The Piranesi drawing, The Fitzwilliam Museum - Paul Brassley on Elizabeth Wiskemann, The Europe I Saw
The Piranesi drawing © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Prophesying War

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I enjoy reading thrillers. I might like to claim that literary fiction is my constant companion, but for most of the time it isn’t – the novels that Graham Greene described as his ‘entertainments’ give me far greater pleasure than his more serious books. Similarly, when my work as a historian took me to the period between the First and Second World Wars I found that Eric Ambler’s thrillers, written at the time, effectively captured the contemporary atmosphere, just as do Alan Furst’s more recent books. Both explore the impact of the interwar struggle between fascism, communism and democracy on innocent individuals, men who find their lives tossed about on the great waves of history. But always men. What about the women?

One of the books I read when beginning my own work on that period was Europe of the Dictators by Elizabeth Wiskemann, from which it was clear that her historical writing was informed by her own past. I wanted to know more, so I tracked down her autobiography, The Europe I Saw (1968). I was captivated. Here was a woman whose adventures in real life might have formed a model for the fictions of Greene, Ambler or Furst. But she was more than one of the little people whose fate was determined by big events and powerful people; she met many of the powerful, and she played her part in the big events.

The Europe I Saw is not a conventional autobiography, although from its first few pages we learn that Elizabeth Wiskemann was born in 1899, the youngest child of a mother with Welsh and Huguenot roots and a German father who had moved to London as a young man. She went to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she took a first-class degree in history in 1921. Several difficult and poverty-stricken years followed before she became a history tutor at Newnham, where she worked on her doctoral thesis.

For some reason she had attracted the enmity of her senior examiner, and her thesis on Napoleon III and the Roman Q

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About the contributor

Paul Brassley lives on Dartmoor, and although no longer paid to do so, continues to work as a historian.

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