A downside of my recent focus on books by WW1 eyewitnesses is that the authors aren’t available for interviews. An upside is that their lives and works often now have the benefit of reflection and scholarship. In that light, I am pleased to welcome Jasmine Donahaye to Great War 100 Reads. Dr. Donahaye, an Associate Professor at Swansea University, is the author of The Greatest Need: The creative life and troubled times of Lily Tobias, a Welsh Jew in Palestine, and editor of new editions of Tobias’s novels Eunice Fleet and My Mother’s House. All are published by Honno Press.
What first interested you in Lily Tobias?
Jasmine Donahaye: Some sixteen years ago I had just begun my PhD research on Welsh attitudes to Jews, and I came across a reference to Lily Tobias as an author of novels that intertwined Welsh and Jewish questions – it was a reference by Leo Abse, the Welsh Labour MP. I didn’t realise at the time that Lily Tobias was his aunt. I ordered her 1921 book, The Nationalists and Other Goluth Studies, during my first visit to the National Library, and was intrigued and excited by the intertwined Welsh and Jewish symbol on the cover: a red dragon and a Star of David. Her work and its themes became a central part of my doctoral research. But there was so much more to her fiction and non-fiction than the national and ethnic identity questions I was exploring there.
After publishing my first article about Tobias, a relative of hers got in touch. I began to learn a lot more about her personal history and background – and about her experiences and the experiences of her brothers which informed the pacifist novel, Eunice Fleet. I found Tobias as complex and fascinating as her work: like her novels, she didn’t lend herself to any simple or tidy interpretations.
What was the biggest challenge in editing her books?
JD: I have been responsible for two new editions: Eunice Fleet, originally published in 1933, which was republished by Honno in 2004, and My Mother’s House, originally published in 1931, which was republished by Honno in 2015. The political and cultural background to each novel was so rich and unusual and so enhances understanding of the books that I felt I had to try to encapsulate them in the introductions – but at the same time I felt both novels deserved to be presented on their own terms as effective and moving works of fiction.
With the biography, there’s plenty now in the public domain about Lily Tobias, but in 2004 there was almost nothing, so I really wanted to do her story and her work justice. Fortunately, the period of the 1930s is not so far removed from us in time that the language of the books requires much interpretation, but the particular Welsh Jewish cultural context in which she grew up, and which does inform her work in fundamental ways, is largely unknown, so I had to find a way to make that accessible.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in the process of writing her biography, The Greatest Need?
JD: There were many surprises along the way, but one of the delights was a letter I received from a researcher, Aled Eirug, who was investigating the peace movement in Wales. He’d found some references to Lily Tobias in an archive of correspondence and he sent me copies – one letter mentioned a ‘little black book’ in which Tobias kept accounts of conscientious objectors. That notebook appears as a fictional notebook in the novel Eunice Fleet – one of many autobiographical elements that made its way into her work, though it is categorically not an autobiographical account.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was what I found in the National Archives at Kew – which I won’t give away, as it forms a rather major plot twist in her life, and comes late in the biography. It was an important lesson to me, though: I had been told about this material early on by two family members, but, partly based on how they characterised it, I had not considered it hugely important. Nevertheless, of course I did check it in the end – and it proved to be of fundamental importance, and changed the shape of the biography.
What do you hope people will take away from Eunice Fleet?
JD: Eunice Fleet works on many levels – as a tragic love story, as the portrait of a woman coming to political consciousness, and of course as a deeply moving account of the terrible treatment of conscientious objectors. I hope readers might find in it a deeper understanding of the costs of the war, and of the complex variety of responses to it, which are too often simplified or overlooked.
What question do you wish people would ask you about Tobias’s work, that they don’t ask?
JD: I hope people will ask more about why she and other writers like her were forgotten, and why their work disappeared from view. There is still a strongly held popular view that being part of the ‘canon’ (or any number of canons) is an inherent mark of universal worth or quality, as though such membership and the attribution of worth is not shaped by cultural, political or class values of a particular period, or a particular group of people. Many successful 1930s writers like Lily Tobias were subsequently forgotten or overlooked, particularly if they were political, and particularly if their politics became unpopular – but most particularly if they were women. In addition Lily Tobias was concerned with questions of national and ethnic identity that were deeply unfashionable – as was her pacifism. All of this contributed to her disappearance from view. But her work illumines those issues in ways that are powerfully resonant now. My Mother’s House, for example, offers a compelling account of struggling with questions of assimilation and multiculturalism, while Eunice Fleet is a unique reflection on how we confront war. But both of these, like her works that are still out of print, also make compelling reading in their own right as moving and poignant novels.
Where will your next book take us?
JD: My next book will pick up one of the threads in my memoir/travel book, Losing Israel, which was published a few months after my biography of Lily Tobias – namely birds, birdwatching, and nature writing more generally. But I have also been exploring the theme of slaughter as part of a project funded by the Arts Council. So there are several things in the works, including fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
Much to which we can look forward! Thank you, Jasmine, for your insights – and for your efforts to bring the work of Lily Tobias back to life. I look forward to reading more of her books … and yours.