Caroline Playne: a campaigning life

I have been working with the Playne collection and Archives here at Senate House Library in quieter moments for some months, and during that time there has been a constant tension between a growing admiration for the donor, and a near-total absence of reliable information on her life.

Caroline Playne (1857-1948) was one of many campaigners in late-nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain who devoted their lives to improving a society which largely declined to listen, through tireless commitment to the conference hall, the committee room, the strongly worded pamphlet and the letter to the press. While the causes were numerous, and relations between seemingly compatible organisations often strained, membership was often shared, particularly amongst women campaigners, tied as they were in diverse ways to the campaign for female suffrage. Caroline Playne’s own cause was the promotion of international peace, but like many of her fellow campaigners, she is almost entirely forgotten; as her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry states, ‘there is uncertainty about much of Caroline Playne’s life’.

During her lifetime, however, Playne was a prominent figure in a huge range of organisations, including the Church of England Peace League, the Hampstead Peace Society, the League of Peace and Freedom, the Peace Society, and the National Peace Council. In none of these organisations was she merely an attendee, and she could claim to have helped to found or to shape the mission of several of them; moreover, for four decades she journeyed around Europe as a delegate and speaker at Universal Congresses of Peace. After the Great War, she published five substantial books, four idiosyncratic histories of the War and a biography of Countess Bertha von Suttner, first female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Those works attracted starkly varied reviews, from fulsome praise to excoriating criticism of Playne as a dilettante. In 1938, at the age of 81, she approached this library with an offer to donate a carefully selected library of books on the war, along with several parcels of cuttings, journals and papers, the last largely purged of personal content. When she died in 1948, the sole published obituary of any length was, rather sadly, simply a letter to Playne’s local newspaper, and it contains very little beyond her commitment to the cause of Peace.

In the English collection here at Senate House, and not the gift of Playne, is one of the two novels she wrote as a young woman, the blood-curdlingly titled ‘The Terror of the MacDurghotts’. It is intriguing in that Playne arguably allows some of her own life history to impinge on her fiction as the book describes how Helen, the heroine, ‘had watched over her mother’s last illness, and seen her die in the suburban villa’, her mother having ‘entirely adopted the shrouded life of an invalid, avoiding to an extraordinary degree contact with the world of action’ (pp. 2, 14). Playne’s own mother, Margarettia, had died in 1905, and it does appear that Playne’s own life began to assume its shape and commitment to the cause from this moment. Even as her mother lay dying, Playne attended the Universal Congress of Peace for the first time in Lucerne, as a member of the International Peace and Arbitration Society, and the same Congress in Milan a year later.

These Congresses seem to have been the key focus for Playne’s activities in this pre-war period, though she continued to attend at least until 1939, and in 1908, when the delegates met in Westminster, Playne was Honorary Secretary of the Hospitality Committee. It is due to this that we have the only known photograph of Caroline Playne (right), though even here it is unclear which figure is her, although my strong personal suspicion is that it is the black-clad figure on the left, with Countess Bertha von Suttner of Austria on the right.

When war broke out, Playne was once more at the Committee Table, on the Executive Committee of the Society of Friends’ Emergency Committee for the Assistance of Germans, Austrians and Hungarians in Distress. From its earliest days, Playne is at the centre of their most direct action, disbursing money, food, coal, and assistance to applicants, largely the wives and children of ‘enemy aliens’ who had been either interned or repatriated. Playne played no small part, serving on at least six sub-committees and attending almost every weekly meeting of the Executive Committee for the duration of the War. Moreover, she intervened personally with the local Guardians to allow German women seeking alms to enter Camden Town Hall via a side door to avoid being attacked by angry mobs, and, a fluent German speaker, held training sessions in German culture to help women being repatriated.

In 1915, Playne spoke at a conference in central London on pacifist philosophy, sharing the stage with Bertrand Russell amongst others, and was again on the executive committee of the League for Peace and Freedom which arose from it. This is arguably the zenith of Playne’s activities as a resolute peace campaigner. What such a conference, like the Universal Congresses of Peace, shows, even in the face of the complete dedication of the state to war, and imminent conscription, is her belief in pacifism as an inflexible, unassailable philosophical position, and secondly her belief in the power of committees and organisations to change the public mind.

