Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Flannery O’Connor Letters Reveal Faith, Friendship

By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 20, 2007

“I would like to know who this is who understands my stories.”

With these words, Flannery O’Connor began a friendship that was to influence her outlook and touch her art for the rest of her life. It was July 1955, and the young writer had recently published her acclaimed short story collection, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Elizabeth (Betty) Hester, a reader in Atlanta, wrote what was essentially a fan letter to O’Connor, and the author sensed a kindred spirit.

Impressed by Hester’s perceptions about the role of God in her writing, O’Connor tried to explain her position: “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. … I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden. …”

This began a correspondence that lasted until O’Connor’s untimely death of complications from lupus in 1964. In those nine years, the two women shared a unique discussion that covered topics ranging from literature, philosophy, and faith, to the mundane details of day-to-day life. For the first time, the public has complete access to the 274 letters written by O’Connor to her friend. Hester donated the letters to Emory University in 1987 with the stipulation that they remain sealed for 20 years. On May 12 of this year, the Emory Manuscript, Archives and Rare Books Library opened the collection to the public.

Emory celebrated the unveiling of the letters with a public reading of some of the letters on May 22, an evening that will be repeated Sept. 25. The evening opened with an introduction by William Sessions, a leading O’Connor scholar and a personal friend to both women. Having earlier referred to the letters as “probably the most important collection of letters in American literature in the latter part of the century,” Sessions claimed that in Betty Hester, O’Connor found “another woman seeking her spiritual and intellectual destiny.” Sessions also noted that the two women led unusual lives for the time and place, and that their correspondence gave clues for survival in a confining world.

Local actress Brenda Bynum then gave voice to several excerpts of O’Connor’s letters. In a rich Southern accent, Bynum made the most of the witty, down-to-earth appeal of O’Connor’s writing. The letters are often funny, and often blunt, but they are just as often touching and thought provoking, with a surprisingly modern sensibility.

Though edited versions of the letters appear in a collection of O’Connor’s letters, “The Habit of Being,” edited by Sally Fitzgerald and published in 1979, O’Connor’s correspondent was identified only as “A,” and the compilation did not include several topics personal to the very private Hester. One of the most remarkable letters that is included in the Emory collection but was left out of the published correspondence is one that is assumed to be a response to Hester’s disclosure that she was a lesbian. O’Connor’s letter is notable for her loyalty to Hester and her trademark straightforward style.

By all accounts, Betty Hester was an amazing woman. Well-read and devoted to literature, with noted perception and intelligence, Hester was a writer herself. She led a reclusive life, however, surrounded at home by her books and supporting herself as a file clerk in a credit bureau that later became Equifax. In addition to her friendship with O’Connor, Hester also conducted a long-term correspondence with British author Iris Murdoch, until Murdoch succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. Faced with degenerating health and an uncertain future, Betty Hester committed suicide in 1998 at the age of 75.

Primarily known for her short stories, O’Connor also wrote two novels. Her work is often characterized as “Southern Gothic,” and she frequently employed a Southern setting, violent action, and unusual humor. Her stories, however, also often touched on ideas of faith, God, and redemption.

The letters that O’Connor wrote to Hester are remarkable for their candid observations over a variety of wide-ranging topics. The two women seem to have become immediately sympathetic with each other; from the very beginning of the correspondence O’Connor’s letters are notable for their depth and directness.

O’Connor often discussed religion and the Catholic faith with her friend, demonstrating a sincere and hopeful faith. In her first letter to Hester, O’Connor tries to explain how the church has affected her view of the world and her writing: “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.”

The difficulties inherent in faith seemed often close to O’Connor’s mind. In a letter from September 1955 she acknowledged that “… there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.” O’Connor, however, remained steadfast in her faith, and she seems thrilled when Hester decided to convert to Catholicism. When O’Connor first wrote about Hester’s intentions, she tells her friend “… you will know that your being where you are increases me and the other way round,” though in a later letter she joked about Hester asking her to be her sponsor: “What’s it mean? I am supposed to come and ask you what the fruits of the Holy Ghost are once a year or something? Anyway, I am highly pleased to be asked. … ”

One of the more touching turns in the correspondence comes five years later, in 1961, when Hester makes the difficult decision to leave the church. O’Connor is troubled, but understanding: “I don’t know anything that could grieve us here like this news. I know that what you do you do because you think it is right, and I don’t think any the less of you outside the Church than in it, but what is painful is the realization that this means a narrowing of life for you and a lessening of the desire for life.”

