On the 21st May 1935 the Oxford Union was due to debate the “inevitability of progress” with C. E. M. Joad (philosopher, Fabian and anti-capitalist – whose career was ultimately ended by an unpaid train fare), St. John Ervine (an Irish playwright whose fame seems to chiefly rest on the fact that he was standing next to suffragette Emily Davison before she threw herself under the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby), and Ronald Knox (Catholic priest and writer of detective fiction).
The day before, Elizabeth received this letter from Ian (surname unknown), sending her tickets for the debate – and at the same time informing her that he was off to vote against her membership of the Union. How charming…
This letter makes me fizz with anger: how dare this man – whoever he was – write to my grandmother like this. I obviously don’t know the grounds on which Ian planned to vote against Elizabeth’s membership of the union. Politics presumably, but I can’t help but feel that the whole thing smacks of patronising misogyny (down to the final love and kisses).
Is this what she had to take at every turn as a woman who was interested in politics and wanted to be taken seriously at Oxford in the 1930s? Elizabeth was at least as clever as Frank (if not cleverer – and she was certainly more diplomatic), and her political activism and passion for changing the world certainly rivalled his. And yet, after the Second World War, their focus was on Frank’s education and career and – although she was politically active her whole life, and achieved a whole raft of things – she never had a serious career in the way that he did (despite her early educational privilege). Attitudes like this must have had something to do with that – just one more woman lost among successive generations of Shakespeare’s sisters.
Here it is, from 20th May 1936, with transcript below – along with notices of various other Oxford Union debates from Elizabeth’s time at the university (apologies for blurry images).
I am not sure if this Christmas message from 1935 was sent to Frank or Elizabeth; it is from a box full of items belonging to Elizabeth and dates from her time at Oxford, during which she was involved in various Labour Party activities. But it is signed by somebody called Walter, from Castletown in Sunderland – not that far from where Frank grew up, and was living at this time.
Anyway, here it is, a 1935 colliery Christmas card, complete with Dickensian mine owner.
A curiosity: did this planned conference on “The Christian Attitude in Politics” ever happen, I wonder?
The writing is Elizabeth’s – and, despite the messy scrawl, the plans look fairly well developed. I would imagine that this dates from Elizabeth’s time at Oxford (so c. 1933-1936; there is a reference to the Oxford University Fascist Association), and is perhaps linked to her activities with the Labour Club there.
The conference, and mix of speakers, sounds fascinating – but I can’t help but think of it all in terms of family psycho-drama as well: before his death in 1920, Elizabeth’s father, Robert Aytoun, had been a Presbyterian minister (and Professor of Old Testament Literature and Religion) and this attempt to examine religion through a political lens seems in some way to be a product of the stark difference between her family’s religious background and her relatively recent (although ultimately permanent) loss of faith. While Elizabeth had declared herself an atheist when still at school, her mother and sisters remained firmly (although perhaps not particularly devotedly) believers. Many a letter from the late 20s and early 30s attests to Elizabeth’s mother’s “disappointment” at this atheist stance, and Edward Cadbury even wrote to her on the subject, lamenting the contrast between her life and her parents’ “lives of service”.
See below for a transcript, and links to more information on those involved.
I can’t quite get over how young and dreamy a c. twenty-year-old Frank looks in this photograph. It is the main image of him from his International Brigade personnel file held in the Comintern archives (now in Moscow). I was sitting in the library a few days ago when an e-mail arrived (from Fraser Raeburn – an Edinburgh PhD student working on Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War) with copies of the various documents held in this file. I hadn’t seen this photo – or any of the other material – before and my heart actually skipped a beat.
The file isn’t huge – but all of the information it contains is new to me (including an intriguing document that looks like a security report on Frank, in German, simply signed “Kurt” – more on this once translated). Most exciting is this, an account of how Frank ended up in Spain, including his involvement in politics before going there. It contains so much interesting (to me) new information that I don’t know where to begin… Here he is in his own words, with my thoughts below:
The first box that I decided to look in for items relating to my grandparents’ time in Spain made me realise how much possible material I have – and also the extent to which this is probably going to be as much about their 1930s activities and politics as about the Spanish Civil War itself. The box contains stacks of letters, postcards, leaflets, magazines, etc. Some of these I have put aside for another time: Frank’s wartime letters to Elizabeth, for instance – there are probably hundreds of these, mostly from India, and a glance at a few first lines reveals that they are fairly steamy, something I am not really ready for – and stacks of alternately heart-breaking and business-like correspondence about bringing various Communist and Jewish refugees to Britain. Perhaps I will come back to these, but at the moment I have decided to try to focus on Spain, and what took my grandparents there, so from this box I will probably take some of the items about Elizabeth’s political activities at Oxford in the mid-thirties, as well as various letters that refer directly to Spain. There are also some wonderful propaganda posters from Spain, various political pamphlets, some literary magazines and a few photographs.