the British Isles, as the teller of myths and legends from the Pentland Firth, as a writer of poetry and plays, as a lover of singing, as the furnisher of the Castle of Mey for the Queen Mother… and the list goes on and on. Hetty’s accomplishments are quite staggering and the experiences she documents throughout her writings are a wonderful insight into her life and a privilege to explore.
Provenance: Private Deposit
Hetty’s substantial collection (ref. MUN) extends to six archival boxes and was deposited with the archive, as per her wishes. The collection includes material collected in pursuit of her interest in history whilst the rest of the material is comprised of her writings, diaries and scrapbooks.
The catalogues and descriptions of the Henrietta Munro collection along with the holdings of all four repositories within the Highland Archive Service may be searched online at:
Any research enquiries may also be sent to the Nucleus staff via:
Format: Short Prose & War Diaries
So often life informs art and art, life. Here we’ll explore an archive collection which reveals this fluidity: Hetty writes creatively about her experiences whilst also keeping a diary. Both the prose and the diary entries are by their nature subjective and must be approached tentatively as trusted historical sources. The links between the diary and the prose do, however, strengthen the images and narratives they impart. We gain insight of who Hetty was, what was important to her and the things that most powerfully impacted her life.
The important role archives play in providing sources of memory is very evident when exploring Hetty’s collection. By taking on Hetty’s papers, both non-fiction and fiction and cataloguing and preserving them together, not only are we afforded a glimpse into the war time experiences that Hetty had but also the creative writing it inspired. In keeping both we allow details, dreams and insight to flow back and forth between them, giving us a broader, more colourful portrait of Henrietta Munro.
As Hilary Mantel once said about historical fiction, ‘you are not buying a replica, or even a faithful photographic reproduction – you are buying a painting with the brush strokes left in…’[i]
Love Life in War Time
Below are reproduced the four pages of Hetty’s short prose Love Life in War Time found amongst the loose sheets of her diaries. It tells the story of Elizabeth and Charles, who try desperately to spend time together when they both have leave from service. The record is appropriately typewritten, Hetty having worked as a typist during her time with the A.T.S. By clicking on the images you will be able to view them individually and zoom in and out for better clarity. Just click the back button on your browser to return to the blog. A transcript is also provided after each page below. The story takes place between the 12th of January 1943 and June 1944.
Transcript, page 1:
12 Jan 43
“Hello – is that extension 107? Is that you, Elizabeth? Oh, darling, this is me. Listen, I’ve just been given 48 hours next week end – can you make it? ——- But darling you must – it’s desperately urgent, I haven’t seen you for a month —— Isn’t it wonderful just to talk to you again – what’s happening, is your war going well? ——- Mine will be wonderful next week-end ——- Oh, let’s go to that pub at C——– again – they did us so well last time. Will you get us rooms ——- And will you come, and I do love you – and Saturday will be marvellous and I’ll meet you at 5.30 – I must go – the CO wants to telephone – all my love darling —- bye.”
It begins like that – then I pluck up enough courage to ask my General for the week end off – of course to get to C——– I have a long complicated cross country journey and although I can leave at lunch time, I shan’t arrive until 5.30 and I’ll have to leave about 7.30 on Monday morning but it’s worth it every time.
On Saturday morning, I rush through everything, miss lunch because I’m packing, catch the train, swear all afternoon at the slowness and changes necessary to go from R—— to C——– and am much too excited to look out of the window as the train draws in. But at last we’re there and Charles is there on the platform, heavily disguised as a civilian in a grey pin stripe suit – gosh, he look’s wonderful. A wild embrace and then………….
16 Jan 43
“……..my own darling, it was a wonderful week end wasn’t it? And such lovely weather – and I did enjoy that long walk over the moors – and the beer was lovely – and you do look lovely out of uniform – my pet, you’re wonderful and life will be wonderful when we’re together always……….”
