Mary Borden

Mary Borden

Mary Borden, the daughter of the wealthy businessman, William Borden, was born in Chicago on 15th May 1886. After attending Vassar College (1904–7) went on a chaperoned world tour, where she met a Scottish missionary called George Douglas Turner. They were married in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1908. A daughter was born in Maine in 1909 and a second in Kashmir in 1910.

While living in London had an affair with Percy Wyndham Lewis. She also joined the Women Social & Political Union. Using the pseudonym Bridget Maclagan she published two novels, The Mistress of Kingdoms (1912) and Collision (1913). One critic described the books as autobiographical with feminist undertones.

On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Borden she set up a hospital unit in Dunkirk. She remained in France, running at her own expense a mobile hospital on the Western Front. While at the Somme she met and fell in love with Edward Louis Spears, a French liaison officer. Borden, who was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government, remained with the unit until 1918.

After she obtained a divorce they were married on 31st March 1918 at the British embassy in Paris. According to her biographer, Nicola Beauman: "There was much gossip that Spears was only marrying her for her money (which was in part true) and that he had broken up a happy home (also partly true)."

Edward Louis Spears retired from the British Army in 1920 and with the encouragement of Winston Churchill in November, 1922, stood as the National Liberal candidate for Loughborough. Elected to the House of Commons he served until defeated in October, 1924.

In 1928 Borden published the novel Flamingo. According to one critic, the novel "is a love story which should live as long as any woman believes in love". She followed this with The Forbidden Zone, an account of her experiences during the First World War. A novel about a nurse on the Western Front, Sarah Gay, appeared in 1931.

Edward Louis Spears followed Winston Churchill into the Conservative Party and was elected for Carlisle in the 1931 General Election. The couple moved to St Michael's Grange, Warfield, Berkshire. They also had a home at 12 Strathearn Place, Bayswater. The marriage was not a success. According to Nicola Beauman "her life became increasingly blighted by her domineering husband's blatant devotion to his mistress" and he "was abusive and cruel". Max Egremont argues that his mistress was Nancy Maurice (1901–1975), daughter of Major-General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice, who worked as Spears's secretary.

Borden continued working as a novelist and wrote the controversial The Techniques of Marriage (1933), Mary of Nazareth (1933), The King of the Jews (1935), and a collection of short-stories, Passport for a Girl (1939), an account of English attitudes to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany.

During the Second World War ran a mobile field hospital in the Middle East and wrote about this in Journey Down a Blind Alley (1946). For the Record (1950) is about a secret agent and Martin Merriedew (1952) about a pacifist tried for treason. In the 1950s May often travelled to the United States, partly in order to visit her nephew Adlai Stevenson.

Mary Borden died of heart failure on 2nd December 1968 at her home, St Michael's Grange, Warfield, Berkshire. The following year Edward Louis Spears married his long-term mistress, Nancy Maurice. According to Max Egremont: "Mary Borden had a life of her own as a writer whereas Spears was Nancy Maurice's whole existence and she worked ruthlessly to further his career, encouraging him in the pursuit of vendettas and strong dislikes."

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone (1929)

The men were laid out in three rows on either side of the central alley way. It was a big hut, and there were about sixty stretchers in each row. There was a space between the heads of one row and the feet of another row, but no space to pass between the stretchers of the same row; they touched. The old territorials who worked with me passed up and down between the heads and feet. I had a squad of thirty of these old orderlies and two sergeants and two priests, who were expert dressers. Wooden screens screened off the end of the hut opposite the entrance. Behind these were the two dressing tables where the priests dressed the wounds of the new arrivals and got them ready for the surgeons, after the old men had undressed them and washed their feet. In one corner was my kitchen where I kept all my syringes and hypodermic needles and stimulants.

(2) Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone (1929)

It was just before midnight when the stretcher bearers brought in the blind man, and there was no space on the floor anywhere; so they stood waiting, not knowing what to do with him.

I said from the floor in the second row, "Just a minute, old ones. You can put him here in a minute." So they waited with the blind man suspended in the bright, hot misty air between them, like a pair of old horses in shafts with their heads down.

"Put this one in the corridor to make more room here," I said; and I saw them lift him up. When they had taken him away, the stretcher bearers who had been waiting brought the blind one and put him down in the cleared space.

