Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Writers, Outsiders, and the Spanish Civil War

Image of Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Writers, Outsiders, and the Spanish Civil War
Release Date: 
May 9, 2023
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“Watling’s deep research allows her to mine intimate views of these women, in both their public and private lives, and to recreate how each took up the cause.”

Here’s an untold story of the Spanish Civil War.

When Francisco Franco and other disaffected generals began their fascist coup against the elected Republican government of Spain in 1936, individuals throughout the world were alarmed. Many were women—writers, intellectuals, outsiders—who saw the war as a fight for the survival of democracy itself.

“To them, it was right and wrong, good and evil, hope and despair: resisting fascism or succumbing to it,” writes Sarah Watling in Tomorrow Perhaps the Future, her splendid account of the remarkable women who took part in the struggle. “Choosing a side in the war was a moral imperative and a straightforward one.”

The women included Martha Gellhorn, Nancy Cunard, Virginia Woolf, and many others who “saw history coming and went out to meet it.”

For most it was an opportunity to halt the global advance of fascism.

Against the brutal background of the war itself, Watling explores the motives and convictions of these foreigners as they risked their lives to call attention to the Republican cause. She draws on diaries, books, dispatches, and other sources to create a nuanced, absorbing tapestry of women drawn to Spain.

“What’s unusual about the Spanish Civil War . . . is how much it mattered to people who had nothing to do with Spain,” she observes.

The British author Nancy Cunard, renegade heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune, poet, publisher, and activist, emerges as a dominant figure among the group. In 1937, she issued a call to Britain’s writers: “Now, as certainly never before, we are determined, or compelled, to take sides. The equivocal attitude…will no longer do.”

Cunard was “primed to see Spain as the ultimate expression of global leftist solidarity.”

Josephine Herbst, one of the leading novelists of the American 1930s, agreed. “My most vital life did indeed end with Spain,” she declared.

In Britain, best-selling author Sylvia Townsend Warner lived in a “lesbian, communist household” with a little-known young poet and socialite, Valentine Ackland, 24, who spurred Warner’s growing political commitment. The couple helped organize their local community, wrote to newspapers, sold the Daily Worker, and pasted up posters attacking the British Union of Fascists.

Warner was “marginal many times over—female, unmarried, countryside-dwelling, politically unconventional, lesbian, and now almost middle-aged.” She found herself writing, “The choice for all who think and feel is already between Fascism and socialism.” Hitler’s contempt for individual rights, she insisted, could mean “nothing but destruction.”

Another British communist, Nan Green, who ran a second-hand bookstall, joined her musician husband George on the Republican side in Spain. She worked there as an administrator in hospitals. Before the couple left England, “you might see [Nan] selling the Daily Worker near Russell Square station: a neat, energetic figure with short dark hair, plying her trade beside an ageing prostitute and a man selling chestnuts.”

At home, the Greens published a newsletter, Crescendo. While their two young children turned the handle of the duplicating machine and Nan printed, all of them recited, “I am driving a nail into the coffin of capitalism.”

Watling conveys nicely the passion and determination of these women. We see Martha Gellhorn, novelist, travel writer, and journalist (and third wife of Ernest Hemingway), waiting in Spain for the shelling to start (“War suited her”), on assignment for Collier’s magazine.

Writes the author: “At this point in her life, Martha believed that journalism could create change, that injustice went unremedied because not enough people knew about it. Most could not come to Spain and see the shelling of Madrid, the blood in the streets: that was what she could do. Her job, she came to believe, was “to be the eyes for their conscience.”

She would go on to come one of the most celebrated war correspondents of the century.

Watling’s deep research allows her to mine intimate views of these women, in both their public and private lives, and to recreate how each took up the cause.

Words were their weapons.

A Cambridge graduate, Sarah Watling offers a rousing story and an important new vantage on the impact of a conflict that foreshadowed the coming of World War II.