The Conscientious Objector’s Wife edited by Kate Macdonald

About this book
The Conscientious Objector’s Wife (Handheld Press, 2018) is an edited collection of the letters between Frank and Lucy Sunderland, a working-class couple from Letchworth in Hertfordshire.  Frank was imprisoned in 1916 when conscription was extended to include men of his age.  As an ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector, he refused both to serve in the Army and to undertake alternative service – agricultural labour, hospital or clerical work, or in industry – on the grounds that it would commit another man to military service.  Frank remained in prison until 1919 and the letters between the couple give a remarkable insight into working-class lives during the First World War.
Frank and Lucy are socialists, keen self-improvers and autodidacts, attracted to self-sufficiency, feminism and vegetarianism.  In Letchworth, with its large population of Quakers, free-thinkers and left-wingers, they found a supportive community that would help Lucy hugely throughout Frank’s imprisonment. This support was vital, as she took over Frank’s work as an insurance agent to keep up the family’s income, as well as doing sewing work, running her home and caring for her three young children.  Lucy’s letters give a vivid picture of domestic life during wartime: the gradual increase of rationing and shortages; the impact of refugees and the war industry  – Letchworth accommodated many Belgian refugees and was also a centre for munitions work;  and of the struggle to maintain a happy home.  Frank’s letters, often mindful of the eyes of the censor, can be more abstract and say relatively little about the material conditions in prison, but are greatly revealing of the psychological costs of his long imprisonment.  Both Frank and Lucy are entirely committed to pacifist principles and their mutual commitment to this and to each other is a very moving theme of the book.  They are both good writers: Frank can be very funny although some of his jokes need work, and Lucy’s escape for a few months to rural Devon is captured in bursts of rather lyrical nature writing that express her relief at being away in the country and the restorative effect it has.  The final chapter, when the war has ended but Frank remains in prison (an additional, punitive government policy to ensure released COs did not get the pick of post-war jobs) was very tense: would he ever get home?
The letters have been published by Handheld Press, and edited by the Press’s Director, Kate Macdonald. Kate is a scholar of literature and history who has written extensively about the First World War, and provides an extremely useful introduction setting out the context of these letters and giving background information about Frank and Lucy.
Approaching the index
Collected letters can be challenging to index.  There is no particular structure – this book is arranged into chapters, but they are used to break the letters up chronologically.  Content and subjects can be highly diverse.  There is no particular organised narrative, and the letters themselves may well include obscure references or be highly allusive.  This problem is intensified because these particular letters were subject to censor scrutiny; Frank often includes in his letters a phrase like “You understand why I cannot write more about this”, indicating both his awareness of the censor and the elision of more explicit writing.
Having read the book and made a rather complicated mind-map, I also read Marian Aird’s very useful account of her work on the Britten-Pears correspondence (‘”Your letters have been life and breath to me’: the challenge of indexing My beloved man’, The Indexer 34:4, 2016 pp138-143, subscription/fee required), Douglas Matthews’s ‘Indexing Published Letters’ (The Indexer 22.3, 2001 pp135-141, free to access) and Hazel Bell’s Indexing Biographies (Society of Indexers, 2004)  which includes some guidance on letters.  Kate Macdonald’s introduction to the letters draws out key themes, and the marketing material for the book was very useful in terms of thinking of likely readers: local historians, family historians, historians of the First World War, people interested in Quakers and non-conformist religions, historians of working-class lives.  I also bore in mind histories of the emotions (like Clare Langhamer’s work on love) and the current cultural interest in accounts of the everyday; while Lucy’s circumstances are unusual, she still has the daily round of working, shopping, cooking and dealing with domestic irritants like a blocked drain.
Writing the index
The names and personal information were the principal challenges of this index.  Because of the likely users of the book, and mindful of Marian Aird’s advice on names, I decided that all full personal names would be indexed, and that all significant mentions of placenames would also be included.  Some names presented difficulty in terms of distinguishing who was being discussed.  I had rather an ordeal with the Palmer family, who appear frequently in the letters but are often described only as Mr Palmer.  Working out which Mr Palmer was meant required a careful reading of the text.  I included some people who were only mentioned by first name where they were significant players in the narrative, for example Lucy’s Belgian lodger Leonie, whose surname is never mentioned.  The footnotes were helpful in distinguishing identities when the letters, naturally, use only first names; I included locators for the notes to ensure the additional information here was accessible to the index user.
