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The Lives of Others | The Nation

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The Lives of Others

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Gordon, to her credit, sets out to defend Cunard, to separate the person from the legend, to avoid getting sidetracked or seduced, to seriously reassess the political and artistic contributions. But by the time we've gotten through Cunard's childhood, it's probably already too late. The very myth that Gordon seeks to debunk is already reasserting itself.

About the Author

Carla Kaplan
Carla Kaplan, the Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature at Northeastern University, is a Guggenheim...

Cunard grew up the only child of mismatched parents who left her care in the hands of the many servants employed at Nevill Holt, the 13,000-acre thirteenth-century Cunard family estate, which resembled an entire English village and is said to have occupied more square footage than the New York Public Library. Her father, Bache Cunard, was an apolitical and mostly antisocial man who eschewed family lineage and the family's shipping business to pursue his passion for decorative metalsmithing, much like the obsessive Colonel Aureliano Buendía in García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Bache Cunard could hardly have been more unlike his wife, Maud Burke, a wealthy San Franciscan; the $2 million dowry that she paid for the title "Lady" would be roughly equivalent to $500 million today. Lady Cunard's passions were for society. Her ambition, handily achieved, was to become one of England's most celebrated hostesses.

Cunard's mother introduced her to an amazing array of male artists and intellectuals, including George Moore, W. Somerset Maugham, W.B. Yeats, Ford Madox Ford, George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce. Lady Cunard's parties gave her daughter a taste for high culture and European travel and an early facility with languages (Cunard spoke French, Spanish, Italian and German and, as an adult, often wrote in Spanish). These parties probably also contributed to a high tolerance for male-dominated cultural circles, where remarks such as T.S. Eliot's "women grown intellectual grow dull" were common, and possibly fueled an early dislike of excess, shallowness and domestic dishonesty. Although Nancy followed her mother's example into an early marriage to a man who shared none of her passion for culture or conversation, she left her husband in less than two years and never married again.

An heiress like Cunard could look forward to a life of marriage, some philanthropy and a pastime or two--"her hobby in life will probably be dogs," one newspaper predicted. The British press wanted her to stay "sweet, fresh, baby...dollish...and full of fun...[an] exquisite specimen of English girlhood." This gave her a blueprint for what to avoid, even as a young child. Though she was alarmed by her first sight of hobos --"dirty, slouchy men with stubby chins"--that didn't discourage her from wanting to be one of them. "I wanted to run away and be a vagabond," she told George Moore when she was a girl. A little later, as a debutante in evening clothes, Cunard anguished over what her friend Iris Tree described as "the guilt of our immunity" from suffering. Like much early antiwar poetry, her first poem, published in 1916, tried to imagine life for one of the "Soldiers Fallen in Battle" (the poem's title):

These die obscure and leave no heritage
For them no lamps are lit, no prayers said,
And all men soon forget that they are dead,
And their dumb names unwrit on memory's page.

Throughout her life, Cunard wanted to write these "dumb names" back into memory.

Sometimes the least effusive people seem to respond most readily to the suffering of others. And Cunard had a reputation for being especially chilly; men complained that she was a calculating lover, incapable of proper sentimentality. But when it came to the causes she embraced, her passion was boundless, as was, apparently, her acceptance of material discomfort. She would not hesitate to work eighteen hours a day setting type in semidarkness for her press, The Hours, housed in an old stable on her French farmhouse, or to trudge twenty miles in the rain to a Spanish refugee camp. When Britain's unemployed staged hunger marches in the 1930s, Cunard accompanied them, Gordon writes, in "a man's overcoat and overshoes, an aviator's helmet, and mufflers, scarves, and gloves."

When she learned about American racism and the "agonies of the Negroes," from Henry Crowder and others, she not only embarked on her Negro anthology but befriended the mothers of the Scottsboro boys, exchanging letters with them and taking over much of the fundraising involved in their campaign: organizing parties, dances, film screenings, demonstrations, petitions and theater performances. She responded similarly to the "eternity of anguish" that West Indian and African anticolonialists were fighting and, especially, to the Spanish Republicans' attempts to defeat Fascism. She first went to Spain in 1936 as a journalist; what she saw there, she wrote, "took hold of me entirely." For the next three years she volunteered wherever her help was accepted: reporting, delivering supplies, aiding relocation efforts, driving the wounded, agitating for the release of intellectuals, organizing food drives, visiting refugees and spiriting people into hiding at her house in Réanville. "Spain is not politics but life," she wrote. "Its immediate future will affect every human who has a sense of what life and its facts mean." She found it "unthinkable" and "degenerate" that anyone could fail to identify with the Spanish Republican struggle, and she braved bombings, arrest, mud, shootings, trenches, sleet and starvation to be with partisans on the front lines and to get to refugee camps.

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