Corresponding memories

February 3, 1995

Helena Wayne on how the letters between her parents, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and Elsie Masson, reinforced her recollections. My father was the Anglo-Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski; my mother, Elsie Masson Malinowski, was of Scottish descent, born and brought up in Australia. There have been a number of accounts of my father's life since his death in 1942, but little has been written about Elsie, largely because the last ten years of her life were overshadowed by the multiple sclerosis that led to her death in 1935.

Bronio (his nickname) and Elsie had known each other for 19 years and were married for 16 of those. Their letters begin just after their first meeting, in Melbourne, and end in the month before her death in Austria.

During my first visit to Bronio's native Poland more than 20 years ago, I was interviewed by the press, who assumed I was there to gather material for a biography. In fact, I was there simply to fill an important gap in my own life, to meet my relations and to learn something about the country in which my father grew up.

So when I got home I decided to edit a memoir. I began reading the mass of papers held at the London School of Economics, where my father had studied and then taught between 1910 and 1938, becoming professor in 19. I also began interviewing people who had known him. As I went on I was led to more and more sources, not least in the United States, Australia and New Guinea.

I also went to Mexico, where he had spent his last two summers, during the long vacations from Yale University where he had begun teaching in late 1939, studying the market system in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. He was accompanied by his second wife, Valetta Swann, an English painter whom he had married in 1940. After my father's death at Yale in 1942 Valetta made her life in Mexico City. When she died there were many unsorted Malinowski papers among her effects, which she stated in her will should come under her three stepdaughters' jurisdiction. Among these were some letters between my parents that Valetta had wanted me to have. I found not only the Polish originals of Malinowski's published and unpublished diaries but a comprehensive correspondence between Elsie and Bronio covering the years of their acquaintance and marriage.

These letters were an almost complete record of those years - "almost" because there were gaps, a few groups are missing. When the two were together there were, of course, no letters, except in the earliest time in Melbourne when they occasionally kept in touch by notes. Malinowski's work meant they were often apart, as when he was in the Trobriand Islands for a year, once in the US for six months, and in south and east Africa for nearly as long. In their letters they looked back to the times when they had been together, so we know something of those periods too.

This correspondence was indeed the story of their marriage, so I decided editing the letters would make a more valuable biographical contribution than a memoir, showing as they did so much behind the scenes in my father's work, his friendships, the aspects of his complex character, as well as his family life. And, of course, they would introduce Elsie to the world.

I had the advantage of being able to identify and understand most of the cast of characters, and the settings of so many of the events described. I was lucky because Bronio and Elsie wrote clearly and there were only a few words that were illegible - with Elsie, that is, until her tremors meant she could no longer write and then the typewriter took over. More vexing were the problems of misdating, in which Elsie was much the guiltier of the two.

Bronio's English spelling was quite naturally the weaker of the two. He was sometimes influenced by French (for example, "litterary"); French and German having been both his second languages after Polish, with English, Spanish, Italian and others learned considerably later in his life. Nevertheless he had in his English vocabulary words that appeared to me at first reading as incorrectly used, which taught me a lesson about my own vocabulary. He also liked using slang.

Although I have always had many memories of both my parents (when a couple of years after Elsie's death a family friend said, "I don't suppose you remember your mother", I boiled with indignation) I did not know them as an adult among adults. I was ten when my mother died and 17 the day after my father's death, and in his case I had not had consistent close contact with him for several years. He left England in late 1938 for a sabbatical year in the US, and when he later brought his three daughters over he did not bring us to live with him at Yale, even after his second marriage. His sudden death robbed me of the chance to be with him in Mexico through the summer of 1942 while he continued his field work there.

Nevertheless I did know him better than my mother, indeed over the years I wondered if I had learnt to idealise her in the incidents I remembered great and small: her jokes, the Scottish songs, her teaching me to read, getting me ready for fancy dress parties, correcting my German, standing up for me against angry maids and so many more such snapshots. After coming to know her through the letters I see I had a surprisingly clear picture of her, very little idealised.

So too is my picture of my father, the brilliant personality who fascinated so many and repelled some; the intensity of his work; his jokes too; the vein of sadness. In many ways my view of him has shifted, and I understand the face he showed to the world and his inner thoughts and feelings as I never could before.

The Story of a Marriage Volume I: 1916-20, Volume II: 1920-35, is published by Routledge this month.

Helena Wayne is the youngest of the three daughters of Bronislaw Malinowski and Elsie Masson.

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