Dorothy Morris and the 'glorious Crusade': a discussion with Mark Derby
SH: Your new book Petals and Bullets tells the story of Dorothy Morris, the New Zealander who nursed in Spain during that country's Civil War. Kiwi Companeros, your earlier study of New Zealand participants in the Spanish Civil War, had a local publisher, but Petals and Bullets has been brought into the world by Sussex Academic Press, in collaboration with the Canada Blanch Centre for Spanish Studies.
How easy has it been to write about a New Zealand character, and the Kiwi milieux that made her, for what you know will be a primarily northern hemisphere audience? Some Kiwi writers have perceived a conflict between local subject matter and international audiences. There has sometimes been a sense that the peculiarities of New Zealand - the vernacular expressions and mountain ranges and historical events and cuisine and so on that we take for granted, but that may be mysterious to outsiders - require either extended explanation or excision...
MD: You are quite right that this book derives from my earlier work on each of the New Zealanders known to have taken part in the Spanish Civil War. They included the wonderfully determined and capable nurse Dorothy Morris who was born in Cromwell but grew up in Lyttelton and trained as a nurse in Christchurch in the early 1930s. Dorothy Morris spent six months, from February to August 1937, as a battlefield nurse working with a mobile medical unit serving the International Brigades. After that she spent two years, until forced to leave Spain because of the advance of Franco’s forces, running a hospital for children in Murcia, a Republican-held region in southern Spain. Her patients were mainly the children of refugees from elsewhere in Spain, as far as away as Barcelona in the north, who had been forced to relocate because of fighting and/or starvation in their own districts.
All I could find out about Dorothy Morris for my earlier book came from a few newspaper articles, apparently based on letters she had written to her family from Spain, and which they then passed on to the papers. However, a few years after that book appeared, I learned from one of Dorothy’s relatives that she had written a large number of letters and that most of these were still in the family’s possession. I was able to read them, and was astonished at their vividness, power of expression, and (considering the restraints of wartime censorship) how frank and independent-minded they revealed her to be. I later learned that Dorothy had several years of university education before she trained as a nurse, and that she spoke French and Spanish well, and this unusual background was reflected in her correspondence with her family.
There were a number of frustrating gaps in the career revealed in the letters, and I tried, in an on-and-off fashion over several years, to fill these by approaching Spanish Civil War researchers in various countries for specific information. Then suddenly and quite unexpectedly, I was approached by Paul Preston of the London School of Economics, my personal favourite among historians of the civil war. He assumed I was working on a biography of Nurse Morris, and offered to publish it in the series of which he is the general editor. This seemed an opportunity too good to pass up, so I worked more systematically on my material and delivered a manuscript to the UK late last year.
A New Zealand edition of Petals and Bullets (the title comes from a poem by Pablo Neruda) will be published by Potton and Burton in September, but for everywhere else, the book is published by Sussex Academic Press. This has meant writing simultaneously for a New Zealand readership, which can be assumed to know something of places like Cromwell, Cathedral Square and the Port Hills, and an international one. However, the problem is not as great as it might appear, because only a small proportion of the book is set in New Zealand. Dorothy left this country in the 1930s and did not return permanently for almost fifty years. In between she worked in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in Spain, southern France, the Middle East and west Germany. That range of settings made it easier for me to address a multinational readership.
SH: Your book arrives at a time when Spain and several other southern European nations are suffering economic and political crises. Do the Spanish Civil War and the other great conflicts of the 1930s have lessons for the crowds on the streets of Madrid and Athens? And do you detect a willingness, amongst today's Europeans, to consider the '30s?
MD: Although the book hasn’t been on sale long, it’s already apparent from the response that the Spanish Civil War continues to exert a fascination for people in many countries. I think this has to do with the very clearcut and partisan political positions the civil war fostered. Dorothy Morris described it to her family immediately afterwards, in typically intemperate terms, as “a most glorious Crusade… where I encountered some of the finest people, I feel sure, in the world - some of the craziest as well.”
I think it’s very likely that the truly desperate and polarising economic circumstances of countries such as Greece and Spain mean that people in those countries, and elsewhere in Europe, find the civil war period inspirational for them. Another point people such as Paul Preston have made is that my book shows that, despite the huge corpus of published history on the Spanish Civil War, there is still significant and valuable material to be explored. One of the reasons I decided to proceed with this book was to make Dorothy Morris’s letters available to the international research community which I knew would be eager to read them.
SH: Your book The Prophet and the Policeman included a detailed portrait of a very unpleasant man. You documented top Kiwi cop John Cullen's prejudices against trade unionists, Maori, and Dalmatians, and his role in the farcical and deadly expedition into the Ureweras in 1916. The protagonist of your new book seems much more likeable. What are the challenges involved in writing about people towards whom you have strong negative or positive feelings? Is if necessary for you to repress those feelings, or can they be helpful?
MD: I found myself very much enjoying and admiring the character of Dorothy which emerged from her letters. I’m sure I would have enjoyed knowing her, even though she evidently became an alarmingly stroppy and ferociously opinionated old battle-axe in her final years.
It is certainly easier, in general, to write with energy and enthusiasm about a historical figure that you can admire, but I also think it’s vital not to subjugate the rigors of history to the requirements of biography. That is, it’s necessary to stick to the archival record even where it’s indistinct or apparently contradictory, and not to invent or massage the research material to fit the narrative. This can be difficult when working with relatives of close friends of your subject, whose support may be essential, but whose criteria and expectations may conflict with the writer’s obligations to objectivity and accuracy. I feel fortunate that I came under no such pressures from Dorothy’s family and friends. They may well have disputed, or even disliked, some of my findings about her, but that did not prevent them from giving me absolutely vital material, and I’m most grateful for that.
SH: What are you researching at the moment? You've been a prolific author for years: can we expect another book soon?
MD: I’m now working haphazardly on several other book ideas, all in their early stages, and i have no idea which of them, if any, will evolve in to the next full-scale project. But until that stage is reached I’m not going to spell out any of the current plans. This is not out of any wish to with-hold information - it’s just that the only thing I’m superstitious about is talking up a project before it’s really underway.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]