Nina Boyd (2013) From Suffragette to Fascist The Many Lives of Mary Sophia Allen The History Press
While I could not empathise with the subject of this biography, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about her! Mary Allen (1878-1964) had a number of rather startling incarnations: upper middle class Edwardian daughter, who was cut off (though fortunately not `without a penny') by her father over the women's suffrage question; a brave suffragette who was force-fed in prison; a lesbian at a time when one did not simply come out as such; a pioneering policewoman obsessed with uniforms and a masculine appearance; and a sympathiser both with Oswald Mosley's British Fascists and Nazi Germany, who fell under the suspicion of the British authorities as a result. Nina Boyd's well-researched and engaging account takes us through the various phases of Allen's life including her major relationships, not necessarily eliciting our sympathy, but certainly inviting our understanding. She offers useful illuminations of Allen's behaviour - for example, wearing masculine clothing was extremely difficult at the time unless one wore a uniform.
Boyd has delved into the available documentary evidence (and I particularly welcomed her notes and index), including Allen's no less than three autobiographies, and contributions from descendants of Allen's siblings. What a shame, however, that we appear to have no record of what went on in her interview with Hitler!
While the tale told here certainly held my attention, I found the division of the text into subsections of variable length rather puzzling; also, at times more rigorous editing was required. In general, though, this book is an absorbing read. It is not just a fascinating study of an extraordinary if deluded individual, but may also stand as recording an important part of the history of feminism before and after the First World War.
Nina Boyd's prose is lucid and her narrative quickly carries the reader to the end. The History Press are also to be commended for making an attractive and well-presented hardback book available at such a low price. The inclusion of a generous number of photographs of the subject, printed on appropriate glossy paper, also adds value.
Mary Allen's life is a fascinating one and it would take a very poor writer to deflect the reader's interest, and Nina Boyd is certainly not that. However, despite this, there is evidence of a distinct tendency to `spice-up' the story in a way which only serves to diminish its historical authenticity. Perhaps the most blatant example of this appears of the back of the dust jacket, which alleges that the subject was, on top of everything else also, a `spy' - the reader will struggle to find any evidence in the text to justify this. Allen is also described as having `met' and `interviewed' Adolf Hitler, which suggests some form of interaction akin to that enjoyed by Diana and Unity Mitford, who were allowed into the Fuhrer's personal circle. However, careful reading of the text suggests no more than that Allen was on one occasion in the audience at one of Hitler's public speeches, which is a quite different matter.
There is also a deal of shock-horror reaction to Mary Allen's supposed `fascism', which would have benefited from a calmer discussion. In reality, Allen's opinions concerning communism, `foreigners' and nudists were no different from a great mass of men and women of her age and background, many of whom would have been at home in the Conservative party at that time. In this regard, one avenue that deserved further examination was whether Allen and her Women's Auxiliary Service had any involvement with the British Fascists (aka The British Fascisti) in the 1920s. This body, initiated by another extraordinary woman, Rotha Lintorn-Orman, closely corresponded with both the aims and ideology of Allen and her organisation. Unknowingly Boyd mentions two WAS members who were involved with the British Fascists in the 1920s, mistakenly linking them to the British Union of Fascists, which did not start until 1932. In this regard, it should be remembered that the BUF was politically a quite different animal, emerging as it did from the Labour Party. It is certainly so that Allen joined the BUF towards the end of its life, apparently on account of its opposition to the war with Germany. Unfortunately there are errors here too: Boyd writes that `Mary associated with prominent BUF members' citing as evidence a letter she wrote to Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay MP; Ramsay, who was involved with the Right Club, was never a BUF member.
Any critical reader should also pause to consider Boyd's treatment of Mary's sexuality. At the beginning of the prologue the author writes of a photograph of Allen and her long term collaborator and companion Margaret Damer Dawson in their police style uniforms that: `the nature of their relationship is apparent from the way in they stand half-turned towards one another, the fingers of their white gloves intertwined.' This incredible image sets the stage for the whole book: two stern and haughty policewomen holding hands! However, having looked carefully at this image (see [...]) I can only conclude that it shows Margaret Damer Dawson (on the left) merely holding her white gloves in her left hand, whilst Mary Allen's right hand is obscured. On the topic of these women's sexuality, no matter what the author assumes and ascribes to them - `lovers' `lesbians' - Allen herself is silent on the specifics of her relationship with Dawson.
It should be hoped that, should opportunity arise to create a revised edition, that the author will attend to these and other points.
This story of the lives of Mary Allen is well worth reading. What an unusual woman she was and one with many contradictions. Mary herself would surely feel that this well written and thoroughly researched biography is no more than she deserves. Love her or hate her, she is well worth knowing about.