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‘For us it was Heaven’

The Passion, Grief and Fortitude of Patience Darton
From the Spanish Civil War to Mao’s China

Angela Jackson recorded her first interview with Patience for her book British Women and the Spanish Civil War (Routledge 2002, Warren & Pell 2009). In 1996 she returned to Madrid with Patience and was with her when she died there. Angela now lives in Spain and has written several history books about the civil war, and a novel, Warm Earth. As president of the Catalan cultural association, No Jubilem la Memòria, she is involved in research for publications, film documentaries and exhibitions, and in the organisation of commemorative events and conferences.

“This is a biography of many facets offering a wealth of insight and textual content of particular relevance in the context of gender studies. It tells us much of the status of nurses in Britain in the 1930s. It is also an important contribution to the history of the International Brigades and the Republican medical services in the Spanish civil war and adds nuance to our knowledge of foreigners in China in a turbulent period of its history. The story of Patience will surely appeal to many general readers as well as to specialists in those fields.” From the Preface by Series Editor Paul Preston

Published in association with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies


Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-514-4
Hardback Price: £55.00/$74.95
Release Date: February 2012
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-515-1
Paperback Price: £22.50/$34.95
Release Date: February 2012
Page Extent / Format: 264 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes


List of Illustrations
Preface by Paul Preston

Chapter 1 Portraying Patience
Chapter 2 Sniffing at Socialism
Chapter 3 The Road to Spain
Chapter 4 Patients and Politics in Valencia
Chapter 5 A Modern Woman Making Waves
Chapter 6 Blossoming Spring to Bitter Winter
Chapter 7 Retreat and Recovery
Chapter 8 Head and Heart
Chapter 9 The Ebro
Chapter 10 Leaving Spain
Chapter 11 A Different Life
Chapter 12 Bombs on Britain
Chapter 13 Opening the Chinese Puzzle Box
Chapter 14 Falling in Love Again
Chapter 15 Clouds over the Peking Picnic
Chapter 16 Reprise
Chapter 17 ‘Patience on a monument, smiling at grief?’

Select Bibliography

Helen Graham, Professor of Spanish History at Royal Holloway, University of London
The Volunteer June 2012
‘This is a subtle, moving story – exquisitely told.’
Patience Darton’s life spanned the turbulent 20th century across two continents. Not only was she a witness, but she also left a remarkable eloquent and original written record in the form of correspondence, the heart of this extraordinary biography by historian Angela Jackson.
... Jackson charts, in a vivid and engaging manner, Patience Darton’s extraordinary ‘outward’ journey, from her battles against London hospital bureaucracy – themselves revealing of the sever limitations of British ‘democracy’ in the pre-1945 world – and her midwife’s view of the struggle for survival among the urban poor of East End London to a memorable encounter with the exiled Ethiopian ruler, Haile Selassie, on the doorstep of her Bloomsbury church, and reaches the story’s heart in civil war-torn Spain. The story of ‘Spain’, i.e., of a deeply felt personal commitment to the same cause of social justice that had first fixed Patience’s resolve among London’s poor, is told in a fresh way that draws in the reader immediately. In particular, the picture she paints of front-line nursing in Republican Spain is vividly rendered, and the telling of its traumatic toll on the medical personnel recalls those edgy truths later brought to us by productions such as M.A.S.H.
But even more than all of this, Jackson gives us, again in hugely evocative – but always precise – prose, the story of Patience’s remarkably inner journey:

‘You are quite right in saying that it is only in struggling and fighting, not only outside things but things inside ourselves, that make a person. […] Anyway I made a person out of myself, and became an individual with a life and work of my own.’

This is what makes the book stand out as a real gem. Patience’s story is extraordinary – inner struggle, existential becoming, self-fulfillment, tragedy, gritty survival, mental fortitude and undying love-in-memory. But the power lies in the telling, in the way in which Patience herself was supremely capable of revealing her experiences in luminous prose. Patience’s words, her wit, and her arresting, often heartbreaking, style, are the secret weapons in this story…
... Patience Darton’s life is an encapsulation of some of the 20th century’s most critical moments. Without an ounce of didacticism, her life shows the reader the abiding truth of ‘the personal is political’. No didacticism then, just a truth rendered with grace and melancholy (wrenching understatement is Patience’s forte) and delivered in a way that speaks directly to the sensibilities of the contemporary reader… Patience’s is a unique voice that locks into a rich seam of memory, illuminating the big historical picture while never losing sight of the particularity of heartbreaking loss. This is a subtle, moving story, exquisitely told.

