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Review of Jessie Burton’s The Muse

Having read quite a lot about the Spanish Civil War over the years, I tend to approach novels set during the turbulent period of 1930s Spain with a fair degree of trepidation. While fiction is not constrained by the rules of historical non-fiction, it still grates when authors make lazy, factual errors. Fortunately, Jessie Burton has obviously researched thoroughly; not many novels would include Henry Buckley’s wonderful memoir, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, in the bibliography.

The Muse opens in 1960s London, where we meet the young, Caribbean immigrant Odelle Bastien. Fed up with her tedious job in a London shoe store, she manages to land herself a job in an obscure London art gallery, along with a posh boyfriend who seems to have little to show for himself, apart from ownership of a mysterious, strikingly beautiful painting.

The book then shifts to Spain in early 1936 and the affluent, British ex-pat family of frustrated teenager Olive Schloss. She’s been offered a place to study art at Slade in London, but her bipolar mother and out-of-touch father take neither Olive, nor her painting seriously. We also meet Isaac and Teresa, siblings from the nearby Andalusian village who, through their desperation for work, open our eyes to the appalling inequalities and class-hatreds of pre-civil war Spain.

As the book progresses and the narrative switches backwards and forwards with increasing rapidity, we begin to understand that the two stories are indelibly linked. Burton manages to inject a real sense of foreboding, which builds steadily as the plot develops and the pace quickens. It’s an extremely well-crafted novel, with strong, three-dimensional characters and a convincing portrayal of the two very different worlds in which they reside. It’s also very knowing, touching on themes such as racism in 1960s London and the long-standing lack of recognition of female artists.

The Muse ­is a powerful follow-up to the author’s debut, The Miniaturist, which sold over a million copies and was made into a BBC TV series. If you’re on the lookout for an intelligent, literary pager-turner, this might well be it.

What to read?

An overloaded shelf of books on Britain and the Spanish Civil War
An overloaded shelf of books on Britain and the Spanish Civil War

Fairly frequently a post appears on a Spanish Civil War discussion group or a social networking site, asking for suggestions on reading. This post aims to do just that – though please note that it is limited only to works (in English) related to Britain and the Spanish Civil War. Should you be looking for works on the war itself, you could do worse than take the advice of Professor Paul Preston, who has compiled a list of his top five, though modesty seems to have prevented him from including his own Concise History of the Spanish Civil War.

The following recommendations are aimed at the casual reader, who does not necessarily have access to journal articles and rare and out of print books. My list is not exhaustive and is, of course, subjective. You may well feel that there are some books on the list that shouldn’t be in and others that I have missed. If so, let me know! If your wish is simply for a more extensive bibliography, you might be interested in the list of sources consulted when researching for my study of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors, which can be found here. I also included some suggestions for further reading, which can be found here.

If you’d like to hear the volunteers in their own words, you might like to take a look at the list of interviews held in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Britain and Spain

Tom Buchanan’s two studies, Britain and the Spanish Civil War and The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain are both thoroughly recommended. Jim Jump’s edited collection of the annual Len Crome Memorial lectures, Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War is also useful and available from the IBMT.

Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War, Lawrence & Wishart, 2010
Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War, Lawrence & Wishart, 2010

Peter Day’s recent Franco’s Friends is the most recent examination of the links between elements of the British establishment, particularly M.I.6, and Franco’s Nationalists during the civil war. It’s a good read, even if few will be surprised by ‘British establishment wanted Franco to win’ shock.

Lewis Mates’ incredibly detailed and thorough The Spanish Civil War and the British Left bears the mark of a Ph.D. thesis, but I don’t think it’s any the worse for that. Perhaps the only real drawback is the price, so it would be good to see it in paperback.

Regional Studies

The best of these are Daniel Gray’s work on Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Caledonia and Hywell Francis’s on Wales, Miners Against Fascism. Both are available as paperbacks. Robert Stradling’s Wales and the Spanish Civil War; The Dragon’s Dearest Cause is well-researched and interesting, though some may find that the author’s antipathy towards the over-glorification of the International Brigades sometimes gets in the way. The most recent work on the Welsh volunteers is Graham Davies’ You Are Legend, a comprehensive account containing a useful list of the men and women who went to Spain from Wales.

The Basque Refugee Children

Adrian Bell’s account of the Basque children in Britain
Adrian Bell’s account of the Basque children in Britain

The story of the arrival in Britain of 3000 Basque children in June 1937 has now received the attention it deserves. Adrian Bell’s Only for Three Months is the standard account and is very good. To this have recently been added two moving collections of memoirs (in both English & Spanish) edited by Natalia Benjamin: Memorias and Recuerdos. Hywel Davis’s Fleeing Franco focuses on the niños in Wales.

