Book Review: Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Woods

For the first time I’ve been sent a book for review, a somewhat novel experience for me, but one that I hope will continue as I expand my range of book reviews on this blog. I always love having the chance to talk about a woman who played a crucial role in history, but whose voice and or story has been lost to the broader narrative. In being sent Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Woods, I’ve had the chance to learn about an intriguing woman, and also about the role of the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau, which could easily have been a book in and of itself. So thank you Simone from Shebang for sending me the book.

Simone’s contact wasn’t the first time I’ve actually seen this book. I bought it for work, as I’m always keeping my eye out for any books about women in Victorian history, that can help to fill gaps in the predominantly male narrative, especially military narratives which often write out women entirely. So I’d purchased the book for the PMI Victorian History Library. Sadly, I don’t have time to read every book I buy for work (it would actually be physically impossible) and in all honesty Vera isn’t one I would have picked up and read for myself. I saw it as a reference book to be dipped in to for information as needed, not something to read cover to cover. This supposition is supported by the format, a somewhat awkward slightly oversized hardback. The book does not promote itself as a popular biography. Given this, I was intending to dip in and out for this review, but I was surprised to find how readable Vera is.

Much of this readability comes from the compelling, improbable and complex nature of Vera Deakin’s life and that’s where I want to begin.

Vera Deakin, born in 1891, was the youngest daughter of Australia’s second Prime Minister Alfred Deakin. She was many ways a deeply conventional woman, but she stepped forcibly out of the conventional mould in pursuit of what she saw as her duty to serve.

Vera begins describing her somewhat idyllic childhood, of literature, family life and education both in Melbourne and in Point Lonsdale (where both Vera and her husband chose to be buried). It explores her immediate family, and the role of both her parents Pattie and Alfred Deakin. It’s in this section that narrative lost me a little for the first time, as it skipped around in trying to create atmosphere at the same time as describing non essential people and jumping forward and back in time to allude to future events. Vera does encapsulate the world of learning and music that was the foundation of Vera’s life. However, despite extracts and comments from Vera’s own diaries and letters, Vera herself is a little lost (along with the narrative thread) in the sheer welter of new people, houses being bought and then sold, laundry listing of events, family dynamics, connections, atmosphere setting and external references.

Vera really catches you when we reach World War One. With war declared Vera, who in the preceding chapters had been travelling in England and Germany to continue her musical studies, wants to do her part, very clearly wants to serve and is rebuffed. This is where we see Vera really step into her own story. No one else (especially her father) envisions a role for her in the war other than helping at home and running canteens with her mother, so she makes one. This is where we see the Vera who would later be described as autocratic but deeply compassionate, who inspired fierce loyalty, love, but also awe and in some cases fear. If she had been a man, no doubt the autocracy would not have been commented on.

In finding her own place, Vera got on a ship to Cairo to join the Red Cross support services in Egypt. This was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to the Red Cross. It is not an exaggeration to say that she was the backbone of the organisation in Australia. Arriving in Egypt, Vera was at the coalface of the beginnings of the Australian Enquiry Bureau. Essentially this was a service of tracking down soldiers and sending news of them to their relatives, they also took requests from relatives to track down their loved ones. This might sound like a simple enough concept, but dealing with the conflagration of disorder that was World War One, it was anything but simple. By 1915 enquiry lists were stretching out to 900 pages. These were all soldiers listed as missing, or wounded, or dead. The idea was to provide context for families, the military notification was stark ‘missing’ ‘wounded’ ‘died of wounds’ ‘killed in action’, the Enquiry Bureau filled in these gaps, finding the soldiers, letting their families know of their condition, communicating with prisoners of war (a little later) and sending care packages, and if the solider was dead not only confirming the death but also how they died, usually by talking to another solider who had been there. As you can imagine this was a mammoth task, they had searchers who went out to all the hospitals and military units etc to ascertain the information, but it all had to be sorted and communicated and made useful. Vera was at the heart of this. When the action moved more to Europe, the Egyptian Bureau closed and Vera moved it to London in 1916, she remained there, running the Bureau until the end of the war. The Bureau provided comfort to thousands and thousands of families, but also soldiers, through contact with prisoners of war, helping soldiers on leave and visiting sick and wounded soldiers. Vera was again at the coalface of this side of the operation often ‘adopting’ soldiers and taking them to entertainments on leave, hosting parties, visiting them in hospital and, on one memorable occasion, taking Christmas to a particular hospital when her parents visited in 1916. She also formed relationships with the families of soldiers she was helping to trace, in several cases maintaining correspondence even after the solider was found to be dead. She kept in contact with one father until his death twelve years later.