I wanted to make full, detailed entries for both Frank and Lucy, but these could not easily take the form of similar entries in a biography, because so much of the detail was missing.  For Lucy, for example, the letters contain lot of short but significant references to aspects of her life such as her work with the Letchworth Adult School.  I realised early on that I would need sub-subheadings to give enough detail and make the index useable, but there were, inevitably, still some long strings.  I wanted to make sure that all her visits to Frank were indexed, for example, so a long string of undifferentiated locators followed that particular subheading.  I could have broken these up a little with details of the locations of the prisons – Frank was held in a number of different places – but I wasn’t convinced that would add a lot of value.  The long string shows how often, throughout their separation, Lucy found time to visit Frank in prison. Emotions, ideas, religion and political opinions also found a place as subheadings for both Frank and Lucy’s index entries.
Health and illness were a frequent topic of discussion in the letters.  Frank, Lucy and all the children had a subheading for this topic, with sub-subheadings to collect locators on the nature of their illnesses.  I also included a main heading for health and illness, with specific illnesses included as subheadings.  A few specific illnesses – like the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 – had such extensive discussion that I included them as main headings in their own right.
As an indexer I have to guard against my tendency to categorise and classify, rather than presenting headings in a more direct form.  Prisons and religions were categories occupying a lot of space in the index.  Each prison and religion mentioned had its own main heading, but I also had a main heading for “prison” that included subheadings for individual prisons as well as categories such as food, visiting and sentences.  After a lot of thought, I decided against this approach for religion, mainly for reasons of space; instead, I made use of see also references to connect various religious topics together.
Term selection for some concepts was a challenge.  For both Lucy and Frank, the beauty of the natural world was central to their sense of well-being, and both write about this a lot, most likely as a way to bring some joy and happiness to each other in their difficult circumstances;  Lucy’s letters from Barnstaple overflow with her pleasure at the lovely countryside and the sea.  This is a significant subject in the book, but I worked for a while on the best way to express this in index headings.  I ended up with main headings for birdsong, flowers, landscape, the sea and walking, which were then double-entered as subheadings under the main heading “nature and environment”.  I also used “nature and environment, importance of” as a subheading for each of Lucy and Frank’s main headings.
Lessons learned
I enjoyed working on this book immensely, despite its challenges – it’s extremely interesting, entertaining and moving, and indexing is such a good way to get under the skin of a book you really like.  It was also definitely useful in developing my indexing skills, particularly in constructing a useful index out of a text with such diverse contents, characters and themes, and without the usual overarching argument of a non-fiction book.  I also made use of the Sky acronyms function for the first time, to help me deal with all the various similar names, and the Megabit Macros were invaluable when dealing with the huge range of personal names in the text.

2 thoughts on “The Conscientious Objector’s Wife edited by Kate Macdonald”

  1. Hi Tanya!
    Thanks for this post. Although I’m not a professional indexer, I am fascinated by indexing and have begun to think of it as a way of “tackling” a memoir writing / artist book project that I am working on. I have an amazing old (4-5 generations) family “scrapbook) that contains layers of newspaper clippings and recipes, kids drawings and fine, beautiful copperplate lettering. The most incredible of all the entries though, is the journal entry of my 3 x great grandparents ship voyage from England to Australia in 1881!
    So, to index this book, as an artist project, will, I hope help me to make more sense of what I actually have and might give me one families view of life spanning many years! Wish me luck!!!

    1. Hi Samantha, many thanks for your comment. What a wonderful artefact to have, and your project sounds fascinating – I love the idea of the index as artwork. If you haven’t already looked at it, Nancy C. Mulvaney’s Indexing Books is a very accessible guide to the process.

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