O’Connor goes on to give a moving explanation of what she believed was the changing nature of belief: “… faith comes and goes. It rises and falls like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it is presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it is just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will. Leaving the Church is not the solution, but since you think it is, all I can suggest to you, as your one-time sponsor, is that if you find in yourself the least return of a desire for faith, to go back to the Church with a light heart and without the conscience-raking to which you are probably suspect.”

The letters also contain several more light-hearted references to religion, including descriptions of visits to the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit, speeches given to religious groups (including one on the subject “Woman’s Day” when she claimed she would rather be writing on the more interesting topic of “Who Have the Soul of the World—Adam or Noah?”), and several discussions of the Bulletin, the forerunner of the Georgia Bulletin, to which both O’Connor and Hester contributed several book reviews. O’Connor’s view of the newspaperman’s job was, as she said, the same as the housewife, “eat it and forget it, read it and forget it.”

O’Connor also discussed literature at length with Hester. These conversations range from in-depth analyses of both contemporary and historical authors to light-hearted quips about O’Connor’s literary influences: “I hope nobody ever asks me in public. If so I intend to look dark and mutter, ‘Henry James Henry James’—which will be the veriest lie, but no matter.” Most fascinating are the discussions of O’Connor’s own work, which she often asked Hester to read as drafts. Even without Hester’s comments, O’Connor’s responses provide an interesting glimpse into how her writing was influenced by Hester’s suggestions.

As the friendship developed, Hester became a regular visitor at Andalusia, the farm where O’Connor lived with her mother, Regina. Some of the most entertaining passages in the O’Connor letters come when she keeps Hester up-to-date on her daily life: “My avocation is raising peacocks, something that requires everything of the peacock and nothing of me, so time is always at hand.” She also includes updates on the activities of their family, friends, and neighbors: “We’ve had a bad week around here. Liquor has been coming in. Wednesday Louise threw scalding water on Shot and he had to be taken (by Regina) to the emergency room at the hospital and he’s been more or less out all week from it. Louise was very pleased that she scalded him. Later in the day I asked Regina if she was still pleased with herself. Regina said no, she was sorry now she hadn’t killed him. … ”

Current events also make their way into the letters, and references to race relations and John F. Kennedy’s assassination give the correspondence a grounding in a particular time and a definite place.

O’Connor is forthright about her health problems throughout the letters, humorously telling Hester about the trials of learning to walk on crutches and giving an extended description of a visit to the Marian shrine at Lourdes, France, where the sick of the world seek healing graces. In the final letters, however, O’Connor’s health problems are clearly more serious. Her lupus returned, exacerbated by a necessary operation in February 1964 to remove a fibroid tumor. Never self-pitying, it comes as a shock to read O’Connor writing from the hospital, “It sure don’t look like I’ll ever get out of this joint.”

To the end, O’Connor remained an engaging and endearing correspondent. In one of her last letters to Hester, written in June of 1964, she mentions something Hester has said about a mutual acquaintance and tells her friend that “… your great natural grace is finding the good in people. It’s a real gift. I never been bothered with it myself.” Clearly, these two women complemented each other.

Although we only have one side of the conversation, Flannery O’Connor’s letters offer a wealth of humanity and insight into the integrity, humor, and personality of the author. Betty Hester’s generous donation allows the reader a glimpse into the life of O’Connor that both entertains and sheds light on the work of one of the most important literary voices of the 20th century.

Flannery O’Connor’s letters to Betty Hester are available for viewing at the Emory Manuscript, Archives and Rare Books Library,, (404) 727-6887.

Flannery O’Connor’s letters to Betty Hester are available for viewing at the Emory Manuscript, Archives and Rare Books Library,, (404) 727-6887.