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Amongst Playne’s papers are four volumes of diaries, often described as her personal diary. Even here, however, there is little direct reporting of her own experiences. Rather, she is careful to describe an intangible mood which she encounters in the street, of which her own feelings are merely examples. I view these diaries rather as running entries that after the war, when the world has regained its composure, can be re-used to tell a powerful story of folly and it how it might be avoided in the future. Indeed, that is quite clear in some instances – here on May 28 1916 (left), Playne has written the word ‘Used’ on the top left corner of the page, to show that she incorporated the anecdote into her published work.

None of this means that this is not an achingly powerful demonstration of Playne’s personality. This selfless and heroic attempt to record the totality of the war years in London, rather than her own activities and emotions, is incredibly powerful evidence of her almost ascetic, monkish devotion to a cause besides which her own life is unimportant.

The years after the war saw Playne marshaling the huge quantity of information she had so far gathered into published works, the first of which was The Neuroses of the Nations. What Playne wrote was essentially a psychological study of her culture, with war one of a suite of symptoms of a deeper pathology. She was both praised and heavily, sometimes savagely, criticised. One critic, for example, said that ‘one cannot but feel some doubts of Miss Playne’s qualifications’ and concluded that ‘the ultimate value of the book … will lie in its availability as a mine of useful quotations’. It was and remains easy to argue that Playne’s psychological terminology is inexact, that her analyses are by turns naive and cynical, that her writing is marked by intermittent over-quotation and under-citation. However, the 2,500 pages which she published on the war, taken together, depict incredibly powerfully Playne’s perception of the dissolution of an entire civilisation and the pathological perversion of public opinion, both because she sometimes expresses these things with lacerating clarity, and because in places they are inexpressible.

While her own life may seem absent from her published works, they do also rather eloquently betray her own poignant questioning of her life’s work so far, and a restless questioning of the value of her former campaigning. She had worked tirelessly on committees, for example, but after the war, she noted the futility of ‘setting up a sub committee to settle any and every knotty point or to carry out schemes’ which ‘constantly walked round difficulties or shelved them, instead of tackling them’.

While Playne never gave up on the cause of peace, she found herself writing in her fourth book in 1933 that:

‘Some critics have argued that greater attention should have been paid to the individuals and groups who did not believe in the war and who refused to take any part in it. But as compared with the main body of the citizens who gave the war their fullest support, these dissentients were too few and too much lost among multitudes to justify more than passing mention in a record of a disordered time.’

The campaigns briefly dismissed are, of course, her own, to which she had dedicated decades of her life. Moreover, in her final work, she looked back on the 1908 conference where she had met Baroness von Suttner and remarked of reading the official report that ‘both the proceedings and the atmosphere surrounding them now seem to belong to the buried happenings of the past’. It is clear that she felt as if the hopes and the arguments of those years were misplaced.

To borrow the terminology of conscientious objection, Playne moved from being an absolutist pacifist to an intellectually hugely ambitious attempt to determine how the nation arrived at war, in the ultimately hollow hope that knowledge and understanding of the symptom would free the culture from future bellicosity.

She remade her own commitment to peace in an extraordinarily brave and confident fashion, and this is also seen in her donation of books to this library in 1938. She took enormous care over her selection, advising the Library that she had ‘rejected all that seemed superfluous’ and until the very day when they were collected was substituting titles. After they were dispatched, she wrote that ‘my great desire is that the collection may be of use to future students in studying the psychological causes of the decline and fall of European civilization in our times’.

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She may have become disillusioned, isolated, and despairing, and suspected that she herself was one ‘of the buried things of the past’ in a civilization that had finally fallen, but in one last remarkable piece of passionate optimism, she threw her collection into the abyss of Europe on the brink of war as a lifeline to a future student, who would come to understand, and perhaps express better than she could, the folly of war.

The temptation to know Caroline Playne the woman better is still overwhelming, but we should recognise how privileged we are to hold in her collections an indelible, immensely powerful, and suitably idiosyncratic self-portrait of an extraordinary figure.

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