On my left . . .
On my right
DOVES OF WAR by Paul Preston HarperCollins, £16.99, pp. 469, ISBN 0002556322 FIGHTING FOR FRANCO by Judith Keene Continuum !Leicester University Press, 425, pp. 310, ISBN 0718501268 How many more books on the Spanish civil war is Professor Paul Preston proposing to write? We have already had 14, either wholly or in part about the war, written or edited by him. They include his magisterial, if relentlessly critical, biography of Franco (his wife, aka Gabrielle Ashford Hodges, then followed with her own book on Franco) and, most recently, Comrades, concerned with some of the principal figures of the war, both Republican and Nationalist. Students of Professor Preston will know that his heart is usually worn pretty visibly on his sleeve, but this latest book, consisting of portraits of four women, two from each side in the war, is a model of even-handedness and a worthy tribute to all of them.
Preston clearly has a lot of respect for these four courageous women whose participation in the war was marked as much by their extraordinary energy as their polit
lea] ideology. Both Priscilla (Pip') ScottEllis and Nan Green worked tirelessly in hospitals: Pip as a nurse behind Nationalist lines, Nan in administrative positions for the Republican medical services, having left her children to go to Spain, where her husband had already joined the International Brigades. Following her husband's death in 1936, Mercedes Sanz-Bachiller founded and ran a welfare organisation in Valladolid, which soon spread throughout the Nationalist zone; while Margarita Nelken, unmarried mother of two children, artist, art critic, lecturer and prolific writer, became a revolutionary politician in the years before the outbreak of war.
Margarita Nelken is the only one about whom virtually nothing has previously been written in English, scarcely rating a mention from Hugh Thomas or Raymond Carr. But she emerges as the most fascinating of Preston's chosen quartet. The daughter of a Jewish family of mixed European descent, she was a successful painter, friendly with Diego Rivera and Auguste Rodin, before turning to art criticism and lecturing when her eyesight obliged her to give up painting. She also began writing novels, then produced a polemical work on women's rights, which caused uproar in 1920s Spain. Dispute over her Spanish nationality followed when in 1931 she was elected a Socialist deputy for Badajoz; representing the poorest and most violent province in the country, she soon lost faith in the government, espoused revolution, went to Russia, and during the war switched to the Communist party, from which she was later expelled. Nelken was no less committed to the cause, in many ways no less impressive a personality, than Dolores lbarruri, La Pasionaria (both stayed on in Madrid when the government fled to Valencia in November 1936), and yet she is not remembered. Perhaps La Pasionaria appeared less impulsive, more dignified, dressed always in black, more steadfast in her political ideals, more of an earth-mother figure. Nelken was a free-thinking feminist who could be acerbic in her writings: she had a coquettish look in her younger days and a reputation for being sexually Liberated, and she was just too much for the Spanish Republican establishment. And yet she was a devoted mother who, in her later life in exile in Mexico where she wrote numerous books and articles on Mexican art and worked for the Ministry of Education, never got over the deaths of her son (while fighting with the Red Army in the Ukraine) and her daughter (of cancer).
Matronly in appearance, and disapproving of the trappings of fascism, Mercedes Sanz-Bachiller, who appeared in Preston's previous book, Comrades, was, not unlike Nelken, a social radical pursuing a more active role for women through the charity relief network which she created. But she came up against Pilar Primo de Rivera, sister of the founder of the Falange, whose comparable organisation, Seccion Femenina, according with the tenets of Francoism, kept women in their traditionally submis sive role. Little wonder that SanzBachiller's contribution was all but written out of the Nationalist history books.
To the tomboyish Nan Green the Republican cause was 'so flawless and so black and white and so good and so wholesome'. As a dedicated Bolshevik she unhesitatingly accepted the charge of Trotskyist deviation for having had a brief affair in the Aragon hospital where she worked. Only in her last years — having escorted Spanish refugee children to Mexico, worked in China and been secretary of the International Brigade Association — did she admit to having 'unlearned blind faith' in the Soviet system.
Pip Scott-Ellis was not so politically committed: she hated the 'Reds' but was confused by being in love with a possibly homosexual Orleans prince who was flying in Spain with Hitler's Condor Legion. Until 1995 hardly anyone knew that this adventurous 21-year-old daughter of Lord Howard de Walden had worked as a nurse in a field hospital behind the Nationalist lines, close to the last two major battles of the war, at Teruel and the Ebro. Then her voluminous diary was discovered, edited by Raymond Carr, and published under the title The Chances of Death. This prompted her rotter of a former husband, Jose Luis de Vilallonga, to declare that the diary was a forgery and that his deceased wife was in fact the illegitimate daughter of her Orleans boyfriend's father. Part of the diary has recently been on display at the Spanish Civil War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.
Scott-Ellis was a young woman of extraordinary stamina and resilience, who was nevertheless able to write with detachment about her experiences, usually at night after many hours caring for wounded soldiers. 'Ever since I was shelled at Escatron I have a complete control over myself which is very useful.' Scott-Ellis's 20 months in Nationalist Spain, which earned her the Medalla Militar. are also well covered in Judith Keene's conscientiously researched book on the foreign volunteers for Franco. It provides a useful addendum to the history of the civil war, and contains some intriguing snippets of information, such as that the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Hinsley, had on his desk a framed photograph of Franco, which he kept there for the rest of his life. The volunteers included White Russians, Romanians, French, an Irish brigade commanded by an IRA general, Eoin O'Duffy, and a very few Englishmen, most notably Peter Kemp, a romantic monarchist knight-errant (and in later years foreign correspondent of The Spectator) who fought with the Carlist Requetes and the Foreign Legion. Kemp and Scott-Ellis were attracted to one another and dined together in Saragossa in 1938 and after the war in Madrid and London. If only they had married, she would have been spared years of misery with the odious Vilallonga.