If I hadn't stopped gambling after my two recent scoops before it became a habit, I'd put money on someone here knowing something about Lily Tobias, but I knew nothing until I picked up her 1933 novel, Eunice Fleet, a few weeks ago thanks to Honno Press. The cover looked as if it would fit my recent flurry of hot-water-bottle-y reading which in the interests of balance has all served a good purpose.
I have needed contrast and safe sojourn because I've set myself quite a challenge with this year's Remembrance Reading, now in progress since Dame Vera Lynn has already launched the Poppy Appeal. But it's all gone off on a frolic of its own and I find myself veering into a rather emotionally challenging child's-eye view of the Second World War. I never quite know which road in I'll take as November approaches, but the books seemed to be grouping that way and I went with the flow. It was never going to make for comfortable reading.
In fact Eunice Fleet with its themes of conscientious objectors and pacifism is far removed from any hint of 1930's nostalgia, and I am very grateful to Honno Press who responded to my pleas for more information about Lily Tobias by putting me in contact with Dr Jasmine Donahaye. Dr Donahaye wrote the introduction to the book and has published and lectured widely on Lily's life and work and is currently working on her biography.
This is what I love about my reading life; writers I've never heard of and happy afternoons spent digging around for information. Dr Donahaye then very kindly sent me some wonderfully informative articles which slaked my thirst for Lily information and I have referenced two at the foot of this post for anyone who may want to pursue them further.*
'being out of print has meant effectively that her work has been out of
according to Jasmine Donahaye's introduction to the book.
Born Lily Shepherd in Swansea in 1887 and growing up in Ystalyfera in the Swansea valley, Lily was the daughter of a Jewish immigrant family from Poland, the first Jews to settle there and how interesting it must have been for Lily to speak Yiddish at home whilst speaking Welsh out in her local community.
Jasmine Donahaye quotes Leo Abse, brother of Danni Abse and nephew to Lily, who speculates that Lily's father was the first person to speak Welsh with a Yiddish accent, what a wonderful combination.
I'm reminded of an event at Dartington with Bernice Rubens who talked at some length about her own background living in Cardiff's Welsh-Jewish community and urging us all to read Brothers, the book that she told me contained her heritage and the one she was most proud to have written. Bernice Rubens sadly died about three months after that event and in her honour I did then read Brothers. It all had a profound impact on me and I recommend it far and wide.In the 1920s and now married, Lily Tobias and her husband moved to Rhiwbina in Cardiff, a tenant's cooperative and garden suburb, a mixed lower and middle-class community where Lily's latent political aspirations were realised with her involvement in the the cause of Zionism.
Lily and her husband Philip, along with her father, subsequently moved to Haifa in Palestine in 1935, where sadly Lily's husband was killed in a riot in 1938. Apart from four war years spent in South Africa, Lily remained there until her death in 1984.
I am grateful to Jasmine Donahaye for sharing much more biographical detail with me and I have to impart one last little gem with you, and one that feels like another sure and certain sign that I can't put off reading Daniel Deronda a moment longer. Lily Tobias is rarely credited with being the first person to adapt George Eliot's novel for dramatisation and a prestigious one at that starring Sybil Thorndike, thus beating Andrew Davis by quite a few years.
Imagining Lily's home, described by Leo Abse as
'a combination of pacifism...socialism and the William Morris ethos'
somehow set the scene perfectly for what followed in Eunice Fleet.
More about Eunice Fleet later this week, but tomorrow, for reasons that will be apparent, I have to parade yet another author I had never heard of for your delectation.
* "The link of common aspirations" : Wales in the work of Lily Tobias
Dr Jasmine Donahaye
From In the Open : Jewish Women Writers and British Culture. Ed. Claire Tylee
(Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2006)
* "Hurrah for the Freedom of the Nations"
First published in Planet 147 (2001): 28-36