The inevitability of sexism at the Oxford Union, 1936

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).

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Continue reading The inevitability of sexism at the Oxford Union, 1936

“We, the undersigned”: Oxford Aid for Spain

This open letter (transcript below) about the provision of medical aid to Spain is as interesting for its signatories as for its content: Lascelles Abercrombie (poet and literary critic),  James Leslie Brierly (law professor), Alexander James Carlyle (minister and historian), Robert Ensor (poet, journalist, historian, etc.), G. F. Hudson (historian), Gilbert Murray (classicist, internationalist, etc.) – an eclectic mix of an older generation of Oxford liberals. I’m not sure exactly when it dates from – probably 1936 or 1937 (the same year that Gilbert Murray’s son, Basil, was killed in Spain) – or if an ambulance was ever sent to Spain from the Oxford students (though there was a Scottish Ambulance Unit). Equally, I don’t know if Elizabeth was involved in the drafting of this letter, or the Oxford University Spanish Democratic Defence Committee that is referred to – this was all a year or two after she had left Oxford, so possibly she just had a copy as an interested party.

I can’t help but compare this to various efforts to help Syrian refugees at the moment – although the idea of university students funding an ambulance is hard to imagine.

1937 poss - AID FOR SPAIN - Oxford Ambulance etc

Continue reading “We, the undersigned”: Oxford Aid for Spain

Conference planning, 1930s style: “The Christian Attitude in Politics”

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.

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Continue reading Conference planning, 1930s style: “The Christian Attitude in Politics”

“She liked you, oddly enough”: Christopher Hill, Czechoslovakia and Communist refugees

There is a family story (myth?) that Christopher Hill proposed to my grandmother, and that she turned him down because he was too short (she was quite tall). I am not sure if this is true, but certainly they were great friends at Oxford – and I do remember her telling me that she went back to visit him in Oxford after she had been in Spain (and after she had met Frank). She took Frank’s brother, Harry, who was then an undergraduate at Oxford, to visit Christopher and arrived with wet feet, having been caught in the rain. Christopher mortified her by suggesting that she change her stockings in front of he and Harry; she was worried that this would give the impression that she and Christopher were romantically involved, and this would get back to Frank. I don’t think that they remained such good friends after the Second World War (I would imagine that life – spouses, children, geography, careers – got in the way), but she always took a great interest in his work: I used to be given his books for Christmas, and one of my uncles recently reminded me that she wrote to the Guardian after his death to protest against the suggestion that he had been a Soviet agent. Like my grandfather, Christopher suffered from dementia at the end of his life and I remember Elizabeth telling me that they had both had such brilliant minds that they must have burned out in some way.

The first box has quite a number of letters and postcards from him to Elizabeth (such as these Catalan postcards, sent in March and February 1939 – and including some from the mid-thirties, at which point they do seem to have been more than just friends). A lot of these are about bringing refugees from Czechoslovakia to Britain. I wasn’t really going to include much of this at the moment (a whole other story – complete with really wretched letters: brief biographies of potential Jewish refugees, photographs, lots and lots of paperwork. I assume that some ended up in Britain, perhaps even living in Perthshire c/o Elizabeth, but some presumably didn’t – all kinds of formalities had to be gone through to bring people here). This series of letters is interesting though, and I find it intriguing that Elizabeth declares herself a Socialist (rather than a Communist, presumably), and therefore asks that any Communist refugees “keep their politics strictly to themselves” (image below). At roughly the same time Frank was also writing to her asking her opinion on Communist Party plans and statements…

Elizabeth had, out of the blue, inherited a Perthshire estate and castle in the late thirties; she tried to sell it in order to give money to Spain (possibly the Republicans somehow? possibly the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief?), but this was blocked by her family and by the family lawyers (the case ended up in court – another story that I hope to find more information about in these boxes). Instead, as a second best, she ended up housing refugees there before and during the war. These letters between Christopher and Elizabeth are largely about the bringing of Communist refugees from Czechoslovakia to Britain. I will look out for more correspondence between the two of them about this, as it appears that Elizabeth was at first slightly reluctant (possibly due to the Moscow show trials, and the beginnings of Stalin’s purges?), and I wonder how she squared this with the pressing humanitarian side of things.

This is the first letter from Christopher to Elizabeth about this, asking for urgent help, probably from the autumn of 1938, (transcript below): Continue reading “She liked you, oddly enough”: Christopher Hill, Czechoslovakia and Communist refugees

Red Thirties

Hammer and Sickle Club - Oxford
Invitation to a meeting of The Hammer and Sickle Club, 15th May [1935?], Brasenose College, Oxford

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.

Continue reading Red Thirties