Vera did not undertake this work alone. She was the heart of a dedicated group of some paid but largely volunteers. This included several women from a similar background to her own, who became lifelong friends, and some of whom she continued to work with when she returned to Australia. As a snapshot of the sheer volume of work that was undertaken- in 1917 the Bureau received 26953 cabled enquiries from Australia and sent back 24610 responses. They received 9175 posted enquires and another 11444 enquiries from Britain and France. 32753 reports come in from searchers and a further 4501 reports from soldiers, matrons and padres. We know these numbers, because of the meticulous records that Vera ensured were kept, and ensured went back to Australia. They are now at the Australian War Memorial and some are in the process of being digitised.

At the cessation in hostilities Vera began to close down the London office, and to move back to Australia. They continued their work right up to the last, sending searchers back on the troop ships, seeing it as their last chance to collect stories from the soldiers of others missing, or stories of how the dead died.

There was one more twist in the World War One part of Vera’s story though. One of the prisoners of war that Vera had been corresponding with early on in the Bureau’s existence was Thomas White, an Australian Aviator who had been captured early in the war flying in Mesopotamia, and held captive by the Turks. The Bureau corresponded directly with him, as he was the best contact to provide support for the rank and file prisoners. The officers were given slightly more lenient treatment. White escaped in 1918 and stowed away on a Russian freighter, making his way to England by circuitous route.

On the 21st of December 1918 another former Turkish prisoner from Geelong, Les Luscomb, came to the Bureau. He and other Turkish prisoners had been held for so long they didn’t know much about what had been happening in the world, so the Bureau helped reorient them. Vera invited Les to visit the Temple Church in London. She saw the soldiers as crusaders describing the deceased at the armistice as “the voices of those Crusader souls who have given their lives on the battlefield & the high seas” and thought he might appreciate the crusader knights’ effigies found in the Temple Church which dates to the 1185.

I just want pause very briefly here to put on my medievalist hat, as people reading this review have probably read some of the rest of this blog, and say that none of the effigies in the Temple Church are crusaders, but you can see where the sentiment was coming from. Les Luscomb met Vera at the Temple Church the following day. He brought his friend Thomas White, Thomas and Vera were engaged three weeks later and married for 37 years. Thomas went on to be a prominent member of parliament and Australian High Commissioner to London- where he was knighted- and it was in her role as his wife that Vera’s path and the book’s narrative continues.

This is not to say that Vera was only his wife. She certainly supported him, but she kept up her volunteer work. When World War II broke out, the Whites had both spoken out against appeasement, Vera set up and ran the Bureau again, but this time from Melbourne rather than London. It feels like an injustice to skate over this part of her life, which was filled with the same complexities as World War I and was instrumental in establishing structures that are still used by the Red Cross today, but like the book I can not cover all aspects of Vera’s life in a review. She was a woman of vision, determination, education, insight, incredible organisation, authority and deep compassion. She was also clearly a woman of her times, she was deeply dedicated to Empire and England, militaristic, pro conscription in both WWI referendums (a concept I can’t understand from someone who saw the suffering first hand), and I found her vision of ANZACs of noble crusaders uncomfortable, but that is again reading this book as a medievalist first. She and White dedicated the rest of their lives to the memorialisation of the ANZACS and all those who fought as heroes. She was at the core of the creation of the ANZAC legend, so it is ironic that her story and the story of the many dedicated (mainly female) volunteers has been lost from the narrative.

Vera does a good job telling the story of Vera’s life and I would like to note the excellent index, but it hovers in the difficult territory of trying to be both a readable, enjoyable biography and a useful reference book. It doesn’t quite achieve either. It is in many ways hampered by the fullness of Vera’s life, some sections feel skated over, a laundry list of achievements rather than a story and examination. Vera tries to ride too many horses; telling Vera’s story, telling the Red Cross’s story, examining her family dynamic and Alfred Deakin, exploring broader military history, Thomas White’s story, even the Bureau’s story. Any of these could have been a book by themselves, and I found myself wanting to know more, to be move involved in the narrative. I also wanted more from Vera herself in her own words integrated into the narrative (as there was clearly been a lot of access to letters, diaries etc). For me, the section that could have been sacrificed to allow more space for the others would have been Vera’s years in Germany and Budapest, and her early tours of England, which while formative, simply aren’t as interesting as her later life. At 210 pages Vera is not a long book, and this has meant the sacrifice of depth in some areas.

All that being said Vera Deakin and the Red Cross does a wonderful job bringing Vera out of the shadows and placing her back at the heart of the ANZAC story, and the formation of the Red Cross- right where she belongs.

Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Wood can be bought from the Royal Historical Society of Victoria https://www.historyvictoria.org.au/product/vera-deakin-and-the-red-cross-by-carole-woods/

Or borrowed from the PMI Victorian History Library

https://library.pmi.net.au/fullRecord.jsp?recno=31737

Book Review: Vida: A woman for our time by Jacquline Kent

I enjoyed writing my first real book review on this blog (Joan: Lady of Wales) so I thought I’d branch out into a different area of history and write another. Also, there hasn’t been much Australian history on Historical Ragbag for a while and Vida Goldstein is always a good place to start. Vida is someone who should be much better known worldwide, a leading suffragist (they’re different to suffragettes), first woman to stand for national parliament anywhere in the Western world, rousing speaker, peace campaigner through World War I and life long advocate for social justice. She has been quite unfairly relegated to the shadows of history. Jacquline Kent’s book works to change that.

I have written about Vida before. In fact I first came across her in year eleven when I was allowed to pick any topic of Australian history and I chose the Australian suffragists. Then when I saw the movie Suffragette in 2015 I decided Vida needed her own blog post. So you can find out more about her in the link below

https://historicalragbag.com/2016/01/06/vida-goldstein/

This is primarily a book review though and, while I’d love the chance to talk more about Vida herself, I should return to the book.

I devoured this book. What Kent does so well is explores Vida’s life as a whole, rather than focussing on her suffrage work, or her war work, or her education work, or her tilts at parliament. She situates her firmly in the narrative of her time, a time of intense change and upheaval. Kent also follows Vida through to her later life (she died in 1949) putting this remarkable woman firmly back on centre stage where she should be. Kent draws parallels with the experiences of modern day female politicians, especially Julia Gillard, which really drives home the message of how much work there still is to be done, but also how much we can learn from Vida and her experiences.

But to go back to the beginning, Kent’s book is largely chronological, the first thing I learnt is that I’ve been pronouncing Vida’s name wrong. I’d been saying Veeda Goldsteen where as Vida herself pronounced it with Viida (as in with a long I) Goldstine (again the long I). I’ve been correcting myself in my head ever since.

Kent does tell Vida’s story chronologically for the most part. Though the book begins with a prologue of sorts, exploring the most iconic image of Vida (see below)

Kent starts the narrative proper with Vida’s family history. It’s when Vida and her family relocate to Melbourne, however, that you really start getting the sense of Vida as a person. The picture Kent paints is of a woman dedicated to her ideals, sometimes to her own detriment (for example her complete refusal to join a political party limited her likelihood of being elected- though it is a position I very much sympathise with), a tireless advocate and champion for social justice, who always worked quietly (as in never violently) but incredibly persistently. She never gave up and was deservedly famous in her own time, especially with her campaigns to be elected to parliament. For her first attempt in 1903 she toured regional Victoria for two months speaking in country towns all over the state, speeches the local newspapers covered in great detail. In fact some of the commentary would be familiar to current female politicians too. The Avoca Times reported “Miss Goldstein presented a very pleasing appearance on the platform at Avoca. She was graceful, pretilly gowned and wore a most becoming hat.

At this point Victorian women could not vote in state elections, but they could vote federally and run for parliament. Vida campaigned hard and as an independent candidate she received 51 497 votes for the Senate, about half of that of the top polling male candidate. She remained philosophical though and would go on to run for parliament (in various different areas) a further four times. She was never successful, but she succeeded in having her issues heard and paved the way for future female parliamentarians. It is fitting that an electorate is named after her (even if it is a now a bluechip Liberal seat that has only ever been held by a man).

What Kent does best in Vida: A woman for our time is to place Vida in the context of her own time. This is in many ways what I found most interesting, as it tells Vida’s story more broadly. It also means you learn a lot about Australia’s early history before the historical narrative gets hijacked by World War I as Australia’s foundation story. As I already knew a little about her role in politics, I was absolutely fascinated with her role in the anti-conscription and peace movement in WWI and the extent of the movement itself. Vida helped set up the Australian Peace Alliance in the midst of war frenzy, aiming to bring together all the disparate groups advocating for peace, including Trades Hall, quite a few unions, the Quakers and the Free Religious Fellowship. The fight for peace was, obviously, not ultimately successful, but the movements did manage to see off the conscription referendum, though the fight got quite nasty at times. This era is something I might come back and explore in a later post. Vida was at the forefront of so many movements, and her persistence (as well as the hard work of a lot of other people-which Kent very much acknowledges) was the core of her often successful activities.

