Friday, February 3, 2012

My Telephonic Valentine

"Hello! My Dearie" Valentine, British Postal Museum & Archive.
Hello, my dear readers. I feel like I'm writing here after too long an absence, reaching out across the chasm that a dissertation and related duties sometimes create between oneself and one's more personal projects. This entry is a way of bridging that gap, of reconnecting to you and to the "Ghosts of 1914." In honor of such technological reconnection and in honor of the upcoming yearly feting of love in all its forms, I offer you the above Valentine. What a wonderful image we have here, from the collections of the British Postal Museum and Archive, which happens to have a great online exhibition about the Great War's impact on the Postal Service. The couple represented in the Valentine are separated by a rather pleasant looking body of water, which we can assume is the English Channel between Britain and France. The sun glints peacefully under the (absolutely delightful) "Hello" spelled by the telephone wire that connects the soldier and his lovely lady. More than just wide blue waves sets the man apart from his mate, however, with his spartan wooden table, uniform, and situation in a bunker contrasting sharply with the woman's diaphanous white gown and dainty heels, her strand of pearls and blue sash, and the comfortable domestic setting in which she sits. Front and home are signified in all of these ways--war and peace as well, we might imagine. There is even an interesting fantasy of complete focus--we don't see the war "behind" or "around" the soldier, nor do we see any of the signifiers of responsibility, anxiety, or distraction in the woman's realm. The telephone somehow serves to isolate the two lovers, bringing them close and dulling the sights and sounds that would remind them of their distance. He leans his ear against the telephone receiver, eyes fixed on some vision beyond his situation--presumably picturing what we see on the right side of the postcard: the woman with her ear pressed equally attentively to the receiver as she speaks into the mouthpiece, her whole posture and expression signifying that she is fully dedicated to this communication.

The verse that appears here is somewhat poignant, suggesting the anxious choppiness of an early twentieth century telephone call, with a pleading and emotional message broken into somewhat fitful phrases, all of which  are initiated and completed within an incredibly short span of time. There seems to be no time or words to spare, whether because of the vicissitudes of combat or of the telephone. It must have been quite strange to connect in this way during the Great War and hear the voice of a soldier or a loved one at home come crackling over the wire. No doubt this was a rare privilege for those on either side of the conversation. Here, though, whatever its oddities, the telephone line is imagined as a sort of lifeline, channeling emotion across a great divide and transmitting much more than sound or information. Words, feeling, and modern technology combine in a very touching and fascinating soldier's Valentine here. Until next time, when we (at the very wise suggestion of my mother) again mark the upcoming holiday with a look at the history of chocolate in the war, we'll hang up for now and leave these two ghosts of 1914 to their telephonic love-talk.

© Fiona Robinson

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