Magazine article The Spectator

On My Left ... on My Right

Magazine article The Spectator

On My Left ... on My Right

Article excerpt


by Paul Preston

HarperCollins, L16.99, pp. 469, ISBN 0002556322


by Judith Keene

Continuum/Leicester University Press, 25, 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 political ideology. Both Priscilla ('Pip') Scott-- Ellis 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 Ibarruri, 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). …

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