surinenglish

Gamel Woolsey, the burning poet

Woolsey, born in South Carolina, lived and died in Malaga.
Woolsey, born in South Carolina, lived and died in Malaga. / SUR
  • Half a century after her death, Malaga owes a debt to the American writer who brilliantly described the horror of the Civil War but was unjustly relegated and known mostly for being the wife of Gerald Brenan

Upon her grave in the English Cemetery in Malaga, like a piece of posthumous advice, a Shakespeare verse is written: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun.” Gamel Woolsey was never a conventional woman. Nor was she fearful. She shunned the social and religious impositions of the first half of the 20th century to construct her own views, a poetic and free perspective which resulted in a short but powerful literary output.

She got through a childhood marked by the death of her father and tubercolosis, flirted with cinema during her adolescence, explored sexuality in toxic relationships and at times was overcome by her liking for alcohol, but above all Woolsey was revealed to be an extraordinary chronicler of the Spanish Civil War in ‘Malaga en llamas’, or ‘Malaga burning’ in English.

As in so many other cases, none of this was enough to offset the macho coup of history, the balance of patriarchal accounts which she ended up witnessing as the wife of Gerald Brenan.

From their house in Churriana, Woolsey and Brenan witnessed the start of the war. It had appeared to be the loveliest morning of that summer (“in all the rummage box of time there could hardly have been found a more beautiful day”) but it turned out to be the prelude to terror.

This American writer, born in 1895, didn’t talk about the conflict in terms of numbers or entrenched ideologies; she focused on relating the annihilation of everyday life, the effects of the bombardments on her neighbours, who were dragged into an incomprehensible spiral of blood and vengeance.

With a tremendous ability to notice details, Woolsey turned normal people into the protagonists of that terror. There was Enrique, the gardener, who planted far more fruits and vegetables than they needed in order to give the surplus to families with nowhere to grow their own. María, the cook and housekeeper, who groaned because the red mullet cost eight ‘duros’ per pound. The young people who, having had no time to understand anything, were sent to the front. The baker who had to hide and ended up riddled with bullets. The workers in the steel factory, who before the war began had called a strike to demand 15 pesetas a day. She gave a voice to those condemned not to have one.

“She individualised the pain, the fear, the hunger and the tragedy,” as writer Rosa Regas said in the book’s prologue.

‘Malaga burning’ was not the title originally chosen by Woolsey: she had opted for ‘Death’s Other Kingdom’, a verse taken from T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘Hollow Men’ (“Those who have crossed, with direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom, remember us - if at all - not as lost, violent souls, but only as the hollow men. The stuffed men”).

The first edition of the book, written in English, was published at the end of 1939, when the author was 44 years old. It was immediately discontinued as it coincided with the start of the Second World War, which monopolised general interest.

Zalin Grant, an American writer recognised for his narration of another conflict, the Vietnam War, was fascinated by Woolsey’s book and republished it under the title ‘Malaga burning’.

In Spain, Woolsey’s chronicle did not find a publisher until 1998, when Temas de Hoy produced a translated version which, on the front page, referred to her marriage with Brenan as a way of attracting commercial interest: “The emotional testimony of the Civil War by the woman who shared her life with Gerald Brenan.”

Paradoxically, Woolsey had always tried to transcend beyond her colleagues, although the masculine universe with which she was surrounded is key to understanding her work and her character.

After leaving Charleston, in South Carolina, she tried her luck as an actress on the stages of New York and met British writer and philosopher John Cowper Powys, who invited her to London. There, she began a passionate relationship with John’s brother Llewelyn, a married man, with whom she had an overwhelming adventure full of frustrations which would pursue her even after she was involved with Brenan.

When Gerald and Gamel met, they were both carrying emotional baggage. Brenan had just come out of a tangled relationship with painter Dora Carrington and other members of the Bloomsbury Group. The figure of Llewelyn still hovered over Woolsey. They married in Rome in 1931, embarking on a marriage “based on friendship, affection and mutual admiration,” as Regas describes it.

In ‘Malaga burning’, Woolsey tells how Brenan could hardly bear the death that surrounded them. The couple ended up leaving the country, although they always maintained their links with Spain: “We tried to forget the war, but all the while it lay heavy and sore at the bottom of our minds”.

A short while afterwards, in 1943, Brenan published ‘The Spanish labyrinth’.

Rejection from Eliot

Above all, Woolsey was a poet. That lyrical vision of the world can also be seen in her prose. She wanted her work, in which she supported female sexuality and criticised the lack of freedom which asphyxiated women of her time, to be published by T. S. Eliot, whom she admired so much, but he rejected the idea.

This was a blow which led her into a spiral of apathy, as publisher Carlos Pranger, the executor of Brenan’s legacy, explains: “She had a very melancholic temperament and Eliot’s disdain didn’t help her, although her poems were eventually published by others. Her delicate state of health, aggravated by the alcohol, meant that she had to spend long periods of time in bed,” he says.

She spent most of her time typing and editing Brenan’s manuscripts; she never left his side, despite the carrousel of infidelities in their relationship.

“They both had strong and eccentric personalities. He was very lively and she had a more nostalgic and poetic air, but they worked very very well as a couple,” says Pranger.

Woolsey wrote six books of poems which have never been published in Spain even though some of them refer to her time in Malaga, such as ‘Alba’, in which she pays tribute to Churriana.

Her work is scattered with anecdotes about her time in Andalucía, when they lived a comfortable life with several people working for them. They were visited by colleagues such as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and E. E. Cummings and had a busy social life. They often went to Torremolinos, where there was a sizeable British colony.

They also did so at the height of the war , when they went to see an American journalist, despite their housekeeper’s warnings: “You’d much better stay at home in your own garden, and not on the roads and get yourselves shot by these ill-educated youths,” she told them.

They didn’t lose their hedonistic vocation even in the most adverse circumstances, as Woolsey says: “At last we could see Torremolinos, small and white on the edge of the sea. Exhausted by the heat, we sat in the shade of an olive tree and prepared our meal. It was a truly Spanish ‘merienda’: cold potato omelette, a little goat’s milk cheese, half a loaf of bread, early muscatels and a small bottle of white wine [...] But suddenly far off inland we heard a rattle of shots, and to the left the ominous smoke of Malaga burning was still drifting out to sea.”

Their perspective as wealthy foreigners in Spain, which at times gave the narrative a certain condescending air, enabled her to relate episodes such as the bombardement of Calle Larios with a certain distance: “The most important shopping street in Malaga, also filled with smoke and rubble” and describe ironically some figures such as Queipo de Llano: “He had a tremendous fascination for us, we could never resist him; he could “tear a cat”, as Shakespeare says. But unfortunately, it was real”.

After returning to Malaga, Gamel Woolsey died of cancer in 1968. Brenan’s diaries reveal that her final days were marked by great pain; the doctor, afraid of being accused of euthanasia, wouldn’t allow her to be sedated. Half a century after her death, her work is still shouting out to be rescued.