No Man’s Island: Feminism and Patriotism in Times of War

No Man’s Island: Feminism and Patriotism in Times of War

This is the second in a new series by different authors, The Gregynog Papers, which began life at ‘In/Dependent Wales’, the recent conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English at Gregynog Hall in Powys.

Virginia Woolf famously declared in her anti-war polemic, Three Guineas: ‘as a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world …’ [Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (1938) p. 125] At first sight this rejection of a national allegiance which, Woolf argues, is fatally connected to aggression, appears categorical and unmistakeable. Woolf asserts her independence as a woman, and her refusal to be drawn towards war by any patriotic feelings, or any desire to protect and maintain national independence. Nevertheless, throughout Three Guineas, the country Woolf mentions repeatedly and uses as her touchstone is England. She asks, for example, ‘the educated man’s sister – what does “patriotism” mean for her? Has she the same reasons for being proud of England, for loving England, for defending England? Has she been ‘greatly blessed’ in England?’ (p. 12) In the text as a whole she mentions ‘England’ and ‘English’ a total of 95 times. For a woman who has and wants no country, then, she is surprisingly Anglocentric. She mentions Great Britain just once, even though the war that was looming and that she dreaded was going to be fought not only by English forces but by British ones drawn from all the home nations in the British Isles. In Three Guineas, then, Woolf rejects British imperial values, giving precedence to her identity as a woman and the continuing quest for full emancipation. And yet there is surely something wistful and reluctant about her renunciation of English nationality.

In putting feminism before patriotism, Woolf was reversing the actions of the leading suffrage campaigners during the First World War. Suffragists such as Emmeline Pankhurst abandoned their calls for emancipation in order to support the ‘war effort’, though not all feminists of the time felt that this was a wise strategy. The Conwy-born doctor, Helena Jones, for instance, wrote in The Suffragette’s News Sheet (September, 1916): ‘NOW is the psychological moment for demanding the admission of women to the franchise [because]the political machine during the war may be likened to sealing wax to which heat has been applied: it is in a condition to receive new impressions […] After the war it will harden again, and the old difficulties with party shibboleths will be revived.’ [The Very Salt of Life: Welsh Women’s Political Writings eds. Jane Aaron and Ursula Masson, p. 284] Similarly, calls for ‘Home Rule’ in Wales which had been loud at the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th became muted in the dominant Zeitgeist of the First World War, which emphasised a cohesive ‘British’ identity in opposition to the enemy Other. This is particularly striking in Welsh newspapers and magazines, both in English and Welsh, during the war years.

In January 1914, for example, under the title ‘Wales a Nation’, the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard is still hotly advocating, if not quite independence, then a recognition of what it calls ‘the distinct nationality of Wales’ by the British state and foresees the day ‘when there is Home Rule all round’ and ‘that recognition will be much more complete’. The writer of the article, himself someone who has moved to Wales and adopted a Welsh elective identity, goes on to say what we wish now to do is to emphasize the need that we think exists for unity, so that nationalism in Wales may be strengthened and what is best in it may be extended and intensified. We do not mean by unity that there shall be no differences of opinion in reference to national questions, but that there shall not be apathy, or indifference, or bickering about details.

Just seven months later, ‘unity’ was beginning to mean something entirely different in the Welsh newspapers. The ‘distinct nationality’ of Wales was no longer the frame of reference but rather the unity of Great Britain and the British Empire against Germany. By January 1915 the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard was pontificating about ‘Gallant Wales’, rather than ‘Wales a Nation’. It claimed that while

the South African war failed to rouse the martial spirit of Wales.[…] To-day the position is reversed. All Welsh members of Parliament, all the Welsh newspapers, and practically the entire Welsh pulpit and those who count in the religious life of the people are arrayed among the recruiting agents […] during the past four months the martial spirit of the Principality has been roused from its long sleep by the battle cry of liberty […] We are proud of Wales and feel certain that we shall have ground for still greater pride in the course of the next few months.

By August 1915, that bastion of Welsh national identity, the National Eisteddfod, was fully involved in the fervour of Britishness. The South Wales Weekly Post records that

There were some striking patriotic incidents at the National Eisteddfod at Bangor on Wednesday. […] The Rev. Dr. Hugh Jones, past president of the Welsh Wesleyan General Assembly […] led the audience in public prayer, full of tender references to the brave Welsh lads at the front, and of earnest supplication for victory to the British arms and those of our Allies, fighting for freedom, justice, truth, and the cause of humanity, closing with an earnest prayer for the restoration of a peace which would be permanent and on a basis which would ensure great objects ill the cause of humanity and of right. While this touching prayer was being off ‘O Arglwydd Dduw Rhagluniaeth’, and also united in offering up the Lord’s Prayer in Welsh and English. This memorable service closed with a rendering of the English National Anthem, and it may be safely said that those privileged to be present will never forget the deep feeling which pervaded the assembly.

