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The Nature of Friendship

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A year ago, things changed. When much of the world went into lockdown, relationships altered. Some became more important, other ties were loosened. Friendship came to the fore, but some who had been friends before the pandemic faded into the background if they failed to stay in touch. Friendship relies on reciprocal overtures. But suddenly - and this has been my own experience - friendships from long ago were renewed, strengthened, and blossomed.

What makes a friendship?  I think it starts with two people who find they are on the same wavelength, and take an interest in each other. From there comes a mutual willingness and desire to keep in touch, even if it is only every few weeks or sometimes even months, to provide support, laughter, news and advice. Tolerance helps enormously, and knowing how to advise but never scold. Most of all it is sharing views and news - about the state of the world and the state of our kitchens; about the behaviour of our leaders and the behaviour of our cats; about books and football; about philosophy and sitcoms.

There is a distinction between friends and acquaintances. The people we meet often enough, but only in a group situation, are acquaintances. Many of them may be very friendly acquaintances, but they are not the same as friends. Friendship demands a closer understanding, and one to one conversation.

While we were unable to meet, the telephone in its various guises, whether mobile, skype or any other available programme came into its own. It helped to renew some of those friendships, as we could spend hours talking to friends all over the world (and turned many into experts on calculating time differences with the Antipodes and the Americas, not to mention France, Austria, or the Far East).

As recently as fifty years ago, calling someone on the other side of the world was sometimes difficult and always expensive.  A hundred years ago many people didn't have telephones at all, and that meant that letters were of the greatest importance in maintaining contact with friends.

Speaking with a friend has the merit of immediacy, of an exchange of news and ideas that can be found in conversation, the warmth of hearing another voice. Letters have a different emotional impact, just as important if not more so. I found a postcard written by my grandmother, decades before I was born.  Suddenly, I felt that I knew her in a way I hadn't known her before, even though we had been very close.  Letters from friends and family will be kept, and remind me of their voices - a turn of phrase perhaps forgotten - and bring them back in a way a photograph cannot.

A look at some of the letters here will reveal a wealth of friendships. 

Harriet Martineau was an invalid for much of her life, unable to travel or even go out for long periods of time, yet she kept up a remarkable correspondence. In one letter she manages to cover a present of grapes, a book borrowed, a popular play and a mysterious reference to matters of government.

Edith Sitwell also suffered from ill health which restricted her travels in later years, but she too kept in touch with friends. Her exuberant and often eccentric manner may have masked her pain, but it certainly enlivened her letters, especially when indulging in gossip about a 'holy terror' of a cousin.

Lesley Blanch was no doubt lonely on occasion - writers usually are - but she had her friends, and she was able to unburden herself about the problems with her new book to the no doubt sympathetic Edmonde Charles-Roux, who, as a writer herself, would have understood. And why not ask for a friendly, helpful good word for her new book at the same time? Feeling isolated, she admits that her "plants and cat console", as did, I am sure, her letters.

The difficult 1930s  shed a different light on friendships. In 1932, Duncan Grant bemoaned difficult times for models when writing to his erstwhile model and fellow artist Eileen Mayo, who had moved to Germany. Two years later, the situation in Germany had changed dramatically, and André Gide's letter to a German scholar, disliked by the new regime, carries a brief but vitally important assurance of friendship and support.

There are many other letters here which demonstrate aspects of friendship, from Sonia Delaunay and Virginia Woolf, Ronald Searle and Thomas Masterman Hardy. But William Somerville's letter is special, a letter full of news, advice, sympathy and warmth. 

William Somerville was a well-respected doctor, and when he wrote to a friend with relief that she was better, he could not resist a digression on the various attitudes to treating patients. He fell firmly on the side of "less is more", praising the French attitude of medecine expectante - in other words, wait and see. News of other friends, the hope of seeing his correspondent again and of meeting her husband continue with news of the family. It was indeed a remarkable family.

His wife, Mary Somerville, wrote on science and mathematics, works which earned her the esteem of scientific societies throughout Europe and helped to popularize the study of science. While in London, she tutored Ada Byron, later Ada Lovelace, in mathematics. Her teaching eventually bore fruit of the most impressive sort, and the two women remained close friends. Less than ten years after Mary's death, Somerville College Oxford was founded, the women's college commemorating her name.

William Somerville encouraged his wife's work and studies and, as we can see from this letter, he took pride in his daughters' learning as well. Mary and William Somerville had two daughters, and he reports that the elder, Martha, had (by the age of twelve) read Homer, Virgil, Euclid and read French, German and Italian well. Mary, the younger daughter, may not have been quite so advanced yet, but showed an aptitude and a desire to learn.

Mary and William Somerville seem to have had a rare genius for friendship - kind, caring, supportive, and keeping in touch with all the news. But so many of these letters display friendship in many forms - André Gide's brief message of support at a crucial time, Ronald Searle's delight at seeing his friend at a dinner, Virginia Woolf's gardening advice, Edith Sitwell's gossip . . . and let's not forget Harriet Martineau's grapes.


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