Dave Widgery

[The Tamarisk Tree]

(February 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.85, February 1976, pp.30-31. (review)
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Tamarisk Tree: My Quest for Freedom and Love
Dora Russell
Elek/Pemberton. £5.95

Dora Russell’s autobiography covers 50 years of free thought, educational radicalism and independent socialism amongst that curious species, the English intelligensia. Such was the vanishing breed’s sheer bravado that they could move easily from Bloomsbury breakfasts to Bolshevik mass rallies and be sarcastic about both, so the book’s index ranges easily from Ernie Bevin to Ludwig Wittgenstein. For readers interested in the Bolshevik end of the spectrum there are some brilliant portraits, informed always by Dora Russell’s acute and illuminating feminism.

She visited Russia in 1920 seeking out Kollantai and attending a women’s conference at the Bolshoi Ballet Theatre where peasant and working women of all ages ‘spoke with the direct and simple warmth that I have now come to know in assemblies of women the world over, when, stirred by some common purpose, they open their mouths for the first time ever in public’. She was in French-occupied Saigon, brushed against Mao in Peking and lectured extensively in America. She was active in the Workers Birth Control Group’s agitation in the Labour Party of the twenties where she noted how Marion Phillips, the Women’s Organiser ‘existed, not so much to support the demands of the women, as to keep them in order from the point of view of the male politicians’ and in the Abortion Law Reform Campaign, slightly shocked by that ‘holy terror’ Stella Browne, and who ‘made no bones about raising the abortion issue in meetings and. wisps of hair floating from her untidy coiffure, would resist all efforts of a Chairman to put her down’. She helped organise the World League of Sex Reform’s 1930 London conference.

Wars and revolutions, eminent men and women weave in and out of her own passionate personal life. For ten years Bertrand Russell was married to her, at his insistence. But as he grew more conservative he backed down on his own principles and their joint agreement to force painful and heartless divorce proceedings.

She also tells in the most passionate section of the book of her love for a Devonshire CPer Paul Gillard who was involved in clandestine anti-fascist activity against William Joyce’s Black Shirt base in Plymouth. After the progressive school at Beacon Hill was attacked by right-wingers who replaced its red flag with a Union Jack, Gillard was found dead on a railwayline in sinister circumstances. This final blow and the sadism of the divorce courts hearing nearly broke Dora Russell’s fine spirit. What’s more, having loved two men in free union she was deserted by both and found herself holding all four babies.

Her personal life was deeply coloured by the fortunes of the feminist and socialist movement, her private happiness boundless in the early twenties, evaporating in the thirties. Much of her political life was spent defying taboos; she and Russell were really the last of the Edwardian Enlightenment rather than modern socialists. Some of her efforts are easy to belittle and, as she admits, efforts like their school at Beacon Hill proved exhausting and of little immediate effect. But at a time when university lecturers were sacked for being cited in divorce cases, when Russell himself was imprisoned for his sexual views and when a rigid sex morality was publicly enforced, these acts of defiance had a value and required a courage it’s hard to appreciate nowadays. For a woman the public stigma was that much greater and nastier.

Dora Russell remained upper-middle class staying within the world of private doctors, Letters to the Editor, groceries by cheque and mayonaisse-making taught by a Belgian bohemian, with olive oil, drop by drop. Her first identification with working class people was romantic ‘like the lady who wanted to run away with the gypsies’. But by the time of the General Strike she takes an active but still honorary role on the Penzance Strike Committee. But, after some fairly bitter experiences with the educated left and involved again during the Hunger Marches she writes of a new level of identification.

‘I felt I was really seeing my own people for the first time ... Their faces were lovely. Devonshire men. Welshmen. Cornishmen, pale mothers from Scotland. I feel like them and I am like them, and like the real people one meets in pubs, or like the real artists and writers, not the fake snobs of Bloomsbury’.

This is no ordinary political biography, it continually comes alight because it is not an authorised version, doctored and served up cold but the verdict of a woman who broke with her background, her class, her education and with much of the middle class left in order to live as she wished.


Last updated on 19.10.2006