For Us It Was Heaven: the Passion, Grief and Fortitude of Patience Darton. From the Spanish Civil War to Mao’s China. By Angela Jackson
Review by Fiona Flores Watson www.scribblerinseville.com
Having recently reviewed Paul Preston’s excellent Doves of War, about four women whose lives were changed forever by their work during the Spanish Civil War, this book by Angela Jackson was the ideal follow-up – indeed, its foreword is by Preston himself. For Us It Was Heaven follows the fascinating life of the redoubtable Patience Darton, an upper-class girl and committed Communist who worked as a nurse in Republican hospitals during the Civil War.
In common with other women who were in Spain during this turbulent, perilous period, Patience Darton was brave, passionate, and totally dedicated to her beliefs. In her case, the cause was the fight against fascism. Born in Orpington, Kent, she trained as a nurse at UCH in London and volunteered to work in Spain, arriving in March 1937. Patience Darton stayed until October 1938, when the International Brigades withdrew.
Working mostly in field hospitals, her experiences encompassed all the toughest conditions endured during the conflict: everything from lack of food, water, basic medicines and clothing (for both staff and patients), to extreme heat and cold, and illness. But despite these deprivations, she was an efficient nurse, and characteristically outspoken, especially about women’s rights and the treatment of the local nursing auxiliaries, although she was often considered snooty and arrogant by others due to her posh accent.
While working at a casa de reposo (convalescent home) in Valls, near Tarragona, Patience Darton met a German-Jewish member of the International Brigades called Robert Aaquist, who was a dedicated anti-fascist. Patience was swept away by her feelings: “I was just absurdly happy, I didn’t know what about, till I remembered that Robert had said he wouldn’t go to the Casa de Reposo unless I was there… I realized then that I’d fallen hopelessly in love with him.” We learn about their – mostly distance – relationship through their correspondence: arguments, flirtations, jealousies, misunderstandings, anxieties, ideological discussions, apologies. They did enjoy odd few, intense days together, during one of which precious periods they got married; they talked about having children. The title refers to Patience and Robert’s short-lived, all-consuming love.
Before the Battle of the Ebro, Patience Darton was sent to work in a cave hospital close to the river. During the next few weeks, as well as treating many injured soldiers, she met a local mayor who had been an illiterate peasant living in a village where the locals “belonged to” the landowner, with no rights. Then the villagers were told they had to divide up the land, but no one had any idea how to do this. This man was elected mayor, and he learned how to read and write, and took charge of allotting land to his constituents; he was also summoned to Barcelona and told to prepare food for refugees. “I became a man,” the mayor told her, “and that’s what we’re fighting for.” This conversation about the empowerment of humble Spanish country folk marked Patience, encapsulating as it did her strong belief in social justice, at a practical and fundamental level.
Soon after the battle, Patience got word that Robert has been killed by a mine. Devastated to have lost him, she carried on working, until the International Brigades were sent out of Spain. In December 1938, she arrived back England, where she gave speeches at meetings in support of the Spanish Republic, raised money for refugees, and taught nurses about new techniques invented during the conflict, including the triage system, using bottled blood for transfusions, and avoiding gas gangrene in wounds.
In the 1950s, Patience Darton went to live in China with other communists, where she worked on English-language publications. There, she met and married a man named Eric Edney, an ex-member of the International Brigades. Another of her fellow expats was Nan Green, one of Preston’s Doves of War. Patience and Eric had a son, named Bobby after Robert Aaquist, who remained the love of her life.
She returned to London after four years, working in libraries and academic institutions. Years later, in 1996, aged 85, this remarkable woman revisited to Spain for the first time since the War – “some places I wouldn’t like to go back to, they had too many memories”, she said – and attended a dedication ceremony to the International Brigades at the Arganda Bridge, near Madrid. While at a concert in honour of the foreign soldiers, Patience Darton was cheered on stage – the only woman. A few days later, having slipped into a coma, she died. In her will, Patience asked to be cremated wrapped in Robert’s bloodstained greatcoat, which she had kept all those years.
This is a moving and illuminating book by Angela Jackson
– 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”.
© Books4Spain Ltd 2012 This review may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of Books4Spain
Fiona Flores Watson is an English journalist who has lived in Andalucia for eight years, where she writes articles and blogs for various websites, magazines and newspapers, reads endlessly about Spain’s culture and history, and tries to bring up her two bilingual young children with English manners and Spanish zest for life.