➻ Dona Torr [1883-1957]

por Teoría de la historia

UnknownDona Ruth Anne Torr (1883–-1957), historian, was born on 28 April 1883 at Carlett Park, Eastham, Chester, the third daughter in the family of four daughters and two sons of William Edward Torr (1851–-1924) and his wife, Julia Elizabeth Holmes. Her father, a clergyman, inherited the estate of Carlett Park, Eastham, Cheshire, in 1880, when he also became the vicar of Eastham. He was later an honorary canon of Chester Cathedral. Her second brother, William Wyndham Torr, became a brigadier and served as British military attaché at several embassies. Scarcely anything more is known about her family. She seems to have kept her private self under a veil, and remained throughout a somewhat ‘reticent’ figure (Schwarz, 67). It may be guessed that, like a good many left-wing sectaries of her time, she inherited from a religious upbringing a Christian ethic of her own shaping. Dona Torr was growing up at a time when educated young women were beginning to strike out on their own. She was educated by private tuition at home at Carlett Park, but went on to study at Heidelberg and at University College, London, where she studied English and Greek philosophy. At University College between 1911 and 1914 she helped to organize student debates, was vice-president of the women’s union committee, and was on the editorial board of the union magazine. Her wide education gave her a good knowledge of languages and the arts; in her youth she was also an enthusiast for horse-racing. She reacted strongly against the First World War and soon after the war joined the Labour Party. Her first employment was on the staff of the pro-Labour Daily Herald. She became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain on its founding day, 31 July 1920, and proved an exemplary party member, taking on whatever responsibilities came her way, including editorial work on the party’s weekly organ, Workers’ Life, and acting as a translator at the Fifth Congress of the Communist International. In 1926 during the general strike she could be seen on a bicycle distributing leaflets. Unassuming on her own account, she could be a stickler for observance of party rules when she felt they were being neglected. She married one of her comrades, Walter Milton Holmes, a journalist; they were both given places on the colonial committee set up in 1925 to improve contacts with the small struggling communist parties or groups in India, Egypt, and elsewhere. Torr’s own special interest was history, and a cluster of young historians in the party owed much to her encouragement. She helped to keep them from theorizing too much on mechanical lines, a temptation into which the Marxist concept of history-writing as a science has sometimes led its students. One initiative of hers was a plan for a series of small books made up of extracts from important Marxist texts. It was designed to show ordinary readers how great a part the people had played in events. Unluckily her own contribution, Marxism, Nationality and War, came out in 1940, when the party was committed—an astounding volte-face—to the Moscow line of opposing war against Nazi Germany. Far more helpful were her translations from German. Here her biggest undertaking was an anthology of letters of Marx and Engels, to each other and to numerous friends. Her edition, which came out in 1934, shines by the way it turns into idiomatic English the colloquial writing of two foreigners, both gifted writers, who spent most of their lives in England. The volume is moreover an invaluable storehouse of Marxist thinking. But it was to the recent history of her own country, and the struggles of its working class, that Torr’s thoughts were increasingly turning. She had begun early to plan a life-and-times, on a grand scale, of Tom Mann, one of the outstanding heroes of British labour, whom she came to know and greatly admired. He was remembered above all for leading the great London dock strike of 1889. It cost Torr twenty years to get a first volume nearly ready; by then some help was needed from two of her closest allies, Christopher Hill and A. L. Morton. It was a well-earned return for her generosity in helping other writers. Tom Mann and his Times appeared in 1956. In 1954 a collection of essays, Democracy and the Labour Movement, edited by John Saville, was presented to Torr by some of the historians among whom she had worked. Its preface described her as ‘a pervading influence for a whole generation of Marxist historians’. In July of that year a week-long conference on English history was held at Hastings, with many of her disciples among the participants. She was too unwell by then to be one of the speakers; someone carried away an image of her as a benign lady abbess among her flock. But nemesis was hanging over the party to which she had given so much. In 1956 the Hungarian rising against Soviet rule broke out, and was suppressed by force. The party leadership dutifully endorsed Moscow’s mailed fist; a large minority of the membership refused to follow. The shock to Dona, still loyal to the old faith, must have been very severe. She died at Edgware General Hospital, Hendon, Middlesex, on 8 January 1957, and was cremated six days later at Golders Green. Her husband survived her. Their partnership had proved happy. Dona did most of her work at home, while Walter did most of the housework and all the cooking. The atmosphere was recalled by the historian Dorothy Thompson, a close friend who often stayed with them, as ‘always warm and friendly’ (private information).

[Victor G. KIERNAN. “Torr, Dona Ruth Anne (1883–-1957)”’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004]