The matey ‘Alf’, the friendly ‘AlfW’ and the all-purpose ‘AW’ or ‘AWainwright’ but never ‘Alfred’ appear at the bottom of Alfred Wainwright’s letters. He is ‘A. Wainwright, Borough Treasurer’ when at his most formal, austerely refusing a one pound bribe for a council tenancy. And he is uniquely ‘Red’, even ‘R’, and playfully ‘Uncle Hans’ when he writes his passionate emotional letters to Betty, “the girl I had dreamed about for forty years”, the love of his later years and his second wife.
AW has many faces. Over the fifty-eight years of his adult life, from 1932 to 1990, he probably wrote some ten thousand letters and signed many thousands more as Kendal’s Borough Treasurer. Many were typed, but others were written in that now familiar round and regular script.
Eric Maudsley, another trainee accountant in Blackburn, was an early mate from the time they’d shared a chamber pot on a Lakeland expedition. They’re equally passionate about the rolling fells and the girls in the office. He says he is writing to both Dorothy and Doris and has made “both wonderfully happy”. Wainwright was already married - at twenty-four to Ruth Holden, a fellow Congregationalist. They had one son and they never went walking together. She was completely excluded from his letters until, aged sixty, he wrote to his solicitor about a divorce.
In 1941, he settles to his new job in Kendal and meticulously plans a bungalow “in tune with the surroundings”: “the view from the big windows at the front will comprise many miles of the loveliest country, God ever made.” He dreams of the books he will write. “The real classic, however, will not be published until about 1960. My life’s blood will be in it. It will be my memorial. This of course, will be WAINWRIGHT’S GUIDE TO THE LAKELAND HILLS.”
He boasts of waking with “a grunt (silent) of passionate joy. . . . Another day in Lakeland! Another day of life at its best! By my side is the recumbent form of a female, but it is not on her that I feast my eyes, it is the square of the window. That frames a picture that lifts my heart.”
Wainwright was not gregarious. He insisted on the solitude of the hills, but he did have a gift for friendship, for friendships controlled through correspondence. He begins one letter: “Molly I could kiss you” and another “Please confirm you are not dead” and the letters are full of humour and banter. And his letters to fans he had never met are open and generous and amusing.
But it is the letters he wrote to Betty as she sought her divorce and as he waited for his freedom that reveal the man. There is the discovery of love: “The interlinking of fingers when I tried to start to tell you my story and couldn’t go on.” “There was your letter, shy and forlorn amongst fifty others paying bills, wanting council houses.” And there is mad, unjustified jealousy: “But when he went on to tell me about his more personal relationships with you . . . I could feel my innards shrivelling up.” And there are the thoughts of a life together: “Our walk across the moor (to Wuthering Heights) must be done on a wild and stormy winter’s day – soon, please?”
The thread that held his life together and that runs through the book is his passion for the beauty and delight of the hills. Having squeezed – AW was a big man – into Fat Man’s Agony, he says, “I was sick with desire, palsied with fear.”
At home, he found that “I could now sit in my chair on a winter’s evening and bring Scafell or Gable into the room with me. When I could not go to the hills I could make them come to me.”
Hunter Davies’s editing of these letters has been masterfully reticent – just enough information and support to shape a very special human story that seems to tell itself.
The Wainwright Letters offer us the multi-faceted mosaic of AW’s life as he never intended to tell it. Today and forever, he is simply ‘Wainwright’.