A cup of tea and a cudgel

Doves of War
September 6, 2002

The illustrations say it all. On one side, fatigue-clad female fighters pose proudly with their rifles and Marcel-waved actresses crochet for the militia. On the other, joyful bourgeois matrons give the Fascist salute as the Nationalists enter Barcelona. Clearly women were everywhere in the Spanish civil war. Yet, as Paul Preston remarks, of the 20,000 books on the subject, less that 1 per cent are by or about women.

Preston, the most respected and prolific historian of 20th-century Spain, sets out to fill this gap for academic and general readers. Attempting to show the "emotional cost" of the war, and drawing mainly on unpublished documents such as diaries and letters, he tells the tale of four remarkable women. With admirable symmetry, he offers two Britons and two Spaniards, two rightwingers and two leftists.

The aristocratic Priscilla Scott-Ellis ("Pip" to her many friends) is the easiest to parody. Said by a contemporary to love "hairdressers, young men and cream buns", Pip dyed her eyelashes before setting off for Spain as a nurse on the Nationalist side. Preston juxtaposes her accounts of stomach-churning surgery with an equally impressive lunch: "Poached eggs, tinned salmon with mayonnaise, albóndigas (meatballs in rich gravy) and fried potatoes, cheese and chocolate pudding, not to mention foie gras and oporto as an aperitif and coffee and coñac to finish with."

In her journal, Pip is blatant in her prejudices ("The Jews have sworn to have a European war this spring come what may"), but equally unselfconscious in her character studies ("Franco is a weeny little man, the size and shape of a tennis ball"). Occasionally, some political awareness peeks through: "Unluckily the fun of a frantically pleased population waving flags and singing was missing, as all the Catalans are Red so don't look on us very much as heroic liberators." And Preston shows us what Pip was up against: from a grandfather who wrote that "The girls are alright but they are girls and there is no more to be said about that"; to her beloved but indifferent Spanish aristocrat "Touffles"; and the "handsome and dissolute playboy" she eventually settled for.

Preston sets Pip against a more wholesome British nurse, Nan Green, whose formula for happiness was "fresh air, freedom and music". Nan embraced Communism so joyfully that, according to her son, "Lenin and Stalin were nursery gods". Leaving the children at Summerhill school, she set off for Spain where, in the words of her husband, George, anti-Fascists "take up dynamite and destruction, tho' loving peace and the growing of cabbages and the flight of kestrels". While George was tragically killed at the front, Nan's courageous and resourceful nursing was hampered by infighting among her Communist comrades. There are ironic echoes of Pip here. Both women rely on "nice cups of tea" and lament how filthy they have become amid the carnage of battle.

Like Nan, Mercedes Sanz-Bachiller also lost a husband, but hers was a leader of the Spanish Fascist movement. "Petite rosy cheeked" Mercedes is seduced by what Preston calls "a killer chat-up line": "Which mass do you go to?". Preston takes pains to distance the wife from the husband's political position (sample soundbite: "Caress your dagger. Never be parted from your vengeful cudgel"). And he deftly distinguishes between Mercedes's non-partisan Auxilio Social and the more submissive and anti-feminist Secci"n Femenina.

While Preston relies heavily on Mercedes's own account here (she is the only of his four subjects still living), he also gives us a dissenting view. One contemporary wrote that Mercedes's charity was only "able to allay material suffering by imposing moral suffering: obliging orphans to sing the songs of the murderers of their father". Yet Mercedes, who favoured creches for working women, remained "relatively progressive". Conservative values were brutally reimposed after the war when female labour was no longer required by Franco.

Margarita Nelken, Socialist deputy, is clearly the most distinguished figure in the book, and the only one to have published a great deal herself. Vilified by the right as both "androgynous" and a "whore", this "Jewish Amazon" was the cosmopolitan intellectual that the better known Dolores Ib rruri (" Pasionaria ") could never be. A single mother, art critic and campaigner for women's rights, Nelken wrote a novel and seven novellas, works on literature and painting, and was the first translator of Kafka into Spanish. Elected MP for rural Badajoz, Nelken, who lived with "two maids and a car" on Madrid's fashionable Castellana, showed intense empathy with the landless peasantry that was her constituency. Preston has some telling details of political corruption, as when in the election of 1932 "upperclass women were escorted by machine-gun toting civil guards buying votes in brothels".

Here, once more, Preston's sympathy for his subjects does not preclude criticism: Nelken's naive promotion of the Soviet Union, which she visited briefly, reinforced an enthusiasm for revolution that was politically untenable in Spain. Yet even when she joined the Communists during the war, this "Lady Astor in reverse" did not find the recognition she deserved. Exiled to Mexico and expelled from the party, she struggled to keep her female household (mother, daughter and granddaughter) afloat. Pathetically she pleads with a friend to send her the little straw bag that is a last relic of her son, killed fighting Hitler on the eastern front.

It is a typically sad ending for a group of women whose lives peaked with the war and were later cursed by feckless men. Only Mercedes remarried happily and, we are told somewhat bathetically, "took a close interest in the lives of her grandchildren". Preston's parallels between his subjects are sometimes forced and his style can be repetitious. Doves of War remains, however, a fascinating and worthy tribute to four women who, whatever their differences, were all written out of history.

Paul Julian Smith is professor of Spanish, University of Cambridge.

Doves of War: Four Women of Spain

Author - Paul Preston
ISBN - 0 00 255633
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £16.99
Pages - 469

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