2 Feb 43
“………and there’s still no word of another 48 so you must come home next week end even if it’s only for the day – Mummy is dying to meet you – and there’s nothing to be scared about – she’ll love you – so come to Town on Saturday evening and I’ll meet you at Victoria……”
Sleepless – utterly and entirely sleepless.
Each evening that week
Frenzied packing and then unpacking – washing, ironing, cleaning, pressing, advice from room-mate who has tackled half the mothers in the stately homes of England – I haven’t done so badly myself but it’s never mattered before – “……..no, not that nightie, she’ll think you’re not nice to know, and there’s no use disillusioning her too soon – take those tailored satin pyjamas and blue dressing gown and slippers – and that town suit and blue dress – it matches your eyes/
Transcript page 2:
– Page 2 –
eyes sometimes – and don’t forget that perfume, Charles loves it – I heard him tell you once – and don’t be crazy – and not too much make up – and of course she’s bound to love you – of course,……..”
Agonising journey to Victoria – hair will get untidy – nose is shining – muts are everywhere – VICTORIA – a wild embrace – and then…….
‘Mummy’ is delightful and I feel at home within ten minutes – I find out later that she was absolutely terrified of what I’d be like as her young hopeful had never brought home a woman before.
I change and we go dancing – everything is marvellous – “Dearly beloved, how clearly I see, somewhere in heaven you were fashioned for me” – the band plays softly and we dance and that immediately becomes our song – food? I can’t remember but it was wonderful too – ‘home’ again and hot cocoa, sitting in dressing gowns before the fire – radio – “dearly beloved be mine…”
Next day, the ‘local’ – lunch, drowsy talking in the afternoon, dinner in the Club – more firelight – cocoa – music – Beethoven -……….
“……and I’m glad you enjoyed your very short week end – Mummy thinks you’re wonderful – and she’s going to write your Mamma and did you really mean that I could come home with you in May? Darling, that would be wonderful, imagine being together for seven whole days with no one to snatch you away from me? It sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?……..”
“Dear Charles, Elizabeth has told me that she’s bringing you home in May so I thought that I’d better write and ask you properly. I do hope that you’ll be able to come and that you’ll have good weather and enjoy yourselves. We’re looking forward to meeting you……….”
“……My darling, life is horrid – They’ve just posted me to Scotland – 400 miles away and I’ll never be able to see you again – yes, I’ll be able to spend 48 hours in Town on my way – will you? ——– Wonderful – ‘bye……”
“….. I suppose I’m lucky being posted to my own country where I know so many people but it does seem so far away from you and I can think of nothing but 7 May. I announced quite firmly on my arrival that I was going to leave on that date and they fell for it. I miss you so much – please write as often as you can – all my love always -…..”
“Oh, Mamma, this is Charles – yes, dear, the weather is horrid but perhaps it will improve – can we have baths? And bacon and eggs? Oh, goody, goody – how is Alastair and the dog – and it is heaven to be home again – and I’m awfully happy………./
Transcript, page 3:
– Page 3 –
I gently shake the sleeping figure….. “darling, here’s a telegram for you – I’m awfully afraid……….” “……….so I suppose that means you’ve got to leave to-morrow morning – bad luck isn’t it?” One must be causal at all costs: “……. so that’ll mean going to see the aunts to-day and maybe we’ll fit in a walk in the morning…….” one heavenly morning, walking by the sea and sitting on the rocks – blue sea, blue sky, gulls crying – all so beautiful and my heart aching and not daring even to look sad.
Somehow the heavenly day comes to an end – much too soon – station at early morning – train – white smoke and a sharp whistle and the train has gone —————
“………..and when I finish this course they may send me near you – not very near, I’m afraid but nearer than here ——– that was a marvellous leave, darling, – away in the wilds – no vestige of war or rumours of war and just us – I’m inclined to agree that you live in the most beautiful part of Britain —— I’ll never forget the sun, sea and the little grey town and you —- and I adore my new Mamma……..”
