- Posted by Amy Bell
- On March 9, 2023
By Roger Golland
A review of Tomorrow Perhaps the Future – Following Writers and Rebels in the Spanish Civil War by Sarah Watling, published February 2023 by Jonathan Cape
In the summer of 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil war, the outspoken heiress Nancy Cunard addressed a broadsheet appeal, grandly entitled The Question, to writers and poets of the UK and Ireland. It was clear to many of us, it started, that now, as certainly never before, we are determined, or compelled, to take sides. The equivocal attitude, the Ivory Tower, the paradoxical, the ironic detachment, will no longer do.
Addressees were urged to compose no more than six lines, to be collated in a pamphlet for publication, answering the question: Are you for, or against, the legal government and the People of Republican Spain?
Three thousand copies of Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War sold out straight away. The vast majority of the 145 replies selected favoured the Republic, with only five categorised as against and 16 neutral. Rebecca West worried that ‘six lines is terribly little, and it sounds very trite and boring.’ E.M.Forster doubted that manifestos by writers carried any weight whatever. Virginia Woolf, perched in her ivory tower, did not contribute, later commenting on the inquisition she felt subjected to at the time: ‘private people of no political training were invited to sign appeals asking their own and foreign governments to change their policy; artists were asked to fill up forms stating the proper relations of the artist to the State, to religion, to morality….’
The dilemma encapsulated in the responses to the The Question lie at the heart of Sarah Watling’s new book. How should writers and thinkers behave when the world turns upside down? What motivates outsiders to get off the fence, take a stance, pin their colours to the mast, head off to the conflict and risk their own oblivion? What difference did their bearing witness make to the course of events and their own art? To tease out these interwoven threads she selects a miscellany of anglophone ladies, a dozen in all, some of them rebels (in the sense of trailblazers for women’s and racial rights), some just swept up in the passions of the time and considers their stories.
It is not a study of writers in the Civil War, a crowded field, but more a musing on how an understanding of them might inform a female author’s attitudes to contemporary populism, propaganda and conflict.
The book’s title comes from Auden’s poem “Spain”, first published in 1937 by Nancy and arguably one of the most acclaimed works to come out of the war. Unfortunately, neither the poem itself nor Auden qualify for inclusion in a feminist study. Nancy’s outspoken, sometimes clumsy activism, including her promotion of ‘negro’ literature, draw us into her egotism and strident personality. Watling argues that she was angry because she had hope and, at the end of her life, battling fears of a life squandered, she recalled with pride what she did to assist and report on the plight of Spanish refugees reaching France across the mountains in 1939.
There are other chapters devoted to the lesbian couple Sylvia Townsend Walker and Valentine Ackland, the American journalist Martha Gellhorn (with Hemingway in tow) and the only black American nurse volunteer Salaria Kea, whose courageous travel to Spain was assisted by Cunard. But it is Virginia Woolf who is the book’s main counterpoint to the hectoring Nancy, striving to keep her intellect pristine and resisting the call to futile gestures of solidarity. The war destroys her nephew’s life and, not long after, despair takes her own.
The Mitford girls warrant a chapter, illustrating in one family the painful repercussions of immature jumps to one or other side of the fence. Teenage Jessica escaped the boredom of home by eloping to Spain in the wake of Esmond Romilly, correspondent turned ardent anti-fascist partisan. The family and British Consulate caught up with them in Bilbao and her escapade was cut short. She never reconciled with her Nazi sister Unity, and her career as a writer started years later, Spain a long way past.
The photographer Gerda Taro provides the book’s cover picture of a militia lady posing in silhouette with a pistol. The epitome of guts she was only 26 when killed in Spain and largely forgotten until the discovery in Mexico in 2007 of a suitcase of reels of film restored her fame. She is the subject of the final lines of Watling’s epilogue: ‘I admit to imagining those negatives and contact sheets and vintage prints as tiny pockets of resistance – statements of the unquenchable human drive to create and to record – that will flare up as often as they are extinguished and will keep on being found.’
Sarah Watling won the Tony Lothian prize for her first book Noble Savages. She acknowledges
the assistance of the doyens, Prof Paul Preston and Angela Jackson, author of the definitive British Women and the Spanish Civil War, when preparing this study. Its resonance, as we enter the second year of grinding war in Ukraine and wonder what is to be done, when is the time to step forward, is all too evident. Where are the Nancy Cunards of today to ask The Question?
Note on the author:
Roger Golland OBE is a Trustee of the BritishSpnaish Society. He will be chairing a BritishSpanish Society event with Sarah Watling in London this Spring. More details here