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'For us it was Heaven'
'For us it was Heaven' by Angela Jackson, published by Sussex Academic Press/Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies, 2012
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Angela Jackson is a British historian and author who has been based in Catalunya since 2001—her latest publication, just released in both English and Castilian, is 'For us it was Heaven', a biography of Patience Darton, a British nurse who joined the Republican forces fighting against Franco's rebels during the Spanish Civil War.
Jackson came to know Patience when she was interviewing people who had taken part in the war, for her doctoral thesis. Patience fell in love with and married a German man who joined the fighting for the Republicans; tragically, he was killed at the front and, once the international volunteers left Spain, Patience didn't return to Spain for many decades, coming at the invitation of the Spanish government in the mid-Nineties as part of a commemorative event to remember the contribution of foreigners such as her to the war. By this point, Patience was frail and, on the day following the special event, she passed away in a Spanish hospital with her son and Jackson by her side.
Was the background and experience of Patience as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War typical?
Patience’s background was rather different from that of most other women who volunteered to help the people in Republican Spain during the civil war. Her family had been quite wealthy until the bankruptcy of her father’s publishing company when she was young. She grew up attending church and believing in God, but had terrible doubts about the idea of "having to obey rules made for you but not by you". In contrast, some of the other volunteers had come from working-class families with a strong commitment to left-wing political parties. They were well aware of the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Italy and Germany. Patience knew very little about such matters and even less about Spain. However, she did have a keen sense of the need for social justice. Although she left school when aged 14, with great determination she managed to qualify as a nurse. Then, when working as a midwife in London’s East End, she saw the terrible poverty and desperation of the unemployed. In 1936, she heard that in Spain people were fighting to defend their elected Republican government against a military uprising. The reforms that had been introduced by the government to bring greater equality were under threat. They were calling for qualified nurses, and Patience saw that she could "do something" to help them. She went to the Spanish Medical Aid offices in London to volunteer and was accepted immediately.
Her journey to Spain early in 1937 and her first experiences there were also unlike those of other nurses. The commander of the British Battalion, Tom Wintringham, had been wounded and was in hospital in Valencia, believed to be dying of typhoid fever. Patience was sent out by plane to look after him. Other volunteer nurses usually travelled by train and worked in hospitals run by the Spanish Medical Aid committee. Whilst in Valencia, she met Ernest Hemingway and the English poet Stephen Spender and wrote about their meeting and what she thought of them in a letter home. When Wintringham recovered thanks to Patience’s care, she joined other British nurses in a hospital on the Aragon front. George Orwell, who was with a militia unit nearby, would come over with his friends to visit the nurses. As the fighting moved elsewhere and there was no longer enough work for so many trained nurses, Patience was glad to be able to join the medical services of the International Brigades. From then on, she was working with people of different nationalities, often close behind the front lines in hospitals set up in tents, farmhouses, railway tunnels, and even a large cave. She stayed with the Brigades until they were withdrawn and re-patriated at the end of 1938. Like other nurses I interviewed, she had no regrets about having gone to Spain to support the people of the Republic, despite the terrible things she had seen and the personal tragedy of the death of the man she loved in the Battle of the Ebro.
Why did you choose her out of all the people you interviewed for your thesis to write about in-depth?
Patience was one of the first women I interviewed on the subject of the Spanish civil war and listening to her talking about her experiences made me realise that something should be written about the little-known role of British women in that conflict. It was obvious that her story was fascinating but writing a biography of someone who, like Patience, was not a well-known public figure, is usually impossible due to a lack of source material. After her death, I began to write a short chapter about her for a book on the medical personnel in Spain and contacted her son to ask if he had kept any of her papers. It was a wonderful moment for me when he found her collection of correspondence—vibrant and full of emotion—including letters from Patience to Robert Aaquist, the German International Brigader she had married in Spain, together with his replies to her. There were even letters to her sister that she had written during the four years she lived in China during the Fifties, all with Patience’s own particular voice, full of humour and frank comments that make them a delight to read. Drawing on these letters, together with other documents she had kept and dozens of photographs, I was able to write about Patience as a young woman and combine this with a retrospective perspective from interviews recorded in her later years.
Why is her story important to tell?
Despite the work that has been carried out by many researchers on the role women have played in our past, history has traditionally been a subject dominated by a masculine perspective. When I remarked to one particular Spanish historian that he had not mentioned any women in his book on the civil war, he said that was because there hadn’t been any! He hadn’t considered it important that half the population were women and that it had affected a great many of them, not only the few that had fought at the front in the first weeks of the war but also because they had been the victims of widespread civilian bombings. They had often carried out important war work in munitions factories or in the fields while the men were away. Their families had been split apart and they had had suffered the trauma of the loss of loved ones. More recently, historians have been writing about the role of women in the war, particularly about the ‘milicianas’ who fought at the front and the volunteers in the medical services. Patience’s story, thanks to the strength of her individual voice and the dramatic nature of her experiences, clearly demonstrates the fact that history is not only about battles and political intrigues amongst the powerful and famous.
Tell us one of your favourite anecdotes regarding Patience's war-time experiences.