“……. I’ll hope to meet you off the 6.50 train – it’s quite wonderful that you’ve been selected for this new job——-I’m so proud of you and so thrilled that I can shew [sic] you this lovely city at last —— I’ve got rooms and a table at the local dinner dance – and we’ll go dancing again – love you always, dearly beloved – God bless ——”
Train – wild embrace – dinner – Pimms – dancing – heaven – soft music – ‘…..angel eyes saw you, angel voices brought me to you, dearly beloved….’
Train – wild embrace – white smoke – sharp whistle……….
“………. How lovely you are, dearly beloved, I wish I were nearer to you. No hope I’m afraid until next month’s leave. I’m so looking forward to having you in Town for nine days and we shan’t let anyone interfere this time – I refuse to be called back or to let you be, see? …….”
Nine heavenly days – rowing on the Serpentine, wandering through the city, dancing, pubbing, dining, the ‘local’, Shepherd’s, firelight, music, theatres and the heavenly thrill of just being together and pretending that we’ll never be apart again…………..
“……..I’ll never forget that heavenly leave – just us two – ‘but I will hold you in a dream, without moving, spirit or desire or will, for I know no other way of loving that endures when the heart is still’……. That’s for you alone, dearly beloved………”
Transcript, page 4:
– Page 4 –
“……..Merry Christmas, my love, and I hope you’re having a lovely leave at home just like me. I got your present and loved it – thank you so much – I do wish we could have been together at this time. Have fun, my pet, and don’t forget me entirely……..”
“………I’ll try and get 48 hours – if you’re going abroad I should manage it – please don’t go before I see you because I’ve got to have my tonsils out on the 25th and I must see you before then……..”
“……..never said thanks for my lovely week end —– weren’t we lucky getting 72 hours — I still think you’re the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me……..”
“…….. hello darling, it’s lovely being out of hospital and I’m having a lovely leave – except for lack of you —– do take care of yourself with bombs – I don’t suppose there’s the slightest chance of seeing you? —— no, I thought not —- do be careful —- God bless —– love……….”
“…… so glad you’re back with the old gang —— I nearly got myself posted to London but it broke down at the last moment – I don’t suppose I’d have seen you anyway…………”
(Pencilled note) “…….so it’s happened and here I am landed safely, at last. Things seem to be going very well and I’m glad to have this chance of getting back to France again —- wish you were nearer —– but it won’t be long now — love you always ——……………”
George Bernard Shaw said something like this at some time or other: People have complained that it has only been on paper but they forget that it is only on paper that the greatest things in the world have been produced – art, music, literature – all of enduring beauty and glory’
Love & War
Hetty’s wonderful style of writing really conveys the love between Elizabeth and Charles. Being written in the first person makes these emotions even more potent, emphasising the short spaces of time they are able to spend together and the long periods of absence in between. Hetty writes of – ‘Frenzied packing and then unpacking’ before they meet, exemplifying the pressure of love, of acceptance, the urgency with which lovers commit and nothing else matters.
Above the story, the war stands ominously, always threatening, making their need to grasp hold of every second all the more crucial – ‘that was a marvellous leave, darling, – away in the wilds – no vestige of war or rumours of war and just us’. The prose is filled with little moments of anticipation, of angst before meeting someone we love – ‘I miss lunch because I’m packing’ – ‘Agonising journey to Victoria’ – ‘Sleepless, utterly and entirely sleepless’. These relatable illustrations of falling in love allow us access to the alien experience of living through a world war. Their love is embedded within the large and vast occurrence of war.
Throughout the story you often can’t tell who is speaking with only the dialogue appearing. This gives the reader the opportunity to decide, forming the implication that they are both as deeply in love as one another. Reference is repeatedly made to the song ‘dearly beloved’ – ‘we dance and that immediately becomes our song’. It’s lyrics are used to describe their love – ‘….angel eyes saw you, angel voices brought me to you, dearly beloved….’. This is likely a reference to Dinah Shore’s 1942 rendition of that song. You can listen to it here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blOMQJbgRf0. It is wonderful to be able to hear the song they most likely danced to.
