The Margery Book

I am not sure I would have immediately warmed to my great aunt, Margaret Barber, had we met in the flesh (nor she to me) but sadly we never had the chance to size each other up. She drove a lot of people mad, not least that side of the family to whose class she was an unabashed traitor. She was, in modern parlance, a piece of work. The line between indefatigable and insufferable can be a thin one when the person in question is a saint; there can be no question that Margery, as she was known by family and friends, crossed it more than once. She was, nevertheless, quite genuinely kind and good, and beautiful with it. She inspired abiding love from those, generally the least of the least, to whose side she rushed whenever the opportunity arose. The tears shed over her coffin, a gimcrack thing that would have pleased her mightily, betokened real sorrow on the part of friends and neighbors in Simferopol. If she was covetous of anything, it was of the chance to serve and save — in the secular sense, that is. She was raised in the Anglican communion and knew her Trinity Sunday from her Advent, but her goodness was robustly God-less, her Jesus thoroughly mortal, and the closest thing to His reincarnation, as she saw it, was one Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

She died at 77 in 1965. She was living in Crimea, then part of the Soviet Union. I was at boarding school in Sussex, aged 9. Her brother, my grandfather, would look in from time to time and I suppose he must have mentioned her to me but at that age I wasn’t paying much attention. Then, when she was dying, my father went to see about bringing his aunt — whom he had never met, either — back to England. He was working for the London Sunday Telegraph at the time as its Washington correspondent. The newspaper underwrote his travel costs, correctly figuring that the story of this eccentric English expatriate would interest its readers. The Soviet authorities slow-walked his travel permit — foreign journalists then and now were unwelcome in Crimea — only relenting in time for him to attend her funeral. I learnt about her first from his article.

The daughter of a socialist-leaning but socially connected vicar, Margery had been a nurse during the first world war, starting in the Balkans. Captured by the Austrians, she was repatriated and found a berth caring for victims of genocide in Armenia, operating out of Russia. There she was caught up in the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution. She shared the Reds’ ideals and wanted to stay but was once more repatriated after being taken prisoner by the Whites in 1919. She was lucky to survive; her fellow prisoners were shot. She wrote a book about her experience, “A British Nurse in Bolshevik Russia”, which H.G. Wells was pleased to mention in a footnote. The British authorities resisted her efforts to return to Russia until 1922 when, with nudging from the Archbishop of Canterbury, they restored her passport. And so she went back, this time as a relief worker in the great famine triggered by the revolution and ensuing civil war.

She never came home, but she did stay in touch. She adored her mother and father, her father particularly, and wrote as often as she could. Her father preserved her letters in scrapbooks with commentary and news clippings from shortly before her Balkan adventure, when she experimented with emigration to Canada, until his death in 1928. Her mother didn’t persevere with the scrapbook but did continue to collect her daughter’s letters in more of less chronological order until the early thirties. After that we have to rely on third party accounts until 1994 when Margaret writes home to reassure the family that she has survived — just — the Nazi occupation. From then until her death, she wrote quite frequently to her younger brother Clement, my grandfather. He saved the letters, too.

Over time, the scrapbooks, loose letters and sundry other bit ands pieces collected by my father found their way into a box, waiting to be turned into a book. This, in the making, is that book.