Tunbridge Woman Authors New Book Based on Her Parents’ Wartime Letters

  • Felicity Swayze, at her home in Tunbridge, Vt., on Nov. 15, 2017. Swayze has a self-published memoir about being sent as a child from the United Kingdom to the United States during World War II. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Felicity Swayze, right, with her twin brother Peter Vaughan and their mother Paddy Vaughan in 1940 after arriving in Johnson City, Tenn.

Valley News Correspondent
Friday, December 01, 2017

In 2010, Felicity Vaughan Swayze began writing a memoir about one of the central aspects of her life, moving with her mother and twin brother from England to the U.S. during World War II.

After the evacuation of the British forces at Dunkirk, when people feared that a cross-Channel German invasion was imminent, Swayze’s father Tom Vaughan arranged for his wife Lilian and his two children to leave in August, 1940. Vaughan remained behind in Oxford, where he worked as an editor for a car magazine and also did war work.

Once in the U.S. mother and children began a new and initially alien life in Tennessee, staying with a woman who had agreed to house them. The twists and turns of life meant that Swayze did not see her father again for 19 years.

That’s the short version, and it was the direction Swayze intended the memoir to take.

“I’ve been telling this story all my life to anyone who wants to listen,” she said in an interview in the Tunbridge home she shares with her husband Townsend Swayze.

But, in 2013, Swayze, who is nearly 80 now, made a discovery that would completely recast what she thought she understood about her parents, and altered the writing of what would become War Torn: A Family Story, a self-published book now available through Amazon and at the Norwich and Dartmouth bookstores. It is her first book.

Her mother, who died in 2006 in Hanover, had kept hidden a cache of the letters that she and her husband exchanged during the war, when they were separated not only by geography but also by their changing circumstances and feelings for one another.

After her mother’s death Swayze inherited the job of sorting through her possessions. But she didn’t know about the letters until, seven years after her mother’s death, she looked into a plastic bag she’d never delved into. In it were dozens of letters in her father’s handwriting that she’d never seen before; her mother had never told her of their existence.

Did Swayze’s mother want her daughter to find them after her death? Maybe. Or perhaps, Swayze speculated, they were well hidden because her mother didn’t “want her to look so deeply into her personal life.”

Whatever the reason, stumbling on them was like being given a key to one of life’s most persistent questions: Who, really, are your parents?

“I wanted to see if these letters would answer some of the questions I had about their relationship and our departure,” Swayze said.

When Swayze began reading through the letters, which number 76, she used a big table in her house, and laid them out in columns: 1940, 1941, 1942 and so on. She arranged the letters within each year chronologically. Luckily for her, her father was a methodical dater of letters and his handwriting was legible.

Both Lilian, who went by the nickname Paddy, and Tom, formed other relationships during the war, and wrote each other about their lives. They both accepted that during such a long separation (and at the beginning of the war, of course, no one knew how long it would last) that they might find companionship elsewhere.

The tone of the letters, most of which are from Tom to Lilian, ranges from affectionate to commiserating to chiding to bitter, as the reality of years spent apart sinks in. He became more pronounced in his Communist sympathies and his dislike of American capitalism, while she became more and more independent and resentful of his hectoring about what he perceived to be her inadequacies as a mother.

He writes that she is insensitive to the dangers faced by the English on the home front; he narrowly missed being killed when a pub in which he was eating was destroyed by a German bomb not long after he left it. She counter-charges that he had absolutely no understanding of what is was like to raise two young children on her own, on a very small income.

War Torn, undertaken with the help of mentor and writing teacher Joe Medlicott, is almost a series of conversations, between Swayze as an adult and as a child, and between Paddy and Tom.

The letters helped to fill out Swayze’s understanding of the upheaval of her childhood, from relocation to the U.S. to her mother’s brave decision to leave Tennessee and move to Minnesota, where she found work at the British Consulate in St. Paul. Swayze and her brother Peter also had to contend, although they were too young to understand all the nuances, with the men with whom their mother had affairs, one of whom became her second husband.

On the other side of the Atlantic Swayze’s father had his own relationship with a woman who shared his political sympathies, and whom he also later married. The letters back and forth are charged and intelligent. But, because it took so long for their letters to reach other, they were often writing in an absence of information, and had to play catch-up.

To read their intimate thoughts made Swazye, she said, “very, very sad. I began to feel their feelings.”

At the same time she came to admire their candor and “the openness in communication between them. They were very honest with each other about their other relationships.”

As a child your life is your life. “I never thought of myself as not having a father,” Swayze said, particularly given that the men with whom her mother had relationships were paternal and caring. It was only as she matured that she began to realize that her family life would not have been considered conventional in an American 1950s Leave it to Beaver way.

Swayze, who went on to graduate from Radcliffe College, met her husband who was a student at Harvard. They married in 1959 and then went to England, where Townsend Swayze was doing graduate work at Oxford University. In fact, Townsend Swayze met Tom Vaughan before Felicity did, reporting back that he saw some similarities, not in looks but in mannerisms, Felicity Swayze said.

When Felicity Swayze finally did meet her father, whom she hadn’t seen since she was three years old, it was, not anti-climactic exactly, but not freighted with the emotion one might expect, she said.

“I’m meeting this person who is said to be my father. When a person uses the word ‘father’ all kinds of notions come into their mind. Father this, father that. For me, it had no meaning. In terms of a concept of ‘father,’ I could have just been meeting another interesting person.”

By that time Swayze’s mother had remarried for a third time, to an English-born Minneapolis businessman; they would stay married until his death in 1994. Although Swayze’s mother was rarely without some kind of male companionship, Swayze now realizes, she said, that she did what she had to do as a young woman in a foreign country raising twins. She got a job, she raised her children without support from their father, and she was intellectually independent and forceful.

“My mother was a survivor. She was bold. She was tough,” Swayze said. “You never saw her weeping or mourning. She just stuffed it away in her little corner.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.