Books: A row with Paul Robeson

THE LIFE OF UNA MARSON by Delia Jarrett-Macauley Manchester University Press pounds 19.95
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The Independent Culture
THE COMMENTS on the back cover of this book are enthusiastic enough to stimulate interest, but cynics may be slightly put off by one thing: all of those canvassed are university tutors. Are we dealing with that most informative yet passionless of literary creations, the "research tool"? Absolutely not. The Life of Una Marson has an emotional charge that acutely reflects the authoritative closeness that Delia Jarrett-Macauley has to her subject. It points a hand-held camera at Marson, tracking her through the important scenes and locations of her personal, professional and public lives without glibness or sentimentality.

The name Una Marson is invariably accompanied by the phrase "Britain's first black feminist". The daughter of a Jamaican baptist minister, Marson became editor of the magazine The Cosmopolitan in Kingston in the late Twenties before making her way to London a few years later, where she was to become recognised as the first major female poet of the Caribbean. She published four collections of poetry between 1930 and 1945, wrote plays performed both in London and Jamaica and became a broadcaster for the BBC, working alongside George Orwell and T S Eliot. In 1943 she produced the influential radio show Caribbean Voices, perhaps the earliest example of ethnic minority programming.

But these are the more well-known aspects of Marson's career. Where this biography scores highest is in its gap-filling chapters. Jarrett-Macauley charts the important migrations (a highly significant word for a Caribbean) of her subject's life with meticulous attention. From a secretarial position at the pioneering pan-African organisation, the League of Coloured Peoples, Marson went on to work for the League of Nations in the prelude to the Second World War. When the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie sought international assistance in Geneva following Mussolini's invasion, it was Marson who acted as his personal secretary. Jarrett-Macauley demonstrates that the preacher's daughter was very much a woman of the world, intent on moving with, even ahead of, the times. She was energetic and ambitious, and constantly threw up bold challenges to standard expectations of race and gender.

Like most high-achievers Marson had her shortcomings, and these are by no means glossed over by the author. To the very colourful tapestry of Una Marson's triumphs are added the darker shades of personal strife - a difficult relationship with her mother, a futile public dispute with Paul Robeson whom she considered to be stealing her thunder as a spokesperson for the black working-class, and an unsuccessful marriage. Though all of this, Jarrett-Macauley is rigorous in substantiating her observations and surmises with detailed factual information. Using a wide variety of sources such as documents from the Jamaican National Library, Thirties editions of Jamaican newspapers such as the Daily Gleaner, BBC archive material and interviews with close friends and other acquaintances, she builds up a vivid portrait of the woman, who, on returning to Sharon village in Jamaica, was still referred to by old women from her father's former church as the "parson's baby".

Written in a frank and accessible style, The Life of Una Marson is a fascinating read. The narrative drive is sustained with flair and the combination of the author's own commentary and excerpts from Marson's own speeches, articles and poetry provide a critically balanced and genuinely inspiring appraisal of a woman whose contribution to the Caribbean presence in Britain has been too frequently overlooked.