Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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An Interview with Jasmine Donahaye, Biographer of Lily Tobias

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. Continue reading

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Aleta Dey

I am sorry that to-day our causes seem to stand in opposition; but perhaps it is only seeming. It may be that history with its wider perspective will discover them to be two branches of the same tree of freedom, yours contending with the winds of tyranny abroad and mine with the winds of tyranny at home. (Aleta Day, ch XXXIX)

Why isn’t Francis Marion Beynon’s semi-autobiographical novel Aleta Dey counted amongst the war classics? On every high school curriculum? Easy to find in print?

Beynon was a journalist and feminist. She grew up in a staunch Methodist family on a Manitoba farm. In 1912, at age 28, she became the first full-time women’s editor of the Grain Growers’ Guide, an influential newspaper circulated throughout the Canadian prairies. Her columns were a platform to argue for women’s issues like suffrage, education and property rights. She was a leader in the Manitoba suffrage movement. In 1917, she was forced to leave her job due to her pacifist views and opposition to the war. Aleta Dey, her only novel, was published in 1919.

Aleta Dey’s life parallels that of Beynon’s in many ways. The early chapters of the novel show family, church and school as institutions bent on silencing girls and women. Those who question authority are beaten or humiliated into submission. Aleta resents her ultimate state of weakness: “I am a coward. I think I was born to be free, but my parents, with God as one of their chief instruments of terror, frightened me into servility.” (ch I)

Aleta moves to Winnipeg and becomes a journalist. She rejects Ned, her childhood protector and kindred spirit. She falls in love with McNair, a man with – shall we say – more conventional views of women’s place in the world. (No, Aleta! Don’t do it! I want to talk some sense into her and lead her away. OK, I’m emotionally invested in this book.)

Our suffrage organisation had decided to have a parade to awaken a slothful public to the importance of our propaganda. …

“I should certainly not permit my wife, if I had one, to carry on that way,” he declared threateningly.

“I should certainly not permit my husband, if I had one, to substitute his conscience for mine,” I snapped back. (ch XVII)

Phew! Aleta will hold her own.

Beynon is at her best with snippets that reveal the tensions, condescensions and contradictions of war.

Germany had broken the peace of the world and plunged us into night. Very well, we would collect a few Canadians and send them over and they would settle the matter in a few months and come home, and we would give them a banquet, and allow them to die in the poor-house, as had been done to the heroes of other wars. (ch XXIV)

She pokes pins into the sentiments that only enemy messages are propaganda … that poor working men should be conscripted, but not the capital of wealthy men … that the spending of soldiers’ wives should be monitored, as if their earnings were public charity … that socialism might be any less of a tyranny than capitalism. She rallies for peace, and especially for freedom of speech to prevail in war.

Aleta Dey speaks of its time. It also holds timeless lessons for today.

 

Hard to find a copy of Aleta Dey in print. The text is now in the public domain, so it is easy to find a free copy online.