Mary Borden: A Women of Two Wars
Book Reviews

Jeremy Lewis

'I'm all in favour of biographers who set out to revive interest in those half- forgotten figures who flutter in the footnotes of more famous names' letters and diaries, yet led varied and interesting lives of their own and deserve to be better remembered.

Jane Conway's biography of Mary Borden is a case in point. The daughter of a Chicago millionaire, she settled in London in 1913, became a best-selling novelist, and led an extraordinary life in which literature and politics, France and England, were fruitfully combined. Her first marriage proved a turbulent affair, but she met the love of her life in the soldier and politician Edward Spears. Their friends and acquaintances ranged from Bernard Shaw, E.M. Forster and Ford Madox Ford to General de Gaulle and Winston Churchill: she campaigned for women's rights, ran a military hospital during the battle of the Somme, made films with Alexander Korda, helped the Free French in World War Two, and had a narrow escape from Rommel in the Middle East; she wrote speeches for her nephew-in-law, Adlai Setevenson, and rubbed shoulders with Cyril Connolly, Noel Coward and Rupert Hart-Davis.

All in all, a varied and colourful life, and one that was well worth recalling.'

Katherine Whitehorn, in The Oldie November 2010

I never cease to be amazed at the number of charismatic and fascinating women I have never heard of – until someone writes a biography. The latest is Mary Borden, an American novelist who lived in Europe, played hostess to the Bohemian set before 1914 and established and ran field hospitals for the French in both world wars.

May, as she was always known, was the daughter of a Chicago millionaire, but her parents brought her up under the influence of the revivalists Moody and Sankey, leaving her for life with an explosive mixture of a driven conscience and a taste for good things. Well educated at Vassar, she used her inheritance when her father died to go on a world tour, during which she regrettably married a missionary, Douglas Turner. She spent time with him in India, learning Hindustani and putting up massed missionaries in her home, before coming to London with him in 1913. There she published her novels, was briefly imprisoned as a stone-throwing suffragette and had an affair with Wyndham Lewis.

In 1915, and only recently recovered from having her third daughter, May set off for France to run a hospital behind the lines. This is in some ways the most astonishing part of the book: there she was, with no medical training, running the hospital she had just about invented, nursing round the clock, raising funds from America – and somehow still writing novels. Her hospital had the lowest mortality rate on the Front, and won her not only the Croix de Guerre but the Légion d’Honneur. And in the photographs she is wearing a wonderfully billowing headdress and shoes with high – well, highish –heels.

During this time she met the love of her life, Louis Spears, an alarmingly handsome lieutenant in the French army, of Anglo-Irish origin. When the war was over she succeeded in divorcing Douglas, though there were endless custody battles over the children. During the 1919 peace negotiations in Paris she and Louis ran a salon visited by Winston Churchill, T E Lawrence, Maynard Keynes, Cocteau, Lloyd Georg by page 94 it seems quite normal for such people to figure in her life.

And then in the Second World War the whole thing happens again. Louis, who has been an MP in Britain in the meantime, is in Beirut as Head of Mission in the Levant; and May manages to start running a field hospital by now called the Hatfield-Spears Unit – during the desert war. This part of the book is highly revealing about French ambivalence: towards the war, the Germans, and of course, the British; May has her problems with them – and also with Louis’s ambivalent feelings towards her, to whom he is devoted, and his long-term mistress Nancy.

There’s much about May’s life: her unreliable health, her children (she had one more by Louis), her books and even her paintings – her portrait of Louis is in the National Portrait Gallery. We are told about her family and the people she knew, from Noël Coward to her son-in-law, the distinguished American politician and Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, to the filmmaker Alexander Korda who wanted to use a script of hers in his first talkie.

But the book’s also an eye-opener about the influences and pressures of policy at high levels. I’ve long had a theory that with interlocking good historical novels one could learn all the history one needs; this book makes me think that a series of well-written biographies would be just as painless.