The British volunteers

Histories of the British Battalion

Many histories of the British volunteers in Spain (some excellent) are out of print. However, the following are all widely available:

If you are looking for a short introductory text, the IBMT’s Antifascistas is useful and very well-illustrated.

Paperback edition of <i>Unlikely Warriors</i>, published in 2014
Paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors, published in 2014

James Hopkins’ Into the Heart of the Fire is extremely thorough and well-researched. The first to draw substantially on the Moscow archives, it is sympathetic to the volunteers, though at the same time extremely critical of the battalion (and International Brigade) leadership, arguing that the volunteers were sacrificed not for the cause of the Spanish Republic, but for Stalin (I disagree). It’s available in both hardback and paperback.

The most recent additions to the genre are my oral history of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors and David Boyd-Haycock’s I am Spain. Both were reviewed in, amongst other places, the February 2013 issue of the London Review of Books and the January 2013 issue of the IBMT newsletter.

Ben Hughes’ They Shall Not Pass is a forensic examination of the British Battalion’s first action at Jarama, between 12-14 February 1937. There’s much of interest, though the author’s tendency to put words into the mouths of protagonists has not proved to be to everyone’s taste. Perhaps more interesting is Tom Wintringham’s first-hand account of the battle, English Captain (see below).

Elizabeth Roberts’ Freedom, Faction Fame and Blood, a comparative study of British volunteers in Greece, Spain and Finland is probably too academic (and expensive) for the casual reader.

Volunteers’ memoirs

Orwell aside, one of my personal favourites, and which is still in print, is the British anti-tank battery member Fred Thomas’s To Tilt at Windmills. It’s a wry, modest and extremely honest account. Unusually it is based on a detailed and extensive diary, so his account is fixed both in terms of time and space.

Fred Thomas <i>To Tilt at Windmills</i>, Michigan University Press, 1996
Fred Thomas To Tilt at Windmills, Michigan University Press, 1996

The commander of the British Battalion during the first few days of the Battle of Jarama was Tom Wintringham, whose personal account, English Captain, has just been republished and is definitely worth a look. Interestingly he fails to mention his extra-curricular activities with the American journalist Kitty Bowler, which would eventually lead to him leaving the Communist Party.

George Wheeler’s charming To Make the People Smile Again is a really good read and, like Walter Gregory’s The Shallow Grave, gives a graphic account of the appalling conditions in the Francoist prisoner-of war camp at San Pedro de Cardeña. Gregory’s memoir is now a standard text, for it covers his experiences during nearly two years of civil war from December 1936 onwards.

Many people enjoy Laurie Lee’s A Moment of War and it is certainly a beautifully written and engaging account. I certainly did, just as I liked the other parts of his ‘autobiographical’ trilogy, Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. However, the reliability of A Moment of War as a historical source is questionable, to put it mildly. For more on Laurie Lee, take a look at my chapter in Jim Jump’s edited volume of Len Crome lectures, or Valerie Grove’s excellent biography A Well-Loved Stranger (even if she is a bit soft on him, in both senses of the word).

Alun Menai Williams’ From the Rhonnda to the Ebro is a dramatic account of the terrible dangers facing a first-aider and stretcher-bearer in Spain. It is often forgotten that their job was more dangerous than a soldier’s. Nan Green’s A Chronicle of Small Beer provides insight into life behind the lines in Spain (she worked as an administrator with British medical units) and the potentially tragic experiences of volunteers’ families.

There are a number of collections of interviews, such as Max Arthur’s Fighters against Fascism: British Heroes of the Spanish Civil War (a reissue of his The Real Band of Brothers) though, sadly, Ian MacDougall’s wonderful collection of interviews with Scottish veterans, Voices from the Spanish Civil War, no longer appears to be in print. Shame. Come on publishers!

Biographies

John Wainwright’s biography of Ivor Hickman, <i>The Last to Fall</i>
John Wainwright’s biography of Ivor Hickman, The Last to Fall

There are way too many to list, many of which only have one chapter on Spain, so here are one or two of my favourites:

John Wainwright’s account of Ivor Hickman, The Last to Fall, in addition to being terribly poignant is also invaluable to historians, for it draws strongly on Hickman’s eloquent letters home. Also very good is the meticulous biography of Julian Bell and John Cornford, Journey to the Frontier, by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams. An updated version of the biography of Bell, by Peter Stansky, was released by Stanford University Press in 2012

I enjoyed Angela Jackson’s biography of the English nurse, Patience Darton, For Us it was Heaven, partly because the author knew her subject personally. It’s therefore very sympathetic, but I found this to be part of its charm. I have written a more detailed review that you can find here.