Kent not only places Vida in the context of her times, but also in the context of her family. Vida was a very much a product of her upbringing and the support of her family. Her family is also the source of fascinating Melbourne history sidetracks. Her sister Elsie, for example, was married to the somewhat eccentric activist Henry Howard Champion and they ran the fabulously named Book Lovers Library, which was a Melbourne institution until 1936. This also sent me down the rabbit hole of the Book Lovers Library and other early libraries in Melbourne, which seeing as I work for one was really very interesting.

In her later years Vida became an adherent of the Christian Science Movement and withdrew more from public life, when she died at the age of 80 on the 15th of August 1949 she’s didn’t leave much of a financial or material legacy. Her legacy as a trailblazer and advocate was infinitely more important.

This is by no means a full account of Vida’s life. For that you’ll need to read the book. Essentially, in Vida: A woman for our time what Kent does is brings Vida’s whole story into the light. Kent highlights her role in the rapidly changing society, the context of her family, her activism and worldwide recognition (including a very popular US speaking tour). Kent does this at the same time as contextualising what Vida’s struggles mean for us today, and exploring several fascinating and not well known enough areas of Australian history. She brings Vida out of the shadows and places her back in the broader narrative of Australian history- right where she belongs.

Vida: A woman for our time by Jacqueline Kent can be found at:

https://www.penguin.com.au/books/vida-a-woman-for-our-time-9780670079490

you can also loan it from the PMI Victorian History Library

https://library.pmi.net.au/fullRecord.jsp?recno=31308

And most likely your local public library.

References

https://historicalragbag.com/2016/01/06/vida-goldstein/

Vida Goldstein image State Library of Victoria

https://viewer.slv.vic.gov.au/?entity=IE1543426

Book Review: Joan Lady of Wales: Power and politics of King John’s daughter by Danna R. Messer

I’ve actually never written a book review on this blog before. I’ve done book previews of books I already own, but never an actual review. My book previews are more a look at whatever the book is about, essentially a preview of the contents and a chat about whatever the book is talking about. Joan Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer has enticed me to branch out.

First a little background, Joan has been one of my favourite medieval figures since I first read Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman probably about fifteen years ago. It was written in 1991 and, while still an incredible book, some more history has been unearthed since it was written, especially about how many children Joan had.

Joan was the illegitimate daughter of King John of England and married Llywelyn Fawr Prince of Gwynedd in North Wales, and (arguably) eventually Lord of most of Wales by the time he died. I have written about Joan and Llywelyn before. Though I will extend my post on Joan at some point, having now finished Joan Lady of Wales which is the first biography every written about her.

You can read my post about Joan here:

https://historicalragbag.com/2014/11/23/marriage-alliances-1180-1250-part-3-joan-of-wales/

And Llweyln here:

https://historicalragbag.com/2016/04/11/llywelyn-the-great/

And below you can see Joan’s possible effigy

To return to the book though.

Messer takes a very interesting approach to writing a biography, one that is largely necessitated by the paucity of sources surrounding Joan, she makes use of a great deal speculation. This is not a criticism. One of the reasons I didn’t go into academic history, and why I find popular history sometimes frustrating, is because of the lack of nuance in discussing historical detail. Too often history is presented as blanket fact, and this is often the ‘fact’ heralded by the dominant narrative, which in Western history is usually, not always, white, wealthy, western and male and quite often militaristic.

In this blog you might have noticed that I use ‘arguably’ a lot. What I’m trying to do is tell interesting historical stories, often of the smaller parts of history, but I want to keep in the forefront of people’s minds that what I’m saying is arguable, that there is more than one perspective.

This is true of most history, that there are always multiple sides and the closest we can come to an understanding of an issue in the past is to recognise that it is made up of a multiplicity of views, opinions and versions and that parts of all of them are probably true. So when you are trying to tell the story of a medieval woman, even one as prominent in her time as Joan of Wales, you are relying largely on male monastic sources, which tend to relegate women to the shadows. Therefore Messer’s book draws on the context of the role of medieval women of Joan’s time, through laws and through other examples to explore what Joan’s role most likely was even if we do not have explicit contemporary fact to back it all up.

Messer does tell the story of Joan’s life, as much as it can be told. This book has been a twenty year project for Messer and it’s clear when you look at the references that she has found every mention of Joan than can be found. Joan’s story is one of what we would now see as a high level diplomat, maintaining ties between her adopted homeland of her husband’s Wales and her father and later brother’s world of Plantagenet England. For her whole marriage she was the key peacemaking, negotiating force between the two countries and this is the story that Messer presents. She makes clear that she does not wish to either overstate or understate Joan’s importance. She positions her, using the sources available, in the known roles of medieval queenship, Welsh marriage laws, Welsh law more generally and the role of women in the society at the time as much as it is understood.

