Editors of Once-Lost Diary of Stalwart WWI Governess Recognized by NY Times
Thursday, Jul. 13, 2017
She was dignified, decorous and an island of calm waters. Still, Ms. Mary Thorp remains the perfect storm in the sea of World War I scholarship.
An English Governess in the Great War (Oxford University Press, June 2017) introduces one to this extraordinary, formidable English woman through the pages of her wartime diary, edited and footnoted by Tammy Proctor, head of Utah State University’s Department of History, and Sophie De Schaepdrijver, a professor at Pennsylvania State University.
For decades, the author of this secret, detailed look at Brussels in its years of deprivation during the German occupation remained anonymous. There was indeed reason for secrecy — the Germans had executed other journal keepers. But in sleuthing efforts that would have impressed Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison from the long-time BBC series Prime Suspect, Proctor and her co-editor identified the diary’s author as Thorp and, in this edited and clarified diary, fully realize her astounding composure and pluck.
Once obscure, the now-published diary and its heroine have even ended up in the New York Times. According to a review that appeared in the July 2 Sunday Book Review, Mary Thorp showed “such dauntless courage … amid such despair.”
For Proctor and De Schaepdrijver, there’s much to celebrate in earning a New York Times book review — and an appreciative one at that. The reviewer, historian Miranda Seymour, characterized the scholars’ work as “well-edited and affecting.”
The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review has long been “the touchstone of the publishing industry,” noted Joe Ward, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “To have their new book reviewed very positively in such a prominent publication is powerful evidence of the international significance of the research that Professor Proctor and her co-editor have undertaken.”
Proctor and De Schaepdrijver are experts on women and non-combatants during World War I, and this well-born governess is a perfect subject. Thorp instructed and nurtured the three young sons of wealthy Brussels sugar manufacturer Paul Wittouck from 1910 through the 1920s.
During the angry years of World War I, Mary Thorp’s singular position placed her at the front lines of war and society, said Proctor.
First, Thorp straddled the line between servant and family member, and she gives us the always fascinating “Upstairs Downstairs” view. “On one hand,” said Proctor, “she talks about sitting next to a U.S. diplomat during family dinner, and the next day she’s out in the markets trying to find boot leather for the three boys.”
Also, Mary Thorp wrote of people and events well beyond her Belgian front porch. Born in England and raised in Brussels, Mary Thorp “had this English loyalty as well as a Belgium loyalty, and that plays out here,” said Proctor.
Beyond that, her beloved godchildren ended up in contrasting corners of the war — her nephew in a civilian internment camp outside Berlin, her niece working with the American Red Cross in France. Her exchanges with them “give the diary a nice dimension, particularly because (her nephew) is reporting what he sees in Germany and how civilians are living there,” said Proctor.
Her perspective also stretched to Russia. The mistress of the house, Catherine Wittouck, was a Russian aristocrat. When news arrived that Wittouck’s relatives were murdered in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Thorp grieved alongside her employer.
“She, of course, comments on the revolution,” said Proctor. “She thought it was violent, and she worries about what it will mean in the future. She wonders if social unrest would break down governments in Europe.”
Most vitally, Thorp was an enormously engaged and opinionated citizen, gobbling up newspapers and any scraps of gossip, even as the walls of her home trembled from cannon fire in the bloody battlefields of nearby Flanders.
Thorp was always aware of the advantages that came with her warm room in a wealthy household. In her active volunteer work, however, she saw the results of the daily deprivation and indignities enforced by the city’s German overlords.
“People are freezing to death,” she writes as German soldiers confiscated all woolen bed coverings during one brutal winter. “It is pitiful, heart-rending to see how the poor suffer.”
A couple of years later she notes, “I hear Brussels is overrun by mice, there being hardly any more cats. I suppose the latter have been eaten, everyone being so hungry.”
Proud of her British heritage and wanting to be helpful, Thorp made a point of mourning at funerals of far-from-home British soldiers — or “Tommie's — who died in Brussels.
On Jan. 19, 1919, as German soldiers were wreaking havoc as they retreated, the diary entries just stops, “almost in mid-sentence,” said Proctor. Little is known of Thorp’s life after that. She died in 1948 in Brussels.
New York Times Book Review
Writer and contact Janelle Hyatt, Janelle.Hyatt@usu.edu or 435-797-0289.