Links to Hetty’s Diaries
Reading through Hetty’s diaries for the same period, the similarities between her own life and the story of Elizabeth and Charles are very evident. Below are some excerpts from Hetty’s war diary which we also hold as part of her collection. Hetty speaks of meeting Paddy not Charles, however, the similarities between the prose and the diary stand out quickly. It is also very fitting that Hetty’s middle name was Elizabeth. Was Patrick’s middle name Charles?
“I went to Camberley for the weekend and had a heavenly time – stayed in the “Cambridge” and just blethered on Saturday night. Sunday was a heavenly day and we watched a church parade and then walked to the Ely Hotel for lunch. In the afternoon we explored the nearby village of Yateley and wandered slowly back over the heath to Camberley for tea before I caught my train back. Lovely… For the last week of January I went to London to meet Paddy’s Mama – a terrifying ordeal – in anticipation only though… I was so terrified I shook all the way and nearly succeeded in scaring old P! Eventually we arrived at 44 – and in two minutes I felt at home. Mia is quite unlike what I imagined her to be – nothing of the frail clinging mother about her – she’s “young”, go ahead and perfectly charming. She welcomed me very sweetly and was so kind, I just adored her. We had a lovely weekend…I spent the first of many evenings in front of “our” gas fire – heaven. Back to the office in a complete heavenly daze.”
(18 January 1943)
“I only live for weekends at 44 and telephone calls to Camberley 305.”
“One heavenly 48 hours at 44… then Bang! My posting order arrives on the Saturday… How I would have welcomed this move last year! And now – well, I couldn’t be more depressed… My last “lovely weekend” ended with a pub crawl and violets on a heavenly spring evening…Some day I’m going to live in Shepherds Market – some day… It’s awfully difficult to try and be enthusiastic about going back to Scotland when I’m really not but can’t say so.”
“My leave in May stays as previously arranged and Paddy and I go home for it, but he gets called back after three days and I’m left alone – don’t enjoy it as much as usual… Leave was heaven for a short time as P. was recalled on the Wednesday and that made it rather sad for me. Weather good, but I feel rather flat for the rest of the time.”
“Summer has gone again – I’ve enjoyed my stay in Scotland and managed to see P. about once every six weeks for 24 or 48 hours but he’s gone south again now.”
“Just returned from a wonderful leave in town with P. – quite the highlight of my life so far. We did the City, the Serpentine, theatres, pubs, danced and just drooled around – lovely. Feel very lost and lonely now.”
(30 September 1943)
The fluidity between diary and prose is made even stronger again by the fact they are both written in the first person. The style is also similar, very obviously Hetty, with the prose adding lots of beautiful embellishments to the narrative of the diary.
At times the prose is fast and sure, almost a stream of consciousness – ‘Train – wild embrace – dinner – Pimms – dancing – heaven – soft music’. We almost get the impression that she is remembering a weekend not long ago, trying to document and save those precious days of leave.
Lines from the story such as ‘I’ve got to have my tonsils out on the 25th’, something that did happen to Hetty, reinforce her commitment to a sense of reality, suggesting that this is in so many ways not a work of fiction, it is something between a dream, an exaggeration, an embellishment and a way of processing the enormity of what is happening; the great divide that the war has set between Hetty and her love.
The prose then ends quite suddenly: ‘?????????????????????????????????’ A long line of question marks. This perhaps suggests that Hetty was writing the prose at the same time as the diary and that she did not know herself how the story would end. Perhaps writing creatively was Hetty’s way of processing the tangled emotions of love and war. Unfortunately, the diaries end soon after this date as well.
Hetty returned to Thurso after the war to look after her mother and opened the local antique shop The Ship’s Wheel with her brother Alastair. What happened with Charles or Paddy, we cannot tell.