Fiona Flores Watson, Books4Spain, B4S Reviews, June 2012
‘A moving and illuminating book.’
This is a moving and illuminating book – a wonderful, if extremely sad, love story, infused with selfless political dedication, it also provides a fascinating insight into English involvement with two key periods in countries which experienced major political upheaval and conflict during the 20th century: Spain, with its Civil War, and the International Brigades’ involvement; and newly-Communist China, with its idealistic foreign ‘revolutionaries’.

Richard Baxell, International Brigade Memorial Trust Newsletter, May 2012
‘An extraordinary life and an engaging biography... genuinely moving.’
A nurse’s life in war-torn Spain was not an easy one and this biography presents a clear picture of the impossible conditions under which the nurses were forced to operate, with hospitals and ambulances deliberately targeted by Franco’s forces…
In the 1950s, Patience turned her efforts towards Mao’s China, carrying on the work she had begun in Spain. While there are accounts by other Spanish veterans who went on to work in China, this is not an area that has been widely written about so this section is particularly interesting.

Michael Eaude, Catalonia Today, April 2012
‘A fine, fluent writer who structures her books particularly well.’
This biography of a British nurse who spent 18 months in Catalonia is full of rich drama – nursing the terrible wounded in infernal conditions, a tragic love affair, a noble and flawed heroine and a deeply moving climax. Angela Jackson tells Patience’s story with both sympathy and historical rigour. Her style is fluid; she does not shrink from controversies and she succeeds in portraying Patience in her several contradictions and writing about her times ... She is careful to give the work of nurses its due value, yet not set them on a pedestal as ‘angels of mercy.’

Dr Nick Coni, The Royal Society of Medicine Newsletter, March 2012
A ‘very fine and well-written biography.’
Through interviews and letters, Angela Jackson paints an unforgettable picture of an intrepid, stubborn, indomitable character, a woman of great ability who might not have made a very comfortable friend or lover, but whose concern for others was a driving force throughout her life.

Lucia Graves, author of A Woman Unknown and The Memory House, Books4Spain, October 2012
‘Angela’s account of Patience Darton’s life is, without doubt, an indispensable testimony of the 20th century!’
This is an extraordinary book, and not just because it will by now have become an important piece of source material. Angela has tirelessly researched, selected and organised facts in such a way that light shines on them from many different angles. But more than that, her fine narrative, always clearly set within its historical framework (I was so interested in the later China episodes!) has all the pace and engagement of an unputdownable novel, while small details bring Patience’s story to life – the condensed milk tins used as lamps; the Spanish refugee whose child was killed – ‘machine-gunning refugees is terrible, terrible’; the moving last scene of Patience’s return to Spain … Angela’s account of Patience Darton’s life is, without doubt, an indispensable testimony of the 20th century!

Christine E. Hallett, The Bulletin of the UK History of Nursing Association, Volume 1, Issue 2, November 2012
‘A remarkable and moving piece of work. Reading it is an emotional as well as an intellectual experience ...’
Part of the art of history writing is the ability to offer insight into a subject matter that may be highly emotional, whilst taking several steps back and giving a purely dispassionate account. Angela Jackson perhaps deliberately takes fewer steps back than most. Her book is rawer, more personal and more immediate than many biographies.
... Jackson’s determination to capture not just the actions of this most remarkable nurse, but also the ‘passion, grief and fortitude’ with which they were infused, make this book a remarkable and moving piece of work. Reading it is an emotional as well as an intellectual experience, and this makes it a unique and impressive achievement. I am pleased to recommend this beautifully-written biography of an extraordinary woman, to nurses, historians and lay readers alike, all of whom will find it an enriching experience.

Anne Logan, University of Kent
Women’s History Magazine, Issue 70, Autumn 2012
‘ immensely satisfying biography...’
Patience is not always the most sympathetic of subjects (she comes over at times as an imperious, opinionated and as a somewhat inappropriately named individual) but Jackson treats her words and views with care and contextualises them, as well as allowing Patience to speak for herself in lengthy quotations from the interviews and her letters. As such, the book is a revealing and meticulous study of a member of a generation largely now no longer with us, whose cadences and slang, together with their political commitments and reactions to momentous world events, are here preserved in the written word... The poignant tale of her relationship with a young, German Jewish International Brigader is told by Jackson with great sensitivity and may well linger in the reader’s mind long after details of Darton’s nursing assignments are forgotten... It is, however, the blend of ‘personal and political’, and the way in which Patience was both an individual and a representative of so many in her generation that make this biography particularly special. It deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in the seismic international events of the mid-twentieth century.

Tom Buchanan, Director of Studies in Modern History and Politics, Kellogg College, University of Oxford, writing in Labour History Review, December 2013
Jackson tells the story of [Patience Darton’s] life with great skill and balance…
In all, this book is a fine tribute to a complex woman of incredible resolve, whose unusual career took her to the heart of two of the greatest social and political upheavals of the mid-twentieth century.

