The café has recently completed reading Jane Conway's book, "A Woman of Two Wars". This is the story of Ma(r)y Borden, one of those dynamic women who managed to flourish in the male dominated world of the early 20th century. Borden had been given a huge headstart as the daughter of a millionaire from Chicago and this she used to the full. A writer of books achieving both popular and critical acclaim this all gave her an entre into British and French society both before and after the First World War. Her US birth and (second) marriage to a British politician ensured equal social acclaim across the Atlantic. The book is illustrated with many useful photos including several society magazine shots showing her in the 1920's as quite the society woman and hostess.
However there was more to Borden than this. She was a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour and bearer of the Croix de Guerre (Petain himself gave her the additional Palm to the award), presented for her war work in setting up and managing hospitals very close to the Front and also those with the lowest mortality rates. It is claimed her Great War hospitals were the ones of choice for wounded French "l'hospital le plus chic sur tout le front". She repeated this war work in the Second World War and continued to write successfully until late in life.
Conway provides a literary commentary on her books as they were published, attempting to link them into Borden's experiences, but for historians what is most interesting are her sections on Borden's war work. In 1914-18 The British (despite the Nightingale experience) appeared more resistant to having a dominant woman managing field hospitals. The French support for Borden was fully vindicated by results. I was also interested to read that she used innovatory portable hospitals with reinforced windows to withstand blast damage that could be dismantled and rebuilt in a matter of hours. (You can hear an extract here from Borden's memoirs, "The Forbidden Zone" describing hospital conditions). Nonetheless, with the awakening of the need today to care so totally for war wounded it is depressing to read of the relatively basic provision in the earlier war especially when what we are reading about is probably of the best care available.
The section on her work in World War II is even more historically interesting. Leading the Hadfield-Spears mobile ambulance unit (an early version of the Korean war M*A*S*H units) she managed front line Franco-British nursing care in France, Italy, north Africa and the Middle East. In this war she found herself more involved in the political machinations of the Franco-allied relationship. Conway is perceptive on the chaos and amateurism shown during the Fall of France as well as the in-fighting involving De Gaulle (which ultimately sees the disbanding of the unit in 1945). Conway notes how Borden's Journey Down a Blind Alley, published in 1946, records the history of the medical unit and her disillusion with the French failure to put up an effective resistance to the German invasion and occupation.
It is hard though to escape the paradoxes of her existence. Living a privileged lifestyle she was critical of the British Labour Party for not doing enough to relieve poverty. Given the hectic nature of her life it is clear that she spent little of what would be called "quality time" with her young family despite fighting a long and (clearly for them) disturbing battle with her first husband for custody of them. The author could perhaps have given this more emphasis, especially regarding the impact of the suicide of a daughter which is dismissed in a few sentences. A more direct approach at times to some of the paradoxes outlined above would also help ensure that Borden could be seen more clearly in the context and standards of her time if not those of today. It is these contrasts that make understanding the assertive and successful women of the early 20th century (as well as today?) so interesting.
Jane Conway provides a clear and accessible description of the Borden life and shows how Borden made much of her privileged position using her undoubted courage and management skills. I found myself increasingly involved in the narrative as the story rapidly progressed, especially beyond the 1930's. In the last few years many unsung stories of the role played by key women in both world wars have become more public. Conway presents us here with the life of one such woman whose work and enthusiasm deserves to be remembered by a clear biography such as this. I would recommend this book to be read in particular by students of social as well as women's history.
For more on Mary Borden:
Image origin………………… .
linked casahistoria site: Women and War