From Chicago to the Western Front

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One day I was sorting out the collection of thrillers in the spare room when I glanced up at the watercolour of a beautiful woman that has hung on a wall there for four years, since we moved house. She is in profile, wearing the crisply billowing headdress of a nurse, her lowered gaze calm and reflective. The portrait used to hang in the guest room of my former house and before that in the hall of the farm I shared with my first husband. At some point in the Seventies he and I had bought it from the long-established London dealers Abbott & Holder, but it came with no information – except the name and date in the top right-hand corner, ‘Mary Spears 1918’, and the faint monogram CGD in the lower left.

Something made me take it from the wall. Her face had always captivated me, so why was she relegated to a room I rarely visit? And why had I never bothered to find out who she was? Out of sight, out of mind . . . But nowadays it is easy; a quick Internet search revealed that this saintly-looking nurse was in fact an acclaimed and popular novelist, and the author of a powerful First World War memoir.

Mary Spears was born Mary (or May) Borden in 1886, the beautiful, capricious and intelligent daughter of a Chicago millionaire. At 20 she came into her fortune and escaped her stifling family to travel the world in search of excitement. Unfortunately she also made an unwise marriage to a missionary called Douglas Turner, but by the outbreak of the First World War she had become a celebrated literary hostess in London, establishing herself as a writer and mixing with the great men of the day, including George Bernard Shaw, E. M. Forster, Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound. A keen suffragist and independent spirit, she became Wyndham Lewis’s lover and bought his work. Then, in 1916, she met her great love, the handsome, brave and charismatic Edward Louis Spears, an Anglo-Irish lieutenant in the French army. Her divorce from Turner and the custody battle ove

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About the contributor

Bel Mooney has written six novels, nearly thirty children’s books, a memoir called A Small Dog Saved My Life and millions of words of journalism. She is currently translating an Anglo-Saxon elegy into modern English for fun, and wishes she were a student once more.

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