Bulletin of Spanish Studies, Volume XCI, Number 3, 2014
‘A fine, sensitive and moving study of a British nurse ... We gain an insight into Darton as a moral being forging her own values.’
Angela Jackson’s fine, sensitive and moving study of a British nurse who offered her services in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939 helps us understand volunteers to Spain in a different light. It does so both by directing our attention away from male political and military volunteers and through the interweaving of Patience Darton’s personal and political life. In this way, Jackson moves the field of view from the power of Moscow to order cadres to Spain and to shackle them to the cause with stultifying fear. Equally, rather than seeing individuals as dupes of malign powers, in Jackson’s study we gain an insight into Darton as a moral being forging her own values. Peter Anderson University of Leeds

Footsteps, by the author
The path that led me to live in this beautiful area of Catalonia – the Priorat – was without doubt, an unusual and fortuitous one. The story began in Cambridge when I was at university for the first time as a mature student. The degree course on Spanish history included the civil war in the 1930s, a subject I found fascinating. I had the chance to submit an individual project and decided to make a documentary about the British volunteers in the International Brigades who had gone to Spain to support the Republican government. I found out that some of the veterans, despite being over eighty years old, were still very active, continuing to ‘fight fascism’ in the group they had formed when they returned home, ‘The International Brigade Association’. When I contacted them to ask for interviews, they agreed to help. This was how I first met Patience, an English nurse who had worked close to the front lines during the civil war. What an unforgettable character she was; very determined in nature, with a sharp sense of humour. She was more than willing to help a student like myself, but certainly not inclined to live up to her name if things were not to her liking! We became good friends. When I realised that nobody had written much about the involvement of British women in the war, I thought it would make a wonderful subject for a doctoral thesis. This was later published as British Women and the Spanish Civil War. During the process of research, Patience often spoke to me of a provisional hospital set up in a large cave, close to the village of La Bisbal de Falset in the mountains of the Priorat. She described how hard the work had been there, nursing under terrible conditions with shortages of almost everything except lice, trying to save the lives of soldiers wounded during the Battle of the Ebro. She recalled with anguish the death of so many young men there and the tragedy of the defeat of the Republic. But she also had clear recollections of the beauty of the countryside and the bravery of the Spanish people in the fight against Franco. She never spoke of a German Brigader, Robert, nor of his death at the front during the Battle of the Ebro.
... In 1996, the veterans of the International Brigades received an invitation from the Spanish government to return to Spain and be awarded honorary Spanish citizenship. I was in Madrid with Patience and the group of British Brigaders. It was the first time she had returned to Spain in the six decades since the war. She explained that she had never gone back before because it was in Spain that she had lost the love of her life, a German International Brigader called Robert. As we travelled around the city, the Brigaders were applauded in the streets and a huge cheering crowd filled the stadium where a concert was held to welcome them. The next day I was with her when she died in hospital.
... In the year 2000, while spending a holiday in Catalonia with my husband, I remembered the vivid stories that Patience had told me about the time she had spent in the cave hospital. It seemed an ideal opportunity to go to look for it and see for myself exactly what it was like. With the help of local people from the nearby village, I finally found it. The cave was the same, but the atmosphere was very different from those war-time days. Now all was peaceful, the wounded and dying long gone. It had become a perfect site for fiestas and picnics with no clue as to what had happened there in the past. The villagers began telling me their memories of the war; stories that had never been told to the outside world. Clearly, it was a subject for further research. I went back to carry out interviews that eventually featured in a book, Beyond the Battlefield, telling what happened in the cave during the war by drawing on the memories of locals and the foreign staff of the medical services in International Brigades, Patience included.
... When my husband retired, we decided to try to find somewhere to live in Spain. We spent months looking all over for the ideal place, without finding anywhere as perfect as the Priorat. Ten years ago, we came to live here. With the intention of writing a short article about Patience, I contacted her son to ask if he had kept his mother’s papers. He eventually found them. When he showed me the piles of fragile, yellowed documents and the old albums of photographs for the first time, it was an unforgettable moment for me. The collection contained not only the letters that Robert had written to Patience during the civil war, but also, astonishingly, the letters that Patience had written to him. The correspondence is full of vitality: their ideals and their love for each other, occasional arguments and grumbles, their hopes for the future and the almost overwhelming sadness at being separated by war. With these letters and other material from her collection, I was able to write Patience’s biography, entitled For us it was Heaven.
... Now, within that cave there is a plaque bearing the image of Patience to commemorate the work carried out by the medical services during the civil war. As I look out of my window at the distant mountains where the Battle of the Ebro was fought, I realise how fortunate I was to meet Patience, not only because she was such a remarkable woman but also because tracing her footsteps led me to live in the Priorat.

Reviewed in Italian, Spagna contemporanea (2014).

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