Two Last Pieces
Reading through Hetty’s diary it is hard not to be struck by her lyrical writing style and it therefore comes as no surprise that she was inclined towards fictional writing as well. To finish we’ve reproduced two pieces of writing by Hetty. First, a loose sheet from her collection, which may be again be short prose. It does not appear in her diary entries and is simply titled ‘EXPOSE – DOUSE’.
Transcript, Expose – Douse:
We stopped on the edge of the low cliff and immediately the noise of the waves lapping the shore could be heard. It was a clear night and the faint outline of the rocks could be seen. To the left was a blurred cluster of huts. Suddenly a voice – ‘Expose’ and the order was repeated from the distance. That small piece of rocky coastline was changed at once into something full of wonder and radiance. The powerful beam of the S/L [search light] ran over the water, catching the tiny white horses and turning them into stars. The surrounding country appeared quite black and now as the beam swung round again the rocks and foreshore appeared in a ghostly fashion. A gull swooped into the light, turned to silver and was gone. The stones on the small beach directly in front of us glittered whitely and the incoming ripples were purest silver. To the left and right the shore was a pinky opalescent colour. Suddenly a cat ran over the rocks, all his inky blackness silver tipped and seemingly bristling. The blue beam, starry edged swung over the water, once, twice, picked out again the solitary gull and suddenly doused. The faint lapping of the waves could be heard but now everything was dark – the shapes of the rocks had gone and the gull’s cry was the only thing we had to remind us of the moment of beauty captured from the horror of war.
This second piece is a small excerpt from her diary describing a wonderful sunset seen from Orkney during her time posted there.
“Connie and Mrs. PG and I went up to Yesnaby to see the sun setting. It was one of the loveliest evenings I’ve ever been out in. There was no clouds except one or two deep purple and red ones near the setting sun. The rest of the sky was a faint egg shell blue, deepening to flame colour on the horizons. The sun, a round ball of fire sank, slowly, slowly into the sea. Gradually the purple clouds turned wine black and their edges tipped with flame and then suddenly as the sun sank entirely, everything was flame and gold. The colours changed to mauves and pinks and the sky took on a deeper blue and as we turned and left the cliff edge the last of the flame colour was gone leaving only the purples and blues and a very faint streak of gold on the horizon, vanishing – vanishing – vanishing.”
(4 June 1941)
Both pieces highlight Hetty’s eye for detail and skill for description. They add a whole palette of colour to her experiences of war, presenting us with something personal, something coming out from the past to stir emotion rather than simply raw information to be ingested. Her experiences seem far closer because of their embellishment, they add a humanity and a subjective voice which present a story from the archive.
Hetty was known for her love of myths and legends, writing two books on tales from the Pentland Firth. Her fictionalisation of her own experiences may reflect this penchant for dreaming. It might also explain a need to create a strong presence of love within a time of catastrophic war.
Hetty was clearly someone who found documenting her experiences important, who saw the significance of saving her memories and writings for posterity. Her wish to leave her collection within the Caithness collections at Nucleus speaks to this. As she says herself, ‘it is only on paper that the greatest things in the world have been produced’. It also reinforces the necessity for archives and how they allow us to remember, to imagine along with Hetty, to embellish and dream, but most notably to know that what was of great importance once is now being looked after and preserved for others to embrace.
We hope you have enjoyed this edition of Stories From The Archive and the beautiful and enduring words of Hetty Munro. If you have not already, please follow this link to the Learn With Lorna talk focusing on Hetty’s collection: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLorYm1W3Wk.
We’ll return to and finish with some more words of wisdom from Hilary Mantel. Hilary speaks passionately about the importance of fiction that discusses the past, describing it as being the only medium by which we may imagine the spaces that history leaves blank. Like so many writers dwelling on their own past Hetty ‘works away at the point where what is enacted meets what is dreamed, where politics meets psychology, where private and public meet… I break through the false wall. On the other side I connect my personal story with the collective story’. [ii]
[i] Hilary Mantel, Reid Lecture 2017, available at <https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08tcbrp>