Mr. Llewelyn Williams, K.C., M.P., president for the day, […]delivered his presidential address. This, he said, was not a time to deliver a conventional eisteddfod address. Their hearts had been stirred by the short but most impressive service they had just taken part in. […] Why was this? Because this was not a war for the extension of Empire, not a war for military glory, but a war to win freedom for small nationalities. The history of Wales was the history of the British Empire. There that day the Welsh people held their national festival in their ancient national tongue, and thus emphasised and manifested their separate national entity. But they were united in all the other nationalities of the Empire in prosecuting this war, not from any compulsion, but because as a free people in a free land they burned with a holy zeal to see other nations freed. (Loud applause.)

In such a hysterical atmosphere of patriotic zeal, it is easy to imagine why the dissident, satirical voice of Caradoc Evans’s My People in 1915 caused such outrage. In the pages of papers such as the Cambrian Daily Leader, the Carmarthen Journal, Llais Llafur, and The Herald of Wales, the controversy over Caradoc’s representation of the Welsh peasantry shared the same space as articles under the heading ‘Wales in Khaki’ and obituaries of Welsh soldiers killed on the Western Front. But Caradoc’s voice was a lonely one. Welsh women’s contributions, unlike the later refusal of Virginia Woolf to be caught up in patriotic feeling, are on the whole chillingly orthodox. In December 1915, for example, the Aberdare Leader carried a piece of painfully sincere doggerel by Caroline Davis Hayward from Pontneddfechan under the title ‘British Women’, which included lines such as:

The women of our good countree
Are daily found on bended knee,
And do their little bit, as much
As they can do, to be in touch
With all the need that is so grave
Our well-beloved land to save.
Her honour, pride, and prestige dear,
The sanctity of homes’ bright cheer,
And precious lives gone forth to fight,
In cause of liberty and right.

It is unclear which nation the ‘good countree’ might be(e), since both Wales and Britain are mentioned in rousing terms later in the verse. But one interesting feature of the otherwise unedifying poem is the slightly muffled and confused feminism it embodies, for Caroline Hayward goes on to assert, speaking presumably in the voice of the ‘British Women’ of the title:

We feel sometimes that we could wield
War’s weapons deftly in the field;
That, might we don the uniform,
To Germans we should give alarm,
Like women who, in bright array,
Startled and scared the French away
From our seashore and lovely vales;
Ah! still there’s grit in the hearts of Wales.
Woman has shown the world, I ween,
That underneath her gentle mien
Pulsates a power of purpose high,
For noble deeds to live or die.

Unfortunately, this glimmer of feminist consciousness is ultimately turned on male ‘shirkers’ in an attempt to shame them into joining up.

Women writers were aware of a shift in their status during the war. In the Women’s Column of Y Cymro as early as September 1914, for instance, Awen Mona says ‘The first thing I want to do today is to congratulate the women of Wales on their unanimous commitment to working for the soldiers who are standing so bravely between us and oppression.’ The following week in Y Cymro, Awen Mona continues with her theme: ‘The war affects everyone and everything but we believe that we wouldn’t be wrong in saying that its effects weigh most heavily on women in every country. It is they who must stay at home and wait; […] they see the cloud gathering over their heads, and they know that they have to stay where they are and suffer the downpour when it comes…’ And then, with unconscious bathos, she proceeds to offer a handy recipe for brawn…

The Mothers’ and Women’s Column of Y Darian/The Shield, a radical newspaper based in Aberdare, was on the whole less domestically oriented. Under the editorship of Marged Puw, in May 1917 it offered a piece under the title ‘Coming into her inheritance’, in which Puw says:

The struggle to gain votes for women has been long and bitter in the past, and two years ago it looked as if there was no hope, for a long time at any rate, of achieving unanimity on the matter. But the war has made us see everything in a new light, and the old obstacles have all been cleared away. […] The mothers and women of the country during the present war have shown a propensity for sacrifice and valour (gwrhydri) that virtually no-one had believed them capable of before, and when the time comes again to rebuild and to settle accounts, no-one will be able to refuse them a voice in the great work that awaits us. […]

In September 1917 Aberdare gained an important new member in its literary and cultural community: Kate Roberts, who moved there from Ystalyfera to take up a teaching post at Aberdare County School. In January 1918 Y Darian‘s Women’s Column is written not by Marged Puw but by another woman who calls herself ‘Chwaer Marged Puw‘ (Marged Puw’s sister). While this voice echoes that of Puw in its unapologetic feminism, it is also much more skillful, wry, and literary, and my suspicion is that this may be the voice of Kate Roberts herself. Her tone is playful:

Marged has been kind enough to suggest that I have some talent for this writing lark, as long as I stick to it, and that one day I might get as good as Marged herself. Since she’s so terribly busy at the moment, she promised I could borrow one of her velour hats (she has three) every Sunday throughout the winter if I would take care of the Column for a while. […] Thinking about it, there’s something odd about the notion of a Column for Mothers and Women! As if the whole newspaper […] were for men only, and only a little column – as slim as possible, I imagine, for the Mothers and Women! […Yet] I prefer the title given the column in Y Darian to the one found in English papers. ‘Woman’s World’, as they sometimes have it. Oh yes, really? If it was so once, Woman’s World is expanding alarmingly these days!

