Monday 23 February 2015

Nancy Spain: Wrens and same-sex love

It's LGBT History Month. So it's appropriate to talk here about the most famous ex-Wren who loved women: broadcaster and writer Nancy Spain (1917–1964).

Second Officer Spain (fourth from right, front row) in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Nick Werner Laurie, from Rose Collis's "A Trouser-wearing character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain", Cassell, London, 1997.

Think of an early Sandi Toksvig. Exuberant, heavy-eyebrowed, a toughish-talking wit from Newcastle, Nancy Spain was one of the most dynamic, mould-breaking women of the 1950s - because she was so bold.
But she never came out in public – not least because it would have wrecked her career as writer.
And while someone’s relationship is her own business, Nancy’s private life is important because it shows us two things: that there were women who disregarded patriarchal norms; and that in the 1940s and 50s even the bold ones needed be very circumspect about revealing their secret if they didn’t want to be pilloried.

From 1940-44 Nancy was in the wartime Wrens in the London press office. So she was partly responsible for forming the image of the WRNS we still have today. Her jobs included spinning news and suppressing revelations - of the very kind that could have been made about her.
Of course there was never a public whiff of Wrens having unorthodox relationships, or even loving friendships. However, many sailors whispered the usual urban myth: that Wrens who didn’t across were secretly those who batted for the non-heterosexual side.

Does the sea link matter? Perhaps not. After all, Nancy was not a port-based or seafaring or even boat’s crew Wren. Nor was her main partner, Joan ‘Jonny’ Werner Laurie (1920-1964) (pictured below). And they didn’t meet until they’d both left the WRNS.
But being in the WRNS, a somewhat feminist-all-women organisation, at a time of loosened ties when many wartime service workers away from home were exploring daring new identities, was very helpful to Nancy in living in a way that felt right to her. Any wartime service is significant for that reason.

Certainly Nancy’s boss was a role model for her in many way. Deep-voiced Esta Eldod , the WRNS principal Press Officer, lived with her dearest friend, promoted a photographic history of the WRNS that showed women as mechanics and in non-traditional roles, and was so confidently witty that that few would have dared to challenge her.
So this women-only, quite feminist organisation was a place where lower-ranked women would be shuffled away and whispered about, but higher-echelon women were supported in being unorthodox ‘characters’ living breezily, unmarried, in a style they chose.
Nancy went on to do so as a London journalist and writer, with several secret love nests. She had a son she passed off as Joan’s, and whom she may have had as a gift to Joan (who also had another live-in lover, Sheila Van Damm).


Rose Collis’s biography of Nancy, A Trouser-wearing Character, devotes a chapter to Nancy’s time as part of naval services.
And Rachel Cooke’s brief biographical chapter in Her Brilliant Career comments on Nancy’s ‘swashbuckling social climbing … not for nothing did Nancy’s friend think of her as a pirate.’ Did the Jack Tar style rub off on her?
But Nancy also learned chutzpah from novelist Naomi Jacobs, says Rachel. And anyway by the time Nancy went to boarding school (Roedean) her character was formed, according to Rose.

If Nancy hadn’t died young in a plane crash what might she have made of the queer-friendly climate that developed only ten years later, when women from Gateways, her lesbian club, helped develop a supportive culture?
Today the Navy’s 3,000 women include out lesbians. And the Navy is in Stonewall’s top 100 gay-friendly employers. Second Officer Spain would have been seen as perfectly unremarkable.

RN Second Sea Lord David Steel hands a pledge to Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt, 2014.

Tuesday 10 February 2015

HER foreign forays in HIS ship: Eleanor Reid’s 1799 voyage reviewed

Few women sailed the late eighteenth-century seas. Fewer still wrote about it.
And female seafarers were rare. But it could be argued that wives of the captains of merchant vessels worked, unwaged,as diplomats, go-betweens, unofficial human resources experts, ad hoc Chief Mates,and providers of emotional labour.
Eleanor Reid is one, sailing to Australia in 1799 on a ship of the East India company, when she was only 21.
The usual problem with the very rare autobiographical accounts by such travelers is that they lack a cultural interpreter, ideally one who is gender-aware.
So Joan Druett’s interpellations are welcome in this, her edited version of Eleanor's Odyssey. A maritime historian of women, Druett is particularly acclaimed for her books on whaling wives.

‘Odyssey’ is the right word. This is an account of seafaring from the proprietor’s wife’s benign perspective.
It’s also a story in six episodes of what Eleanor saw of many countries, including India and Southern Africa, and what she made of the people she met with such humanity.

Eleanor’s is not quite a counter-version of Grand Tour narratives. She, like privileged tourists, met local elites, was borne on palanquins and viewed ‘the poor natives’.
The difference is that she does so within a party of global citizens, seafarers of many backgrounds, who offer her cultural interpretations, for example about cannibals. She travels not with chaperone and maid, but with many Lascars, three score sheep, and a human cargo of 176 Gaelic-speaking Irish convicts to whom Eleanor’s kindly husband, Hugh, allows much sage leeway.
In terms of class and gender I was fascinated that when Eleanor met ex-pat bigwigs she was not disdained on class grounds, as ‘only a captain’s wife’. And indeed a wife’s presence helped him be accepted in places where a ‘commercial trader’ would have been inadmissible.
Her account gives evidence of intermittent avid homosociality mixed with wider hospitality. She’s heartily welcomed by lonely European women in outposts who relish a lady visitor dropping anchor.
Such settlers give her hospitality for many weeks in some cases, imagining she’d rather be ashore. In fact she likes the ship. So this is partly a story of the Friendship, as her cozy ship-home, progressing oddly unproblematically across the oceans, interrupted by ports and strangers.

If only Mrs Reid had told us about what the different stopping points meant to her. How useful it would have been to hear her comparisons of the many places where she does a civilized version of exploring of the natural history and social anthropology.
Druett refers to Reid and her husband having to quickly ‘decipher’ existing social situations as they land at new ports.
Reid’s final account is as tactful as this unofficial diplomat herself must have been in these encounters with ‘savages’ and early colonials. It’s carefully under-controversial, so we too have a lot to decipher.
Emotions and subjectivity are often missing from men's ‘we did this, we found that’-style memoirs. And feelings are little present in this careful account too.
Many scholars are working on how women's voices have been silenced or distorted by hegemonic patriarchy. So an introduction explaining the narrative’s early nineteenth century production would have helped.
For example, can we ever know how much Captain Reid or an unknown editor (it was serialized in the Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China and Australia, 1819-1820) shaped Eleanor’s initial account? What subtle social insights got lost on the cutting room floor as her story was organized into a marketable public account twenty years on?
This is a rich addition to women’s maritime historiography, enhanced very much by images on almost every other page.
The book is also, quietly, a useful side-angle on Irish rebel history and that of the European women unusually living overseas, in the days of imperial domination.

Eleanor's Odyssey: Journal of the Captain's Wife on the East Indiaman Friendship, 1799-1801 (Old Salt Press, New Jersey , 2014, ISBN: 9780994115218).
Joan Druett’s’s blog about it can be read at