An Invisible Friendship by Joyce Grenfell and Katherine Moore

This is a collection of letters that spans a period of twenty years, exchanged by two intelligent, thoughtful, and sensitive women who never met. Their correspondence began in 1957, when Katherine Moore wrote to Joyce Grenfell to comment on something that she (Joyce) had said on a radio show. Joyce wrote back and Katherine responded, and just like that, a correspondence began.

The two women were very different on paper. Joyce was a celebrity, a comedienne and an actress, who performed all over Britain, America and Australia. She was well travelled, and she saw and experienced a lot of the world. She lived in London, and she had a busy professional and social life. Joyce was childless. She says in her letters that this was a regret in her younger years, but as she got older, she realised that it was, in a way, a good thing.

Katherine was a teacher and a mother. She lived in a town, Sevenoaks in Kent, not far from London. She had eight children and her life was taken up by her family. She says that by the time she was twenty-five, she was taking care of three stepchildren, and she had just had twins of her own. She talks of her love for teaching. She used to teach English Literature at the local school until ill health and family obligations forced her to stop. She had travelled too, perhaps not as far and wide as Joyce, but she had seen something of the world.

Different as their lives were, once they started writing to each other, they realised that they had a lot in common, a love of books, poetry, music, theatre, art, gardens, wildlife and a shared spirituality, a faith in the universe quite apart from religion, that they bonded over. Both women were middle-aged or approaching it when they began to correspond, so they had a wealth of life and experience behind them, which they share with each other.

They had close and loving relationships with their husbands, and that’s nice to read about. They don’t ever go into detail about their spouses, but the affection and the warmth is clear to see. They are keen observers of life and like the best diarists, they write about all sorts of little things that should feel mundane, but don’t. There’s a love of life in both of them, an openness to experience that I find joyful.

They talk constantly about books, exchanging recommendations, they discuss writers and poets, they talk about the plays and other performances that they’ve seen and loved. They talk about their families and friends, and they often have deep and insightful conversations about life and what it all ultimately means.

On several occasions during this period, Katherine went to see Joyce perform, and she wrote to her about it afterward, but she never went over and introduced herself. They decided early on that they liked their pen and paper friendship, and they kept it that way until Joyce’s untimely death in 1979.

The letters give an ongoing account of their lives. They are rich and alive with interest, they’re well written and charming. They give you a real flavour of the time that they were written in and yet, they’re full of insights that are universal and relevant to anyone who reads them today.  

One might think that this book would be interesting because of Joyce Grenfell, the celebrity, and her account of the places she saw and the people she met and that is true to an extent, but what gives this book its warmth and vibrancy is the fact that this is a record of an honest exchange and a genuine friendship between two human beings.

I found this book in a road-side sale of second-hand books, over three decades ago, now. I’ve read it many times over the years, and I know I will read it again.

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