Tragic love stories have captivated humans for centuries. The despair of being denied or denying one’s heart resonates with a cultural psyche that still knows exactly what happened in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, centuries after it was first performed and long after we studied it at school. As audiences, we are often captivated by the tragedy of a perfect partnership that never was; as a theme, tragedy runs deep in our collective emotional make-up, as we all, on some level, feel its sharp edges on our own personal histories and experiences.
When it comes to love in the 21st century, people have fought hard to ensure that we can love who we want without the legal repercussions and associated risks of social ostracism that until recently was a tangible reality for many. This is not true for everyone everywhere, and still the legal wins haven’t completely filtered into everyday social exchanges, so that many people continue to experience sharp and unwelcome judgement from others about who they choose to love, or whether they choose to be in love at all.
In 1943, at the height of the Second World War, two people experienced the social and cultural repercussions of the love they developed for each other.
The archive documents the story of Joan and William, who were billeted at a hotel in Cornwall during the war. Joan was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), and William was the Royal Air Force Commanding Officer of the station they resided at. He was married with children, Joan was single.
They began an affair, and through a series of preserved love letters between William and Joan, we see that they were so infatuated by the other that they could hardly concentrate on anything else, or anyone else.
They would write daily, sometimes more than once, hiding their letters to one another in each person’s desk or under paperwork, meeting up secretly in the hotel’s quiet summer house, dancing together every evening at the station’s nightly dances. At one point, Joan actually writes that she hoped the war would drag on – so long as they were at war they could be together.
A few times they had the chance to leave for a night away together, but it seems that these snippets of closeness made it even harder to be apart again at the station, and William’s feelings of jealousy and helplessness at the situation are clear in his later letters to Joan, where he describes being tormented by a situation he feels trapped in and cannot get out of; he cannot divorce without serious consequence, and his rank and responsibility as Commanding Officer of the station made his affair with Joan totally unacceptable.
They eventually decided that, with no way out of the situation they found themselves in; the fact that he could not divorce, that they could not truly love each other openly, and that colleagues had found out about their affair and were giving them an ultimatum that one must leave the station, that Joan would be transferred elsewhere. They needed to leave one another and not look back.
Today, the hotel they were stationed at – Housel Bay Hotel – still operates, though the summer house that Joan and William used as their sanctuary is not there anymore.
The letters preserved in our collection offer an incredible insight into the social reality of two individuals who, during a period of great national upheaval, fell in a deep and intoxicating love with one another. It shows that, despite a global war and the risk of social ostracism, love pierced through. Though their love ended in tragedy, it nonetheless highlights love’s enduring nature, that does not and should not discriminate. That we always have and always should be able to love freely who we choose to. That love always wins.