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|
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.