Aileen Palmer-Twentieth Century Pilgrim: War, Poetry, Madness and Modernism

By Martin, Sylvia | Hecate, May-November 2009 | Go to article overview

Aileen Palmer-Twentieth Century Pilgrim: War, Poetry, Madness and Modernism


Martin, Sylvia, Hecate


Aileen Palmer is one of only three women represented in a recent anthology of thirty-three poets writing about their experiences of the Spanish Civil War. (1) The other two are English writers: Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner. In The Gender of Modernism Jane Marcus comments that the neglect of Warner's writing has occurred on many fronts: 'Left out of the literary histories of the Spanish Civil War presumably because she was a woman, she is left out of literary modernism because she was a communist and a lesbian.' (2) As her partner Valentine Ackland shared Warner's marginalities so, too, did Aileen Palmer, about whom could be added two more: she was Australian and she spent many years of her life in mental institutions.

Born into war in London in 1915 to Vance and Nettie Palmer--two of the driving forces of Australian literature in the first half of the twentieth century--Palmer's life was to centre on two things: politics and literature, with a belief in the importance of writing instilled in her from childhood. While a student at Melbourne University studying French and German Language and Literature, she joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1934. In the same year, as a member of the left-wing Fellowship of Australian Writers, she helped organise the Egon Kisch campaign. After graduating with honours in 1935, she travelled with her parents and sister to London, armed with an introduction to the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The Palmers were renting a house in a village near Barcelona in July 1936 when the rebel generals' coup heralded the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Aileen was caught up in the rioting as she was in the city working as a translator for the People's Olympiad, organised by the Communist Party of Catalonia as a protest against the forthcoming Olympic Games in Berlin. Aileen left Barcelona, under protest, a few days later with her parents on a British warship, bound for Marseilles and then London.

While Vance and Nettie soon returned to Australia, Aileen went back to Spain as secretary/interpreter for the British medical unit, travelling to the various war fronts over the next two years. The unit was soon split and absorbed into the larger XIVth International Brigade, but Aileen continued to work for the English surgical teams which moved constantly, setting up mobile hospitals in abandoned houses or even tents near the front lines. Witnessing first-hand the casualties of the war and in constant danger, she nonetheless seemed to thrive, independent for the first time at twenty-one and actively involved in fighting fascism.

A lasting influence on her politics and her poetry was the communist and Cambridge graduate, John Cornford, whom she had heard speak in London in 1935. She met him again in September 1936 when he was brought, ill from exposure, to the English hospital she was working at in the village of Grafien on the Aragon front. One of the first British activists to join the war in Spain, he had found himself fighting with untrained Spanish volunteers in what he called the 'left sectarian semi-Trotskyist' POUM near Huesca, but after returning to England he formed the company which later became the nucleus of the British section of the International Brigade. (3) He was killed in Cordoba at the end of 1936, only twenty-one years old, but for Aileen Palmer he was a poet to revere, both for his poetry and his politics. Her own later poem, 'Danger is never danger,' is particularly influenced by his 'Heart of the heartless world,' and her unpublished novel, Last Mile to Huesca, takes its title from a line in that poem. Her poem, 'Remembering Huesca', dedicated to Cornford, reveals in the third stanza her own alignment with the Communist Party of Great Britain's anti-Trotskyist position:

    We believed that last mile to Huesca
   Was only one more barricade--But
   you went to the front with the troops of the POUM
   And you knew there were traitors, afraid. … 

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