Steve Hurst’s recent Famous Faces of the Spanish Civil War is pretty much as it says on the cover, drawn from other secondary sources. Well-written, interesting and informative, but not really ground-breaking.

The ILP & Anarchist Volunteers

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia remains, by some margin, the most widely read book in English on the Spanish Civil War. It’s undoubtedly an important work, though as Orwell only spent six months in Catalonia, it is important to read a general history of the war alongside it. Paul Preston and Helen Graham have both written brief, though very good, introductions to the war, its causes and consequences.

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, first published in 1938
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, first published in 1938

Chris Hall’s (out of print) Not Just Orwell, has been updated and re-published as In Spain with Orwell. In addition to an account of the Independent Labour Party’s role, it provides useful biographical details of those serving in the unit.

Chris Dolan’s portrayal of the experiences in Spain of the Scottish Anarchist, Ethel MacDonald, An Anarchist’s Story is justifiably popular, but read it with care. There are a great number of factual errors in the text.

The medical services

With Jim Fyrth’s The Signal was Spain seemingly out of print, Linda Palfreeman’s Salud! and her most recent publication, Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances: British Medical Units in the Spanish Civil War, are the only general histories of the British medical services. Both are useful and describe in detail the terrible conditions in which the Republican medical services were forced to operate. For those looking specifically for an account of the medical advances made during the war, Nicolas Coni’s Medicine and War is excellent. Linda Palfreeman’s Spain Bleeds (2015) focuses on the innovations in blood transfusion.

For a study of the British nurses, Angela Jackson’s British Women in the Spanish Civil War and her biography of Patience Darton are both required reading.

Nationalist volunteers

I found Robert Stradling’s biography of Frank Thomas, Brother against Brother extremely useful, but it seems to have been priced out of the market (it’s currently over £90.00 online). Judith Keen’s Fighting for Franco is better value, though most British readers will probably find Christopher Othen’s Franco’s International Brigades to be of greater interest. It’s packed with entertaining anecdotes and bizarre characters.

The British Media & Public Opinion

IB Tauris edition of Henry Buckley’s long lost memoir of the Spanish Civil War
IB Tauris edition of Henry Buckley’s long lost memoir of the Spanish Civil War

This has been a hot topic in recent years. The republication of Henry Buckley’s memoir, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic is something to cheer. The Daily Telegraph reporter’s account is, I think, one of the very best first-hand accounts of the war written in English (alongside Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Arturo Barea’s Forging of a Rebel).

The memoirs of two other correspondents have also been reissued and both are well worth reading: Geoffrey Cox’s Defence of Madrid and John Langdon-Davies’s Behind Spanish Barricades. Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die is a terrific overview of foreign correspondents in Spain, not just the Brits.

There are three new studies of British media portrayals of the conflict. Brian Shelmerdine’s British Media Representations of The Spanish Civil War, Hugo García’s The Truth About Spain and David Deacon’s British News Media and the Spanish Civil War are all well-researched and thorough, but none are particularly cheap. As with Lewis Mates’ book, it would be good to see them (particularly García’s) released as paperbacks.

The British volunteers in fiction

Unfortunately, my personal favourite, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, is about an American, rather than a British volunteer, so I can’t include it. Still, it’s always worth a plug, not least because it’s both widely known and a great book, even if not to everyone’s taste.

Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us
Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us

C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, published in 2006, is the tale of an English volunteer for the International Brigades, who is captured by Franco’s forces. It’s  an entertaining and easy read, but has suffered from mixed reviews, mostly for its slightly far-fetched plot and clunky dialogue. More far-fetched still, is W.E. Johns’ Biggles in Spain, on which I have written a separate post.

I very much enjoyed Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us, released in 2012. It’s marketed as ‘young adult fiction’ though it seemed pretty grown-up to me. recounting a triangular relationship between three volunteers played out in London and Spain, it’s very well written and plotted and the author clearly did her research. Recommended. (N.B. I should declare an interest, as I know the author and was consulted about the book. For balance, here’s a review of the book by the grand-daughter of an British International Brigader, from issue 33 of the IBMT’s newsletter).

John Simmons’ Spanish Crossing tells the story of Lorna, a young English woman who becomes involved in the plight of the Basque refugee children. The book is elegantly written and well-paced, though it contains a number of glaring factual errors and anomalies. I think it would benefit greatly from a fact check.

Not centred on the volunteers as such (though one of the characters does end up joining the International Brigades) is Jessie Burton’s The Muse, focus of 2018 CityRead London. Split between Britain in the 1960s and Spain in the 1930s, it’s a well-crafted novel and definitely worth a read.

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