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Bernice Rubens

I Sent a Letter to my Love

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"Intensely dramatic... extraordinarily funny... an exceptionally original and disturbing achievement." - The Daily Telegraph
"Perfect mastered skill... gentle and pungent style... compassion and humour to modulate her often steely-eyed observation." - The Sunday Times
Amy Evans retained all her life the squat nose of her childhood, stubbed on to her face like a plasticine afterthought, a chin too long for any practical purpose, and eyes so close together that it seemed the sole function of the bridge of her nose was to keep them apart. For comfort she would go down to the beach, where the breeze from the sea blew into her face her share of the beauty to which her brother had so liberally helped himself. The gulls would wait for her to leave, no matter how long she stayed, for they were real gentlemen – the only gentlemen she was ever to meet in her life.
Now in her late fifties, Amy faces a struggle on two fronts. Loneliness looms the larger as the chance of finding love grows more remote. Survival depends on the outcome of her search for a love object, and I Sent a Letter to My Love, set in Porthcawl on the coast of South Wales, tells the moving and unsentimental story of Amy’s bold play for happiness, and her dangerous success.
The richly comic gifts, the wit and inventiveness that distinguished all Bernice Rubens’ work are reinforced in this novel by a maturity and depth of compassion for her characters.
About the author:
Bernice Rubens was born in Cardiff in 1928, the second daughter of Eli Rubens, a Lithuanian Jew fleeing anti-Semitism who established himself in the clothes business and Dorothy Cohen whose family had emigrated from Poland. She grew up in the large musical family in the vibrant Cardiff Jewish community. Music remained a passion throughout her life and sometimes she liked to describe herself as a failed musician. She was one of the most successful British novelists of the second half of the twentieth century and won the Booker prize in 1970 for The Elected Member. She read English at the University of Wales in Cardiff, before marrying Rudi Nassbauer, a wine merchant who also wrote poetry and fiction.
Bernice Rubens had two daughters. She taught English at a Birmingham grammar school from 1950 to 1955, before entering the film industry. Her documentaries were well received, one entitled Stress winning the American Blue Ribbon award in 1968. She began writing fiction based securely on the intricacies of her own Jewish family in her late twenties. She achieved early critical and commercial success with her first novel Set on Edge (1960) which allowed her to maintain a long career which would encompass 24 published novels. Her autobiography published in 2003 was her first work of non-fiction but she had often used incidents in her own life such the break up of her marriage in her work.
Her second novel, Madame Sousatzka (1962), became a film starring Shirley MacLaine and directed by John Schlesinger; her seventh, I Sent A Letter To My Love (1975), was also filmed, with Simone Signoret.
Rubens enjoyed the respected place she had achieved in the literary world. She was an honorary vice-president of International PEN and served as a Booker judge in 1986. She maintained close friendships with a chosen group of colleagues, including Beryl Bainbridge, Paul Bailey and Francis King.
She was a compelling storyteller, weaving her novels from many strands: her own vivid experiences, her friends’ and family’s lives, centuries of Jewish tradition and history; above all, her remarkable and disturbing imagination. In everyday places - a suburban villa, an English public school, a home for the elderly - Rubens showed the horrors that can lie behind net curtains and cosiness, polite conversation or an unexplained wink.
Though her novels possess many themes, she admitted that she really only wrote about one thing. Human relationships were the core material of her books, especially within a family. In later years her work moved to a larger historical canvas as she connected strongly with her Jewish heritage. She considered her strongest book to be Brothers, a sweeping historical novel that follows several generations of a Jewish family through a fight for survival that takes them from 19th-century Tsarist Russia to Western Europe and Nazism, then back to modern Russia and its continued persecution of the Jews. It was the best she insisted: “because... what it is about matters”. She died in London in 2004.
Short extract:
1990. We’re on a beach in Mallorca at the end of a long family holiday in a villa Bernice has taken to write the ‘novelisation’ of an American mini-series, a compelling epic sweep of twentieth-century Russia which she gleefully disparages as Mother Rubbish. Bernice emerges from the sea after an hour’s swim, black swimsuit rolled down to her waist, revelling in the sunshine. Grandchildren are sandcastling, the rest of us loll about with cuba libres and stories. A man comes up. He’s in his sixties; her age. He’s clearly intent, troubled, and oblivious to the rest of the beach. He says, with a South Walian trace, and no real question: “You’re Bernice Rubens”. She lights a cigarette, cocks her hip and says “So? I’m with my family….” He says one word: ‘Treblinka.’