Recent acquisitions, or, Isabel de Palencia and the magic that is AbeBooks

I may have mentioned once or twice that I have a slight addiction to early 20th-century books on Spain, which has, on occasion, proved fairly expensive. Happily, however, the gems one turns up in a half hour’s browsing on AbeBooks or Antiqbooks are often as likely to cost in the £1s or £10s as in the £100s… This week I was excited to take delivery of two books ordered during a quiet half hour in the office last week (fortunately, there aren’t too many quiet half hours in the office, or the already overburdened local post office would be even more overburdened and therefore likely to hold onto my lovely books even longer than they did this time round… still, at least they didn’t keep it for more than a week like they did my much-anticipated DVD of North and South, which finally arrived on Saturday last).

So these two books are both by the Spanish journalist, writer and diplomat Isabel Oyarzábal Smith de Palencia (Malaga, 1878 – Mexico City, 1974): I Must Have Liberty (1940) and Smouldering Freedom (1945). As you can probably tell from her unusual collection of surnames, Oyarzábal was half Spanish (with Basque roots) and half British (with Scottish roots); she was brought up bilingual in Spanish and English, which is why the two books I’ve just acquired, like several of her others, were written directly in English. I knew a little bit about Oyarzábal already, mostly because of her Anglo connection, which brings her into the orbit of my interest in Anglo-Spanish relations since the 19th century, but also because she began publishing during the 1900s and so is one of the women included in my database project Spain’s Women Intellectuals, 1890-1920 – but the books are throwing up all sorts of fascinating connections.

Oyarzábal grew up in Malaga during the last decades of the 19th century, a city with a significant British colony – see here for transcriptions of the sometimes very moving memorials in Malaga’s English cemetery.* Her Scottish mother Annie M Smith and her father Juan Oyarzábal  y Bucelli had met in Malaga when Annie, aged 17, was visiting a schoolfriend whose family were leading lights in the colony. They married in Glasgow in 1874, a few months before Annie’s 19th birthday, and then settled in Malaga, where Isabel and her siblings were raised. During her adolescence and the years before her own marriage, Oyarzábal frequently visited her mother’s family and her own friends in the UK – we find her, for example, on the 1901 English census, staying with the Im Thurn family in Park Road, Beckenham. She worked for a number of years as Spanish correspondent for several British newspapers, including The [Evening] Standard and The Illustrated London News, as well as running her own Spanish magazine, La Dama (The Lady). In 1909, Isabel married Ceferino de Palencia, the artist son of the renowned Spanish actress Maria Tubau, and unusually for a Spanish woman, took her husband’s name, writing thereafter as Isabel de Palencia.

So, what of these two books? I Must Have Freedom is Oyarzábal’s autobiography, published in 1940, shortly after she and her family had fled Franco’s Spain for Mexico City, an exile Oyarzábal hoped would be brief, but which in fact endured until her death at the age of 96 in 1974, barely a year before the death of the dictator himself. As I hope you can see on the ever so slightly dodgy cameraphone pictures that adorn this post, my edition of I Must Have Liberty is, excitingly, a signed first edition. This doesn’t mean it’s especially valuable – it’s simply signed, not dedicated – but even so, the idea of having a book that was, however briefly, in the hands of its author, is both exciting and ever so slightly thrilling.

The second book, Smouldering Freedom, is, as its subtitle suggests, Oyarzábal’s version of the ‘Story of the Spanish Republicans in Exile.’ Published in London in 1945 by Victor Gollancz (whoze uncle Israel Gollancz, incidentally, had been instrumental in setting up the King’s College London Cervantes Chair of Spanish three decades earlier), it is a slender volume of dense historical narrative, dedicated ‘TO MEXICO, Real Land of Freedom for Thousands of Spaniards.’ It is a surprisingly measured account, aimed squarely at informing the Anglophone world of what had happened in Spain during a decade of war and repression. I’m very far from being an expert on the Spanish Civil War, so I can’t judge Oyarzábal’s account for its accuracy of detail or interpretation, but it is incredibly moving, and must have had an impression on an Anglophone audience itself still several long months from the end of World War II.

Perhaps the most moving part of all is the chapter called ‘In memoriam: those who will never go back,’ in which Oyarzábal remembers her many friends and colleagues who have died in exile and who, ‘lying at rest under the blue Mexican skies will be a bond holding Spain and Mexico close together. They hand to us the torch that we may go on striving for our people’s happiness. Those who survive must answer faithfully to that call, or they shall never feel they are giving the dead their due and allowing them, after their long and weary struggle, to rest in peace’ (175). This is followed by a ‘Sequel’ that updates the narrative to include the story of the exiles’ hopes that the end of WWII would bring renewed interest in Spain, and their fears that Franco would nonetheless prevail, closing with the warning that ‘The Spaniards, in spite of their weariness, their hunger and their lack of arms, will manage to overthrow Franco if he is not morally and materially helped by other nations as he is now’ (187). Sadly, of course, he was, and so they didn’t, and Oyarzábal would never see the day she awaited with such hope and anticipation.

*Another early 20th-century malagueña with British connections was Victoria Kent, whose name I’d often wondered about, but had never made the connection.


One comment

  1. […] Books on Spain So these two books are both by the Spanish journalist, writer and diplomat Isabel Oyarzábal Smith […]

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