Who was Britain's first woman war correspondent? According to the caption underneath a splendid picture of a middle-aged woman posing in an ankle-length leather coat for a Russian newspaper in 1941, it was Charlotte Haldane.
Haldane, then a Communist Party member and not unattractive, had been sent by the Daily Sketch in the vain hope that she might get the coveted interview with Stalin. In fact, there had been other women war correspondents before her, but, first or not, it was an achievement to be sent on this mission and one Haldane had had to fight for.
Born Charlotte Franken in 1894 in London to a middle-class German Jewish family, she keenly felt the stigma of being German in England during the first world war but started writing, got pregnant and married in 1918. The marriage failed but it forced Charlotte to hone her views on the ideal form of male/female partnership, a subject she wrote about all her life.
In 1926 Charlotte the journalist interviewed and fell in love with J. B. S. Haldane, the geneticist. To market his essays and popularise the many new scientific ideas of the day, she set up Science News Service, thereby turning him into a legend and doubling his income. Once she married J. B. S., the name and new found security helped her career at first. But it was a double-edged sword. By the time of her death in 1969 she had written 19 books, 9 translations, innumerable radio broadcasts and a handful of plays, as well as several successful biographies, which, Adamson maintains, enabled Charlotte to realise her full potential as a writer. Yet she is remembered today, if at all, as the talented but difficult first wife of JBS Haldane and had to eke out her last years with the help of a grant from the Royal Literary Fund.
In her vibrant middle years her courageous anti-fascist activities included editing Woman Today (the organ of the British Women's Committee Against War and Fascism), serving as guide and interpreter for Paul Robeson in Spain in 1938, working clandestinely in Paris for the International Brigade and not preventing her only son, aged 16, from going to fight in Spain. Perhaps, most courageously of all, after her trip to Moscow, her honesty forced her to leave the British Communist Party.
This biography, written without the help of personal papers as Charlotte Haldane destroyed these, will not only help to rescue its subject, who deserves to be remembered as a pioneering journalist in early 20th-century Fleet Street, but also sheds light on the difficulties of women in the inter-war years who wanted to be both independent feminists and mothers as well as those faced by the British Communist Party in establishing itself in mainstream politics.
Anne Sebba, a former Reuters correspondent, is the author of Battling for News: The Rise of the Woman Reporter.
Charlotte Haldane: Woman Writer in a Man's World
Author - Judith Adamson
ISBN - 0 333 66973 8
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 224