Reviewed by Tom Buchanan (Kellogg College, Oxford)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2003)
Angela Jackson's pioneering study of British women's involvement in the Spanish Civil War not only imparts a great deal of fresh information, but also poses some important questions about how the international impact of this conflict should be assessed. Although the subject has been touched on in previous works, notably in the context of humanitarian assistance, this is the first book that directly focuses on the responses of British women both as activists in Britain and, in a smaller number of cases, as volunteers in Spain. Although there is a great deal of new archival evidence here, and some previously unnoticed published material, this is fundamentally a work of oral history. Jackson's prime source is the series of eighteen interviews that she recorded during her doctoral research (as well as numerous pre-existing taped interviews and transcripts). The emphasis is very much on women's experiences, as opposed to any detailed attempt to reconstruct the organizational context that framed their activities (this information is largely relegated to a helpful appendix). Jackson makes excellent use of her material to shed light on a broad range of important issues: women's motivations for becoming involved in the civil war, the very varied roles that they played in Spain itself, the manner in which women communicated their experiences to a wider public in Britain, and, finally, how women came to terms with defeat and with personal loss.
In all, there is a great deal that is new here and Jackson has provided a marvellous resource for future scholars who, sadly, will not have the opportunity to interview women such as Patience Darton and Frida Stewart. The book is densely written but--for a monograph--surprisingly readable, and it is beautifully illustrated with a wealth of photographs and illustrations of women's banners and posters. The final chapter, in particular, is extremely moving and drives home the absolute centrality that Spain played in the lives of these women. The interviews were clearly productive: for instance, Penny Phelps showed Angela Jackson correspondence relating to her romance with an Italian volunteer that is only hinted at in her memoir English Penny (1992). On publication, this book was perhaps inevitably reviewed in tandem with Paul Preston's Doves of War: Four Women of Spain (2002), and there is certainly some overlap (two of Preston's subjects being British). However, while Jackson lacks Preston's narrative skill, her book is without doubt the more original and thought-provoking of the two.
I do, however, have some significant reservations about the political conclusions that Jackson draws from her study. The book's consistent argument is that women's pattern of political activity is different from that of men: that women responded to Spain with a greater spirit of practicality, co-operation, and empathy, and that they were largely immune to the (literally) puerile debates that dominated the left-wing politics of the day. But this interpretation is one that has been shaped by the oral history evidence that Jackson consistently favors over archival sources. To take one example, she gives little credence to a letter of complaint that was sent by the staff of the British medical unit (criticizing inefficiency and political bias) on the grounds that those women who could be interviewed subsequently barely mentioned the incident. Accordingly, the allegations contained in an important piece of contemporary evidence, which must have required some courage to compose, are virtually ignored (p. 111). Jackson makes her position explicit when she warns historians against an emphasis on "disorder and conspiracy" and a "retrospective 'cherry-picking' of instances of discord" (p. 114). In effect, she gives more weight to the mature reflections of those interviewed some sixty years after the events, for whom the grievances of the time may well now appear petty and churlish, than to the raw emotions of the moment captured in contemporaneous sources.
There is also a question of the selection of evidence, as one wonders how truly representative the interviews were of political views at the time. For instance, Jackson states that "few British women [in Spain] played an active role in the factional conflicts of the left in Spain. Many were manifestly uninterested in these party political struggles and others rejected involvement in such matters entirely" (p. 85). Clearly there is some truth in this, but this would have been news to Eileen Blair, who worked for the ILP office in Barcelona and who fled for her life with her husband, George Orwell, after the "May events" of 1937. She does not even rate a mention in the index. Winifred Bates, who is presented by Jackson as a rather kindly mother figure for the British nurses in Spain, had some very nasty and highly political things to say about the anti-Stalinist POUM in her unpublished memoir. In short, Jackson has not given us the complete spectrum of women's political views.
More generally, how convincing is Jackson's attempt to displace the role of politics in British responses to the Civil War and to replace it with what she terms the "melioristic" motive (chapter 2)? The idea that many individuals wanted only to provide practical assistance to the plight of the Spanish Republicans, regardless of the party politics of the Left, is hardly without foundation--nor, it should be added, does it apply only to women. Even so, I find this argument flawed. Jackson's interpretation is broadly the same as that advanced by Jim Fyrth in his 1986 history of the "Aid Spain" movement. (They also share a common symbolism for the appeal of the civil war: Fyrth's The Signal Was Spain becomes for Jackson "The Clarion Call.") Both argue that the hallmark of British solidarity with Republican Spain was the breadth of its appeal across class, political, and gender boundaries, comparing it to Chartism or the women's suffrage movement. Solidarity with Spain becomes in this interpretation a kind of forerunner of modern "social movements." The problem with this interpretation is that it is ahistorical and fails to recognize that the 1930s were not the 1840s or the 1960s. Whereas in these earlier and later periods the political parties either had not yet gained or had lost their ambitions for hegemony, the 1930s lie at the very heart of the period in which the party politics of the Left was most intensely contested. (Interestingly, Jackson is aware of this crucial difference between the generations of the 1930s and the 1960s, but does not allow it to inform her historical analysis [p. 244].) As Raphael Samuel noted in his brilliant essays on "the lost world of British Communism" (New Left Review, 1985 and 1986), the middle decades of the twentieth century were those in which the collective identities of the Left were most clearly and exclusively demarcated. The inter-party wrangles of the 1930s, both in Britain and Spain, were doubtless frustrating and incomprehensible to many who simply wanted to help the victims of the Civil War. But to seek to understand the political complexities of this period is not to impose "unsuitable paradigms" as Jackson suggests (p. 56): rather it is to accept that this was the paradigm within which the individuals discussed in this book had to operate.
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Tom Buchanan. Review of Jackson, Angela, British Women and the Spanish Civil War.
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