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Barbara Barclay Carter

THE OTHER DAY I turned up an old exercise-book belonging to my twelfth year, and was amused to find an essay: "How I would earn my living if I had to," (the conditional clause representing a polite fiction, current till well beyond the end of the last war, that "nice" little girls did not expect to earn their livings as a matter of course). It is a business-like account of how a large fortune could be amassed by breeding dogs, but at the end comes the revealing after-thought: "If I did not breed dogs I might breed cats or be a writer." I remember still the uncomfortable feeling that all that had gone before was insincere and worthless; it was on writing that my will was fixed, as it had long been. I had written almost as soon as I could form my letters, first pocms (in the childhood of the individual as of the peoples, verse-forms come before prose), then tales, and finally a "novel" of fifty whole foolscap pages, all of them carefully preserved by maternal pride. But how could eleven-years-old explain that inner compulsion- or how it could be turned to the earning of a living? It was simpler to talk about dogs. . . .

We were then living in Richmond, a few miles from London. Of Santa Barbara, California, where I was born, I have alas! no direct memory, for my Anglo-Irish mother brought me to England before I was two years old. Only through her eyes and those of my much loved Welsh nurse, who came back with her, could I see the sun-lit orange-trees, the glittering blue of the Pacific, the sheer rise of the great mountains, but so vivid were their pictures that they form part of the texture of my childhood. I was not allowed to forget that I was an American. One day, when I was very small, an American flag appeared unexpectedly in a little shop in our neighborhood, and my oId nurse led me to it with real excitement, "Kiss it, baby," she said, "That's the Star Spangled Banner. It's your flag." For many years after, it hung over my cot.

So, too, when I began to appreciate poetry, my mother would read to me for preference from an American anthology - Little Orphan Annie, and Paul Revere's Ride, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I soon knew by heart, though in regard to the last she woula impress upon me that since my father came from Georgia I must not identify myself with the cause of the North. Though living in England, my "second country" was not England but Wales - my oId nurse's land, whither she took me for holidays that were the highlights of each year, to share the life of her kin-her brother the blacksmith, her sister-in-law who kept a baker's shop, her innumerable cousins who farmed the rich, mountain-guarded lands of the Usk valley, till I grew as passionately attached to the land itself as if it had been my own. Of all this I have written in Old Nurse. By a coincidence, one of the reviewers of my earlier book on Dante, Ship Without Sails, had to deal at the same time with two books on Wales, and bridged the transition by saying: "It is a very long way from twentieth century Wales to the fourteenth century Florence of Miss Barclay Carter's book." Actually, it was through the intense local attachment of the Welsh and the spell of Wales that I was able to understand the aching nostalgia for Florence of the exile whom an American writer has described as "the most homesick man in this home-sick world."

My school was run by an able Swiss woman, so that we specialised in French. It was thus that my first appearance in print (otherwise than in the school magazine, where I wrote under the pseudonym of "Californian Poppy") was what may be by courtesy be called a French poem in honour of King Albert of Belgium, in L'Independance Belge, which was published in London during the last war. I was then fourteen. The war ended soon after I had left school for a secretarial training college. Many of us who had grown up with the thought of war-service as soon as we were of age for it, felt the need to find some other high cause to claim our allegiance. I found it in insurgent Ireland. The seeds had been sown by the parish priest in Wales, where, after my mother's death, my oId nurse's house seemed my real , home. Acquaintance with the poems of Pearse and Plunkett and MacDonagh ripened them. Had not my own grand-father been an Irishman? (That he, poor man, an Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem and a strong conservative, might well have turned in his grave at the thought of a Sinn Feiner grand-daughter was no matter.) I joined the Gaelic League, started learning Irish, and, under the inspiration of the Celtic Twilight wrote two short stories set in the Ireland I had never seen, with sufficient verisimilitude to win publication in Irish papers. This was the first money I earned by my pen-something to tell in triumph to my aunts in England, my guardian in America, who had even fewer illusions than myself at eleven on writing as a means of earning a living. I felt I had made a beginning, Unfortunately, however, I have never been one of those who are able to write at odd moments, in time squeezed from other work. And I felt more and more that for such writing as should be mine I needed the university training that had been denied me.

For three years I did secretarial work-in London, in Geneva with the International Labour Office, and with the Irish Legation in Rome. In the meantime, on a visit to my ever-dear old nurse in 1921, I had been received into the Catholic Church. (The parish-priest had sown other seeds than those of Sinn Fein, but my decision-at Geneva, of all places-had a far earlier impulse at its origin, for my mother had had a great reverence for Catholicism and had shown clearly a wish to encourage me in a direction she herself shrank from taking as a forsaking of the church of her fathers.)

Then, I was twenty-one. I came into what seemed the large sum of a hundred and fifty pounds ($750). I took it to go to Paris, to study at the Sorbonne. 'With a Faustian thirst for knowledge for its own sake, rejecting all utilitarian considerations, I proclaimed grandiloquently that I wished simply to "apprendre pour comprendre," and for the four courses requisite for a degree chose Mediaeval History, History of Art, Ancient History, and French Literature. To these I added Italian Literature, for already Dante exercised on me a supreme attraction. For a year, too, I studied Scholastic Philosophy at the Catholic Institute.