An excellent example of the way Messer has written the book is her discussion about Joan’s mother. There has never been agreement as to who Joan’s mother was. There are a number of candidates, but all that is really known is that her name was probably Clemencia, and this comes from Joan’s own obituary in the Teweksbury annals where Joan is described as the daughter of King John and Queen Clemencia. Messer provides a fascinating and detailed analysis of what the term ‘queen’ meant in this context. Messer then goes on to examine all the likely candidates for the role of Joan’s mother, whilst never specifically naming one as definite. This is the sort of nuance that is found throughout the book.

Joan’s story is told mainly chronologically, though the book jumps around a bit as it explores tangents such a law, and marriage and the role of women in Wales, as well as the men who were writ large in Joan’s life. In the sources she is, wife, daughter, mother, and queen and much of the discussion of her life revolves around her in these roles. As her narrative is so much tied to Llweyln’s it is unsurprising that much of structure of the book comes from his rises and falls, and his attempts to be lord of a unified Wales. This context is as necessary as the examination of royal medieval women and their roles, to understand the life Joan possibly led.

As Messer discusses, however, it is likely (note the speculation) that Joan’s role was more than a mediator and she was probably involved in the decision making, not just defending or trying to mediate decisions made by her husband, or her father. She wasn’t a passive participant. While there is little documentary evidence of her involvement, as I said the primary sources aren’t extensive, Messer extrapolates from documents like the marriage agreement between Joan and Llweyln’s daughter Elen and John the Scott, heir to the earldom of Chester. Their marriage agreement survives and makes it clear that Joan was involved in granting lands that belonged to her personally as part of the agreement. They were English lands so Llweyln didn’t have to have her permission to pass them on to her daughter, but the fact that she is listed as independently confirming the grant, not only shows her intimate involvement in arranging her daughter’s marriage, but also her likely involvement in the management of her own lands.

Another key factor that Messer discusses with incredible depth is the story that has probably most stuck to Joan, often through local legend and English sources as the Welsh sources are actually fairly quiet on it, her affair with William de Braose. Messer goes into immense detail, about the probability of the affair occurring, the probability of Joan’s subsequent twelve month confinement and how the whole situation would have been read under Welsh law. She looks at the different interpretations possible from the sources and like the rest of the book presents an extremely nuanced if not conclusive examination of the affair, and Joan’s return to public life afterwards.

The highlight of the book for me was actually towards the end, when Messer produces the only letter that has survived that was actually written by Joan. I’ve read a reasonable amount about Joan, but I hadn’t realised that there were any of her letters surviving. I was quite excited

To her most excellent lord and dearest brother, Henry, by the Grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, the Lady of Wales sends her own greetings.

Know, lord, that I am grieved beyond measure, that I can by no means express, that our enemies have succeeded in sowing discord between my husband and you. I grieve no less on account of you than of my husband, especially since I know what genuine fondness my husband used to have, and still has, for you, and how useless and dangerous it is for us, with due respect, to lose true friends and have enemies instead. Thus on bended knee and shedding of tears, I beg your highness to alter your decision, as you may easily do, and do not fail to be reconciled to those who are joined to you by an unbreakable bond and learn both to love friends and oppress enemies. With regard to this, lord, you may know how some have wrongly suggested to you that you should not trust Instructus, your clerk and my lord’, in whom I do not believe you could have a more faithful clerk in England, may God help me. For this reason, he is no less faithful to you if he is faithfully carrying out the business of his lord, because he behaves in the same way carrying out your affairs in the presence of his master; neither you nor anyone would rely on him if he handles the business of his master in a half-hearted or careless manner. Therefore if you wish to have confidence in me for anything else, put your faith in me for this. Farewell.

Messer unpacks the detail of this letter, written in roughly 1230, which I’m not going to do here, but it does incapsulate the context of the role that Joan would have played throughout her life.

The book is also immensely readable, even when delving into the nitty gritty of Welsh marriage law. When dealing with a subject that needs as much contextualising as Joan’s life, this is a real achievement. It also has an excellent index, something I always appreciate.

I’m not saying Joan Lady of Wales is perfect, but in placing Joan in her rightful place in history with as much nuance as possible it is a fascinating and I think important work.

I have not set out to tell the story of Joan’s life in this review, Messer has done this much better than I can manage, but if you want to know more I’d highly recommend reading the book.

On a final note, I’m Australian so was originally stymied on how to obtain a copy of the book. However after talking to the publisher, Pen and Sword, they do actually ship to Australia and it turned up in less than a month which was great.

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Joan-Lady-of-Wales-Hardback/p/17674

The photos are mine.