A poignant memoir of the Spanish Civil War - but where is Miranda? wonders Griselda Heppel


Because publication of my new children's book, The Fall of a Sparrow, has been, cough, delayed by yet another month, I thought I'd write about what I’m reading rather than what I've written.

My book club’s choice for May is a slim memoir of life in Churriana, a village near Malaga, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. It has left me with mixed feelings.

Death's Other Kingdom
by Gamel Woolsey

Death’s Other Kingdom is by Gamel Woolsey, who I’d never heard of, though I should have done. She and her husband, Gerald Brenan, were writers on the fringe of the Bloomsbury group, with all its accompanying connotations of literary brilliance and complicated relationships. In 1936 their idyllic life in southern Spain was shattered by the uprising of the Fascists against the elected government, and this memoir is a beautifully written, poignant account of what happened. First published in 1939, it contrasts the rich colours and warmth of Mediterranean life and the calm dignity of the people with the horrors of division, bombing, gang arrests and lynchings that seemed to erupt out of nowhere. Woolsey’s love for her neighbours, servants and the Spanish in general shines throughout, and the Brenans’ house quickly becomes a haven for villagers too frightened to stay in their own.

Bloomsbury Group Plaque at
51 Gordon Square, London (wikipedia)

Now, a writer has every right to craft a memoir in the way she wants to. It looks odd, though, to leave out basic information, as if it didn’t matter. Halfway through Death’s Other Kingdom, a photograph appears, captioned ‘The household in Churriana in 1936’. Reading the names underneath, I was puzzled that the only recognisable one was Maria, the housekeeper; the other two adults and two little girls are unexplained. A minor detail, but it bothered me. Particularly the two little girls, Miranda and Isobel. Maria’s granddaughter is part of the household, but she’s called Mariquilla. 

Republican fighters in Battle of Irun, 1936

Then I read the Afterword to the book by Michael Jacobs, a writer living in Spain a generation later, and found the domestic world evoked by Woolsey turned completely on its head. 

Miranda is Woolsey’s daughter. Or rather, she is Gerald’s daughter, born in 1931, the result of ‘an affair with fifteen year-old Juliana, a [village] girl with a healthy appetite for sex.’ (Yuck, Michael Jacobs! Brenan was 37 at the time and this was a girl he chose as a domestic servant. Child abuse and exploitation are hardly ‘an affair’.) Feeling responsible for the baby, Brenan’s solution seems to have been to return to England to find a ‘proper’ wife to look after her, paying off poor Juliana with the fabulous sum of 1000 pesetas. Gamel Woolsey, an American poet and novelist, fitted the bill, and the child was brought up as Miranda Woolsey Brenan. 

Guernica destroyed by bombs April 1937
So where is Miranda in the memoir? In 1936 she would have been 5 years old. Does she play with 4 year-old Mariquilla? Who takes care of her on the Brenans’ long and dangerous trips to Malaga? When the household hides in the cellar from the terrible air raids, and sleepy little Mariquilla is seized from her bed by her mother Pilar, who fetches Miranda? 

No one. Miranda is never mentioned. Yet she was there. How can Woolsey write what is on the face of it, an accurate memoir of a traumatic period in her life, in which the joys and cares and idiosyncrasies of her servants are lovingly portrayed, and exclude her own stepdaughter? Perhaps she was ashamed of Miranda's illegitimacy. But then why agree to be her mother in the first place, and give the child her own name? Why include the photograph?

Years ago, an elderly friend of my parents wrote down his life story for his family. Reading it in draft, his daughter had just one suggestion: mention the grandchildren. It didn’t need to be much – just enough to show that they were part of his life and meant something. 

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Miranda Woolsey Brenan to read Death’s Other Kingdom and find she meant nothing to her parents at all.

by Griselda Heppel, author of 


This does seem odd, considering what you've said about the memoir generally. I suppose this could have been a conscious decision not to include Miranda, depending on circumstances that weren't really part of the story for some reason, but it sounds more as if they forgot all about her!
When I wrote an account of my family history recently, starting from my own generation and working backwards in time, I didn't want to say too much (if anything) about living people but as I wrote I realised it would be odd not to mention my sons and grandson at all, so I compromised by just fitting the births of my sons, but not their names, into the narrative and also ending the section on my own generation by summarising my current status and mentioning my grandson but again not by name.
Reb MacRath said…
What a sad and baffling omission. There's a good mystery novel therein.
Griselda Heppel said…
Yes, when I researched more about Miranda, the plot became murkier in that in his autobiography, Brennan implies that Miranda was the result of a formal arrangement with Juliana to have a baby for his new wife who couldn't have one of her own. It looks as if in hindsight he was trying to gloss over his bad behaviour but unfortunately the dates don't match, as the child was born well before he married Woolsey and you'd think you'd need a bit of time to ascertain that children weren't going to come naturally to them. A mystery novel indeed!

Cecilia, your instinct writing your family history coincides exactly with what the daughter of my parents' friend felt: people just need to be mentioned to feel they haven't been forgotten. So important.

Thanks both, for commenting.

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