I had taken the cheapest room that I could find, on the seventh floor of the Hotel Lhomond, behind the Pantheon, cooking my own meals-into which that friend of man, the horse entered largely--on a spirit stove. Even with such strict economy, my $750 would not have lasted long, had not Providence taken a hand. The hostel of the Catholic Institute gave yearly scholarships to Irish and American students. The Directress - she was a nun of the order of St. Ursula, though this was kept an open secret since the laws against religious congregations were still nominally in force - gave me one of the American scholarships one year, and an Irish one the next. It was thus that I was able to take my degree of Licenciee-es-Lettres (with the distinction of having been placed first in Mediacval History), and at the same time the "auditorat" of Scholastic Philosophy.

While in Paris, I came into touch with the Christian Democratic movement, through Marc Sangnier and his "Jeune Republique," and thus heard of the work Don Sturzo was doing in Italy as leader of a great Christian-Democratic party. I had been back in London only a few months when I heard of his arrival in England, I was then living precariously as a free-lance journalist (supplemented by keeping the accounts for a private hotel), and wrote to ask if I might interview him. This was the beginning of a collaboration that lasted till his departure for the States in 1940, and which indeed still continues. I became his interpreter while he still knew no English, then the translator of his books and articles, his associate in various enterprises of which I shall speak later. Contact with such a mind was in itself an education, but I owe to him also a constant and precious guidance in my own work. It was with his encouragement, assisted by his criticism, that I produced my own first book, the reconstruction of the later life of Dante in the form of a novel, Ship Without Sails.

I had learned Italian in my last year at school, and at once the Divine Comedy seized my imagination, together with the figure of Dante himself. For years, without and often against my will, a story that centered round him wove itself in my mind, and whenever chance offered I had read what I could find about him and his times. For long, however, the task of writing on so great a theme seemed beyond my powers. When at last I addressed myself to it, I was confirmed in my leaning towards the form of a novel by the consideration that most of his biographers, presenting conjecture as fact, had written but fiction in disguise, and by the belief that through the novelist's imaginative approach it might be possible to reconcile apparently conflicting texts, and, paradoxically, to reach a truer picture of him than by analytical research. (In this I was justified: my conclusions as to the sequence of events in his exile and his up till recently much questioned sojourn in Paris, have since been independently put forward by one of the leading Italian Dante scholars of the day.)

In all, the book was the work of seven years, interrupted indeed by translations and articles. Each year my summer vacation was spent in tracing Dante's wandering steps across Italy, climbing to the almost inaccessible castles that had harboured him, visiting the lovely cities associated with his name ­ Florence, Verona, Rome, Ravenna. The name Ship Without Sails has a two-fold reference. Dante speaks of himself as "a ship without sails, without rudder, driven to divers ports and gulfs and shores," and it was in such a ship that Lancelot (in whom Dante seems to have seen a symbol of himself) came to such vision as might fall to sinful man in the mystical quest of the Holy Grail.

The news that Ship Without Sails had been accepted by a leading British publisher (Constable & Co.) was cabled to me when I was staying in New Jersey, on my first visit to my native country since I had left it as a baby. (It was in 1929 ­ still the Henry Ford era. Be it confessed that I then felt a stranger, My discovery of the real America was yet to come.)

My second book, Old Nurse, appeared in 1936, published by Jonathan Cape. Translations (Soderini's Leo XIII, Fanfani's Catholicism, Protestantism and Capitalism, Don Sturzo's Cycle of Creation), lectures and review-articlcs occupied the intervening years. Dante remained my special theme. A collection of "New Dante Studies," indeed, lost its hope of present publication through the outbreak of war, and a like fate befell my play, "Abelard" on which both Mr. Robert Speaight and Mr. Martin Brown lookcd with favour, promising production when a propitious moment came.

In the meantime, my association with Don Sturzo had brought me ever more closely in touch with the Christian Democratic movement. Towards the end of 1936 I was one of the founders of the "People & Freedom" group in London (taking its name from the mediaeval slogan, revived by Savonarola's followers), with Mrs. Virginia Crawford as Chairman. (She had been a favorite disciple of Cardinal Manning.) In 1938, we founded a paper, People & Freedom, first a quarterly, then a monthly, of which I am still editor, and in 1939, with Don Sturzo's help, we brought out a book For Democracy, with Burns, Oates & Washbourne, in which leading Catholic sociologists of six countries trace the growth and basic principles of dcmocracy from Greece and Rome to the problems of to-day and the immediate to-morrow. My own share was the Introduction: What we Mean by Democracy.") It has been recognised by competent critics as a really important Catholic contribution to sound political thought.

Such and kindred activities (such as the organisation of the British Committee for Civil and Religious Peace in Spain, and of the International Christian Democratic Union), which have become more exacting since the war, have limited my literary output. But a writer cannot live in an ivory tower without spiritual impoverishment, and I believe that this varied and practical experience will bear fruit when-as I hope-a time comes fof me to turn single-heartedly to creative work.

Originally published by Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors Volume Three, copyright 1945

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