The rest of the article sees the writer removing her tongue from her cheek and welcoming the Second Reading of the bill to introduce votes for women in Parliament. She finishes by urging her female readers to awake and to educate themselves on the social and political questions that they’ve been kept in ignorance of hitherto. She finishes by looking ahead to the changed, independent future for women:

We have served long and faithfully on the hearth and in the home. […]
Today the great world outside is craving for our service. Let us prepare ourselves to answer the call.

And then, with a nice feel for self-conscious bathos she adds:

(I have a great recipe to share with you. You’ll get it next week.)

Eleven months later, on 21 November 1918, Y Darian published a satirical short story under the title ‘Y Diafol yn 1960/The Devil in 1960’ – Kate Roberts’s first published short story. If I am right and the waspish feminist who calls herself Marged Puw’s sister in January 1918 was in fact Kate Roberts, by the end of that year she had reinvented herself as a creative writer. Perhaps we can construe that as Roberts’s answer to the call she perceived to serve the great world outside the home.

Kate Roberts had cause to hate war just as passionately as her contemporary, Virginia Woolf. Both lost close male relatives to war. Woolf published Three Guineas soon after her nephew, Julian Bell, had been killed in the Spanish Civil War, while Kate Roberts began writing creatively, as is well known, as a response to the loss of her youngest brother, Dai, in the First World War. Interestingly, for both of them, war is associated both with imperialism and with a brutal patriarchy; their feminist identity affords them a way of refusing complicity with that destructive hegemonic regime. In her first short story, ‘The Devil in 1960’ Kate Roberts presciently foresees a second world war in her own lifetime and uses her fiction to condemn those who initiate, prolong and profit from war (as does Woolf of course in her later polemic). Roberts goes further than Woolf and manages to condemn all warmongers, literally, to eternal damnation.

‘The Devil in 1960’ has a first-person female narrator who is clearly a projection of the author herself, since she speaks of having been a teacher in Y——- and A———, which presumably stand for Ystalyfera and Aberdare. Roberts, the 27-year-old unmarried teacher at Aberdare Girls’ County School, imagines a gloomy future for herself forty-two years on, old, alone and ‘on the parish’ since she has no pension. True to the socialist ethos of the newspaper, the full title of which was Tarian y Gweithiwr (The Worker’s Shield), she makes a direct reference to the Teachers’ Pension Act currently being debated in Parliament – but in this story’s dystopian vision, the Act is not passed. (Actually, it was passed – Royal Assent was given on the very day that Kate Roberts’s story appeared in the paper.) On a stormy, snowy night in the future, the narrator receives an unexpected visitor to her comfortless cottage: it is the Devil himself, ousted from hell by the sudden influx of the damned after a second world war. These new inmates are so numerous and so unwilling to accept the Devil’s authority that he is forced out of his domain while they continue, in their accustomed fashion, to fight for power. The Devil, meanwhile, plans to establish a new hell in the North Pole, and he solicits the narrator’s help to do so. She is just negotiating her terms when she is awoken suddenly from her sleep and finds herself back again in the summer of 1918. It has all been a dream, or rather, a sardonic and prophetic nightmare.

In the strange conversation between the Devil and the female narrator at her poor fireside (it is snowing outside) the Devil, suffering from a cold, says:

‘Well it’s topsy-turvy in Hell tonight. I thought at the time of the Great War it would come to this, and tonight here I am, homeless.’ ‘What?!’ said I in astonishment. ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘the great place that once belonged to me belongs to me no longer. “The Bottomless Pit” they used to call Hell, but there’s been so much filling up of the Pit recently, that its bottom has come to light. The men responsible for war in every country have come together at the bottom of the Pit, and that was the end of me. If it was hot before, it was much hotter afterwards. I couldn’t interfere, they doubted my authority over them; and because they’d lost all their authority on earth, they’re fighting over it in my country now.’ ‘I’m glad to hear that they’re at the bottom of the Pit’ said I. ‘Yes’ said he, ‘but remember that some of your own nation are there, and you were once very patriotic.’ ‘Yes I was’ said I, ‘but no-one can love everything about their country – only the best of it.’ ‘True enough,’ said he, ‘and there were very bad things in your country as in every other.’

The story, published immediately after the end of the war, and only a year after the death of Roberts’s brother, expresses an anguished sense of complicity as well as an overwhelming anger at those who actually perpetrated the war. But the female narrator admits to having been at least partially blinded by her own patriotism, though now she sees much more clearly and she suggests that she will never allow her love of country to cloud her vision again. And yet, not unlike Virginia Woolf, whose ardent feminism could not quite extinguish her sense of tortured allegiance to England, Kate Roberts spent the rest of her life writing exclusively about Wales in the Welsh language of which she was a consummate mistress.

(All translations from the Welsh in this essay are by the author).

Illustration by Dean Lewis