The limbs seemed to be held together only by the strong stuff of the uniform. The head was unrecognizable. It was a monstrous thing, and a dreadful rattling sound came from it. I looked over and saw the chief surgeon standing over me. I don't know how he got there. His small shrunken face was wet and white; his eyes were brilliant and feverish; his incredible hands that saved so many men so exquisitely, so quickly, were in the pockets of his white coat.

"Give him morphine," he said, "a double dose. As much as you like." Then he vanished like a ghost. He went back to the operating room, a small white figure with round shoulders, a magician, who performed miracles with knives.

I gave the morphine, then crawled over and looked at the blind man's ticket. I did not know, of course, that he was blind until I read his ticket. A large round white helmet covered the top half of his head and face; only his nostrils and mouth and chin were uncovered. The surgeon in the dressing station behind the trenches had written on his ticket, "Shot through the eyes. Blind."

Did he know, I asked myself. No, he couldn't know yet. He would still be wondering, waiting, hoping, down there in that deep, dark silence of his, in his own dark personal world. He didn't know he was blind; no one would have told him. I felt his pulse. It was strong and steady. He was a long, thin man, but his body was not very cold and the pale lower half of his clear-cut face was not very pale. There was something beautiful about him. In his case there was no hurry, no necessity to rush him through to the operating room. There was plenty of time. He would always be blind.

I said to the blind one, "Here is a drink." He didn't hear me so I said it more loudly against the bandage, and helped him to lift his head, and held the tin cup to his mouth below the thick end of the bandage. The blind man said to me, "Thank you, sister, you are very kind. That is good. I thank you." He had a beautiful voice. I noticed the great courtesy of his speech. But they were all courteous. Their courtesy when they died, their reluctance to cause me any trouble by dying or suffering, was one of the things it didn't do to think about.

(3) Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone (1929)

It was my business to sort out the wounded as they were brought in from the ambulances and to keep them from dying before they got to the operating rooms: it was my business to sort out the nearly dying from the dying. I was there to sort them out and tell how fast life was ebbing in them. Life was leaking away from all of them; but with some there was no hurry, with others it was a case of minutes. It was my business to create a counter-wave of life, to create the flow against the ebb.

If a man were slipping quickly, being sucked down rapidly, I sent runners to the operating rooms. There were six operating rooms on either side of my hut. Medical students in white coats hurried back and forth along the covered corridors between us. It was my business to know which of the wounded could wait and which could not. I had to decide for myself. There was no one to tell me. If I made any mistakes, some would die on their stretchers on the floor under my eyes who need not have died. I didn't worry. I didn't think. I was too busy, too absorbed in what I was doing. I had to judge from what was written on their tickets and from the way they looked and they way they felt to my hand. My hand could tell of itself one kind of cold from another. My hands could instantly tell the difference between the cold of the harsh bitter night and the stealthy cold of death.

(4) Mary Borden was told to expect that thirty per cent of the soldiers she would receive in her medical unit. She was proud of the fact that the unit's mortality rate was only nineteen per cent.

The place by one o'clock in the morning was a shambles. The air was thick with steaming sweat, with the effluvia of mud, dirt, blood. The men lay in their stiff uniforms that were caked with mud and dried blood, their great boots on their feet; stained bandages showing where a trouser leg or a sleeve had been cut away. Some who could not breathe lying down were propped on their stretchers against the wall, but most were prone on their backs, staring at the steep iron roof.

It was the business of the old orderlies to undress the wounded, wash them, wrap them in blankets, and put hot bottles at their feet and sides. It was a difficult business peeling the stiff uniform from a man whose hip or shoulder was fractured, but the old ones were careful. Their big peasant hands were gentle - very, very gentle and careful. They handled the wounded men as if they were children.

The old ones had orders from the commandant not to cut the good cloth of the uniforms if they could help it, but they had orders from me not to hurt the men, and they obeyed me. They slit up the heavy trousers and slashed across the stiff tunics with long scissors and pulled very slowly, very carefully at the heavy boots, and the wounded men did not groan or cry out very much. They were mostly very quiet. When they did cry out they usually apologized for the annoyance of their agony.