When working with one of the International Brigade medical units, Patience was asked to organise an eight-bed ambulance and the necessary assistants and stretcher bearers to go closer to the front. The following day, the journey began well, with everything stowed away tightly around the people travelling in the back, while Patience and one of the doctors sat in the front with the driver. After many hours of negotiating difficult mountain tracks, the driver fell asleep and the ambulance veered off the road down the mountainside, colliding against a large rock. Patience was thrown through the windscreen, her top jaw broken and her lips cut right through to the teeth. Her nose she described as being "all over the place under one eye". She was taken to a nearby hospital but fretted and fumed to get back to work at the front. The attempts to repair the damage to her face were at first poorly done and the food she was given, "hard beans bounding around on a plate", were impossible for her to eat. She described how it drove her "absolutely mad" when people would come in and burst into tears because her face was in such a terrible state. They even brought the mayor of the village to see her, who made a marvellous speech saying how she’d "given her all to Spain". Patience was furious but couldn’t speak properly due to her broken jaw, wanting to tell them that she hadn’t given her "all". Recalling her feelings years later with mock indignation she said, "my face was nothing like my all, there was lots of me left, and this was no way to treat a patient, anyway." Fortunately for Patience, an American plastic surgeon was working with the Brigades and was able to repair nearly all the damage.
Patience died during her first visit trip back to Spain since the war for a reunion of International Brigade veterans, invited by the Spanish government - had she been ill or was her death unexpected?
When the invitation came for the Brigaders to return to Spain, Patience was already very frail and had been advised by doctors not to travel. But she was determined to go, even though she had never been back before, saying that there were too many ghosts for her there. Over the years she had said very little about her love for the Brigader, Robert Aaquist, but before leaving England, she explained why she had never returned to Spain, telling a journalist, "The memories upset me terribly... A chap I was deeply in love with, a German, was killed on the Ebro." The day after a wonderful welcome from the people in Madrid at a concert to honour the Brigaders, I was with Patience and her son when she died in hospital. I’m sure she had been happy that last evening when she had heard the cheers of the crowd and the songs she remembered from the civil war.
Do you think your book will have more appeal in Spain or in Britain /the US?
I think that Patience’s biography will appeal to many readers, whatever their nationality. I’ve heard from people of all ages who have enjoyed the book immensely, from the general public as much as from academics. I’m especially pleased that it has been translated into Spanish by a nursing foundation (Para nosotros era el cielo, Ediciones San Joan de Dios, Campus Docent, 2012) so that now her story will reach a wide Spanish readership as well, and particularly those who are training to be nurses.
Much has been written about the Spanish Civil War—what themes are there still to cover and what particularly interests you?
I’m particularly interested in the historical studies taking place at local level in many different regions of Spain. Living here in the Priorat has been given me the opportunity to carry out research on the interactions between the foreigners of the International Brigaders and local people, because the Brigaders were stationed here for many weeks in training for the Battle of the Ebro. These more sociological aspects of the war, including the perspectives of woman and children, are the main focus of my books.
Do you think the role of women (whatever their nationality or role) in the Civil War has been adequately explained?
Not yet. When I wrote British Women and the Spanish Civil War, it served as a step along the way but there is still plenty to be done. As far as I am aware, For us it was Heaven is the first full-length biography of a nurse in the International Brigades and, without doubt, there are many stories of other women who were in Spain during the civil war that merit further study.
Do you believe that Spain needs to examine its past more closely? How important is it for a country to reflect at length on the most painful aspects of its history?
This is a very difficult question, especially for someone who has not lived through the experience of war. Franco’s dictatorship lasted nearly 40 years and for the defeated, this meant years of oppression and hardship. Then came the transition to democracy and the long period of ‘the pact of forgetting’, during which the past remained firmly repressed. I look around and see that the scars of the civil war have not entirely healed and that, for many people, there continues to be a psychological need for ‘closure’ after so many years of denial. This can take the form of talking about experiences of the war for the first time in public, or of acknowledgement and ‘memorialisation’ at sites of mourning or, in some cases, it can even entail the opening of communal graves and DNA identification. The civil war is still within living memory and endures as an unhealed wound for a considerable number of people.
Why did you first come to Catalunya? What impact has living here had on your profession and career?
I first came here as a tourist on holiday in the Sixties, having absolutely no idea at all of the culture or history of the country. It wasn’t until I went to university as a mature student in the early Nineties that I began to learn about the Spanish civil war and the devastating effects it had on Catalunya. When I began research on the International Brigades and met Patience, the vivid descriptions of her experiences here made me want to return. After her death, I decided to look for the cave hospital where she had worked during the Battle of the Ebro. With the help of local people, I eventually found it and returned to the village to carry out more research for a book on what had happened there during the civil war. Meeting Patience has certainly had a huge impact on my life and career because it was thanks to her that I discovered this beautiful area of the Priorat and came to live here and carry out further research.
What are your future writing plans?
I’ve already started my second novel. The first, Warm Earth, was based on the true stories of three women who came to Spain from Britain during the civil war. I’m now working on a story that will span two generations, drawing in part on my own memories of growing up in post-war England and coming to Spain during the days of the hippies on the island of Formentera.
‘For us it was Heaven’: The Passion, Grief and Fortitude of Patience Darton from the Spanish Civil War to Mao’s China, Sussex Academic Press/Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies, 2012, by Angela Jackson.
The book is also available in Castilian: Para nosotros era el cielo (Ediciones San Juan de Dios - Campus Docent, colección Hospitalidad).