Jan 2005 Journal

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Rightful place in history restored (review)

Susan Pedersen
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004, 469pp.

Do not, whatever else you fail to read this year, miss this absorbing, readable, scholarly, entertaining biography of Eleanor Rathbone. It is not only because her story, and the last decade of her life, intermingles so closely with the lives of so many refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria. That would be reason enough to start reading Pedersen's huge work. But it is because Pedersen achieves a full picture of Rathbone, warts and all, shy, grand, overawed by her father, beloved by some of her siblings, the public person as well as the private one. Though Rathbone's companion for most of her adult life, Elizabeth Macadam, destroyed almost all the papers, which suggests a desire for privacy, Pedersen's researches give us the feel of Eleanor's family, the strong Quaker background - though Unitarian and Anglican in practice by the time of Eleanor's childhood, the wealth, the privilege, the sense of being trapped by family. A complex, passionate, independent, proud woman emerges most powerfully.

Many regarded Eleanor Rathbone as her father's true heir - rather than her brothers. The 'seventh William Rathbone', as she was perceived, was independent in spirit and an independent in politics, first on Liverpool City Council, and later in Parliament. From 1929 on, her life changed. Her earlier campaigns for an income for women, for family allowances, for recognising the poverty of women, remained. But, suffragist, feminist, campaigner for women that she was, the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 and the Abyssinian crisis of 1935 made peace her key issue. Her attention turned to sanctions against Italy, and the unified - as she saw it - Fascist threat from Italy and Germany. After Kristallnacht, her real organising and inspirational powers emerged. With three others, she set up the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees, and she fought and fought. If ministers or officials did not listen, or disagreed, she broadcast their views widely. If she found a modicum of sympathy, as she did with a young Foreign Office official, Montague-Pollock, she would inundate them with letters daily. She was determined; she had no party machinery to keep her quiet, and she had strong beliefs. 'She knew that Jews were being subjected to terrible privation and brutality simply on the grounds of their Jewishness'. And, after April 1939, she condemned the British government's policy of 'selfish isolationism' and urged Britain to take responsibility 'for populations not tied to it by political obligation or control'. Why?

Presumably, her strong religious background played a part. With government failing to act, she drew their attention increasingly to the horrors experienced by Jews in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, and began to condemn: 'A Cabinet is a collective entity, and such an entity has proverbially neither a body to be kicked nor a soul to be damned. Yet sometimes as I gaze across the House at the serried rows of rather uninspiring personalities on the Treasury bench, I am tempted to wish that they had indeed a collective soul, which could be condemned to spend eternity in seeing and feeling the torments which their policy has caused others to continue enduring, whilst their individual souls reposed in some insipid Paradise, listening to music played upon antiquated instruments.' As the House adjourned on 4 August 1939, she told them they should spare a thought for 'those hundreds of thousands of men and women who are wandering about in utmost destitution, many of them hiding by day, many of them already in the hands of the Gestapo.'

Her later work for refugees, and in securing the release of Jews from internment on the Isle of Man and elsewhere, is well known. But she passed out of the limelight. Despite her verve, passion and sheer effectiveness, she was largely forgotten, whilst less able and effective women politicians were remembered and celebrated. Yet her work lives on, not only in what she did for refugees, but in the recognition that family poverty matters. This is a biography that restores its subject to her rightful place in history. It makes compelling reading.
Julia Neuberger

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