Rescuing an heroic figure, Jane Westaway

Petals & Bullets: Dorothy Morris, New Zealand Nurse in the Spanish Civil War
Mark Derby
Potton and Burton, $40.00,
ISBN 9781927213766

In the preface to Mark Derby’s new book, Spanish War historian Angela Jackson writes of the challenge in recounting the lives of so-called “do-gooders”. Such figures – often female – aren’t sexy. They tend to live beyond the public eye, the corridors of power and the celebrity-mad media. Thus, they leave behind precious little of the source material biographers and historians rely on. Derby notes a related difficulty – that of making a dedicated life “appear interesting” – even though his subject is Dorothy Morris, a Christchurch nurse who worked in Spain during the Civil War, caring for horribly injured civilians and soldiers, as well as starving and traumatised children and refugees.

“Do-gooders” like Morris go to great lengths to tackle the mess left behind by lionised – usually male – history-makers. They do history’s housework – the infinitely recurring labour of restoring a corner of the world to something like normality. Labour which is often underrated, if not almost invisible, and is never finished. But that has never stopped those of Morris’s calibre doing what they can.

Derby identifies the point at which he became convinced he should write Morris’s biography. In the Alexander Turnbull Library, he found 80 pages of her letters. What fired him was their tone: “vividly descriptive, fiercely polemic and historically fascinating … many … phrased with the journalist’s eye for the telling detail.”

It’s something of an anti-climax then to read his opening sentence: “May is a foreboding month in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.” Anti-climactic to the degree that it’s needlessly portentous.  He goes on to describe the day in 1932 when Morris, in her late 20s and working at a nearby hospital, saw striking tram workers in the Square “severely handled” by the police. This was the turning point: from then on she was acutely aware of social injustice.

She went to England several years later. There she nursed, and reported home – furiously – on the rise of European fascism. Aware of her parents’ conservatism, she was less forthcoming about the first-time election of a British Labour government. And this is the first indication of what Derby – and his reader – are up against.

Letters home will always, to some extent, be a PR exercise, and therefore a double-edged sword for biographers. Look at Plath’s correspondence with her mother. Derby acknowledges this drawback several times in the course of his book, particularly when Morris gets to Spain and runs the risk of being killed or injured herself, a risk she downplays. So Derby must rely heavily on accounts by other doctors and nurses. While these provide necessary information, they put Morris herself at a remove.  A trade-off Derby himself must have found frustrating. It becomes clear, though, that Morris was by no means the wartime equivalent of the angel in the house. She took charge. She gave orders. She kept things up to the mark, whether colleagues and superiors appreciated it or not.

From London, she watched Spanish events – the election, the Nationalist uprising, the supply of trained troops by Italy and Germany – and was appalled by the lack of British action. Once the need for urgent medical aid was apparent, she left for Spain, arriving in early 1937 with one small suitcase. As she was driven 200 miles south through Murcia and down to Almeria, she saw panic-stricken refugees fleeing Malaga, which had fallen to the Nationalists. They were on foot, carrying bundles of possessions, and were easy targets for fighter planes, bombers and naval vessels. From this point, Morris coped with a kind of nursing that was a million times removed from anything she had experienced in Christchurch and London, including frostbite, bullet and head wounds.

In the course of the next couple of years, she worked in an International Brigade base hospital, as head nurse to a renowned surgeon, and ran a children’s hospital in Murcia. The latter was funded by the Quakers, who supplied not just money but many dedicated behind-the-scenes personnel. She worked alongside other dedicated New Zealanders, including Doug Jolly, military surgeon son of a Cromwell storekeeper, and public health physician Gladys Montgomery from Coromandel. As Franco’s forces advanced, Morris retreated to the south of France to care for thousands of Spanish refugees, again under the auspices of the Society of Friends. She finally returned to London from Bordeaux on the Madura, under threat of German air attack.

Despite the challenges and trade-offs of his project, and once Derby gets to the meat of his book – Morris’s time in Spain and the south of France – he holds our attention. In doing so, he has succeeded in rescuing an heroic figure from historical invisibility.

Jane Westaway is a Wellington reviewer, and partner in Words@Work. 

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction, Review, War
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