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

23rd August 1939, German-Soviet Pact announced

The announcement of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) on 23rd August 1939, only a week before Germany’s invasion of Poland, and Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, was a key event in the lead up to the Second World War.

This letter, written by Frank on the evening that the pact was announced (a Wednesday), captures some of the intensity of – and speed at which events were moving at – this time. It is written from Newcastle on International Brigade notepaper (Frank was working for the north-east branch of an International Brigade committee at the time), and was sent to Elizabeth – apparently still at Ashintully (“languishing in idleness”, according to Frank). Frank and Elizabeth married almost immediately after the war broke out – so within a few weeks of this letter.

I don’t know what or who the “S. T. D.” that Frank is awaiting a reply from refers to (any pointers gratefully received) – nor who Jack Sword (?) and the Bickfords are.

Transcript below, along with a copy of the invitation to their Diamond Wedding party – they eloped, so this is the closest there was to any kind of wedding announcement.

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Continue reading 23rd August 1939, German-Soviet Pact announced

Frank’s Catalonian Identity Card, 1st February 1938

Seventy-nine years ago, on 1st February 1938, Frank was issued with this ID card (Carnet d’Identitat) for the Generalatit de Catalunya, the government of Catalonia. The Catalonian text states (roughly): Frank Knowles Girling serves in this Comissariat, as  editor of English bulletins. 1st February 1938.

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A few months later, in his own account of what had brought him to Spain, and his activities while there (see Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1), Frank would write of his work as a translator for the Generalatit, and his growing disillusionment with the Catalonian government:

Having by this time learnt Spanish and a little Catalan came to Barcelona at the end of January hoping to be able to join the I.B. and serve usefully the cause. Being offered a post in the Propaganda Office of the Generalitat I accepted it thinking that as a translator I might be more useful than as a soldier. Now convinced of the inefficiency of the Cat. Government and in particularly of the Esquerra Republicana I do not want to continue and no other work offering I shall go back to England to stimulate the propaganda for Spain.

His account of coming to Barcelona at the end of January would fit with the issuing of this card on 1st February – and his description of himself as a “translator” fits roughly with his description on the card as an “editor”, although I still don’t really know what his activities were at this time (I have a feeling that he ended up broadcasting on the radio at some point). The Generalitat and the Republican Left of Catalonia (the Esquerra Republicana that Frank talks about) were in internal turmoil throughout the Spanish Civil War (as described by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia), with numerous groups and factions competing for control – I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of all this, but perhaps his disillusionment was in some part linked with his allegiance to a particular faction, or perhaps it was due to frustration at the overall factionalism in the face of ongoing assault from Franco’s forces.

Max Gerhard Löwenberg

Holocaust Remembrance Day made me think of the heartbreaking profiles of potential refugees that I had seen among my grandmother’s papers. I don’t want to deify my grandparents – they were by no means perfect, but I do think that they generally tried to do their best (according to their belief in what “best” might mean). This letter to my grandmother, asking her to take these Jewish refugees from Germany, is dated June 1939; I don’t know if she refused for some reason (unthinkable, but possible I suppose), or if events intervened (the war broke out three months later) – but Max Gerhard Löwenberg (/Loewenberg) was sent to Auschwitz in March 1943 and was killed there along with his parents.

From the brief information I can find online, it seems that Ludwig Israel Weikersheimer did manage to leave Germany in time, and later became a naturalised British citizen and changed his name to Leslie Wallen.

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Learning Spanish

By late September 1937 it seems that Elizabeth’s plans to go to Spain were becoming ever more concrete and she was on the search for a Spanish teacher to improve her language skills. Letters from the previous month between Elizabeth, her sisters, and Edward Cadbury make it clear that she had wanted to sell the property she had inherited in order to put the money towards relief work in Spain; having had this plan blocked (legal action was taken against her in the Scottish courts) it looks like Elizabeth quickly decided to go to Spain herself instead.

Janet Perry (1884-1958), the writer of this letter, was a lecturer in Spanish at King’s College, London. She went to Spain twice, with Quaker-organised relief units – and this again makes me wonder if Elizabeth also organised her travel and work in Spain through the Quakers (perhaps aided by Edward Cadbury). She had grown up with a number of Quaker family friends (including the Cadburys), and Dorothy Thompson (mentioned in this letter as the link between Elizabeth and Janet Perry) was Assistant Secretary to the Spain Committee of the (British) Friends Service Committee. Farah Mendlesohn writes in detail about Quaker relief efforts in the Spanish Civil War in her book, Quaker Relief Work in the Spanish Civil War – in which she mentions both Janet Perry and Dorothy Thompson. Alfred Jacob, who was mentioned in the security report on Frank, is a central figure in Mendlesohn’s book – again confirming the importance of the Quaker presence in Spain to both Frank and Elizabeth’s time there. Mendlesohn also briefly mentions Puigcerdà, explaining that it was initially set up (in 1937) as a “Quaker children’s colony” (the first of these in Spain); no doubt I will come across more Quaker links as I go through the boxes, but one day it would also be interesting to look at some of the archives explored by Mendlesohn (especially material relating the the Birmingham Quaker community).

Here is the letter, with transcript below:

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Continue reading Learning Spanish

Sex, lies and irrational hedonism

Looking for something vageuly new year-ish to post this morning, I came across this curious, gossipy letter (about the sex lives and sexual politics of Communist Party acquaintances) and I can’t resist sharing it – despite the poor image quality, and a few words that I can’t quite work out.

I’m not sure which year it’s from – my vague guess would be 1936 or 1937, and I can’t work out who any of the people mentioned are (Rosemary, Tom and David), nor who “Nobby” (its writer, from Bristol) is. The letter seems to be responding to one from Elizabeth on the subject of the sex lives of Communist Party friends. The chief question seems to be whether Rosemary and Tom’s activities should be classed as “irrational hedonism” – and whether they should be considered “on a par” with David, the villain of the piece (what on earth had he been getting up to? – possibly a divorce, as a “correspondent” is mentioned).

Most interesting are the hints at an ongoing discussion between Elizabeth and Nobby on gender equality amongst Communist Party (and Labour Party?) members. We are often told of how badly the left has historically treated its own women and it sounds like this is something Elizabeth was grappling with even then – realising perhaps that “equality” didn’t extend to women (Nobby quotes a previous letter of Elizabeth’s: “equality of sexes seems to have no meaning to this crowd”). I think (although obviously biased) that the points which seem to indicate prudishness on Elizabeth’s part are in fact a response to this question of sexual/moral double standards – and the poor treatment of various women. Elizabeth was by no means a prude (as I know from my own experience, and as various other letters attest), but she would certainly have had a problem with women being treated callously by men acting in the style of “nineteenth-century seducers”.

It all reminds me of a similar letter dating from Elizabeth’s time at Oxford – again apparently repsponding to her complaints about a lack of gender equality amongst Labour Club members there. I’ll post it if I can find it – and will post more on Rosemary, Tom and the Jack of Hearts (David) if I discover more on them. Meanwhile, here it is – Nobby to Elizabeth, 12th August, 1936 or 1937 (images of original letter below):

Continue reading Sex, lies and irrational hedonism

Goodwill Towards Men, Xmas 1935

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.

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