Mary Borden

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May Borden (center) with Sir Edward Spears (back row, left).

Mary Borden (1886–1968) was an early 20th-century, Anglo-American novelist.


Mary Borden - known as May by her friends and family[1] - was born into a wealthy Chicago family. She attended Vassar College, graduating with a B.A. in 1907. On a tour of the Far East she met and married Scottish missionary George Douglas Turner, with whom she had three daughters; Joyce (born 1909), Comfort (born 1910) and Mary (born 1914).

In 1913 she and Turner moved to England where Borden joined the Suffragette movement. She was arrested during a demonstration in Parliament Square for throwing a stone through the window of Her Majesty's Treasury. She spent five days in police cells until bailed by her husband.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 she used her own considerable money to equip and staff a field hospital for French soldiers close to the Front in which she herself served as a nurse from 1915 until the end of the war. It was there she met Brigadier General Edward Louis Spears, who became her second husband, in 1918, following the dissolution of her first marriage. She and Spears carried out an affair at the Front which was discovered by her husband, who separated from her and took custody of their children.

During her war-time experience she wrote poetry such as 'The Song of the Mud' (1917).[2] Notably, her work includes a striking set of sketches and short stories, The Forbidden Zone (1929), which was published in the same year as A Farewell to Arms, Good-Bye to All That and All Quiet on the Western Front. Even in this context, contemporary readers were disturbed at the graphic - sometimes hallucinatory - quality of work coming from a woman who had first-hand experience of life on the front line.[3]

The Forbidden Zone contained five long poems that describe what she saw and did working in the military hospital, and are full of passionate energy and compassion. Their style is reminiscent of Walt Whitman who also tended to the wounded on the battlefield, in his case during the American Civil War.

She wrote a number of other poems about the war and also about her affair with Spears which were not published in book form until 2015, one hundred years after they were written. Mary Borden, Poems from the Front, edited by Paul O'Prey, was published in London by Dare-Gale Press,[4] distributed by the University of Chicago Press[5] in the US. Her war poems were slow to be recognised but now feature in several modern First World War poetry anthologies[6]

Her 1937 novel Action for Slander was adapted into a film the same year.

Living in England between the wars, she was drawn back to France in the expectation of mounting some sort of aid facility similar to that she had run in the first war. With funds donated by Sir Robert Hadfield via his wife, Lady Hadfield, she set up the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit, which was based in Lorraine until forced by the German Blitzkrieg to retreat across France before its evacuation from Arcachon in June 1940. In Britain, the unit re-grouped and received further funding from the British War Relief Society in New York. In May 1941, the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit was attached to the Free French in the Middle East, before accompanying their forces across North Africa, Italy and France. Journey Down a Blind Alley, published on her return to Paris in 1946, records the history of the unit and her disillusion with the French failure to put up an effective resistance to the German invasion and occupation.[7]

In her later life, she would often return to the United States and assisted her nephew-in-law Adlai Stevenson II in his run for the presidency, even writing some of his speeches.[8]

A first person account of Lady Spears and the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit can be found in To War with Whitaker, The Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly 1939-45. ISBN 0-7493-1954-2


  • The Romantic Woman (1920)
  • The Tortoise (1921)
  • Three Pilgrims and a Tinker (1924)
  • Flamingo (1927)
  • Four O'clock (1927)
  • The Forbidden Zone (1929) OCLC: 1852756
  • Jehovah's Day (1929)
  • A Woman with White Eyes (1930)
  • Sarah Gay (1931)
  • Action for Slander (1937)
  • Journey Down a Blind Alley (1946)
  • You, the Jury (1952)
  • Poems of Love and War (2015)


  1. ^ "A Short Biography". Retrieved 2015-12-08. 
  2. ^ | Full text of "English Review" August 1917, including 'The Song of the Mud'
  3. ^ Conway, Jane (2010). A Woman of Two Wars. London: Munday. p. 150. 
  4. ^ "Dare-gale Press". Dare-gale Press. Retrieved 2016-02-12. 
  5. ^ "Poems of Love and War". University of Chicago Press. Retrieved 2016-02-12. 
  6. ^ O'Prey, Paul (2014). First World War: Poems from the Front. London: Imperial War Museum. 
  7. ^ Borden, Mary (1946). Journey down a Blind Alley. London: Hutchinson & Co. p. 296. 
  8. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Everett F. Bleile, The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers, 1948; pg. 56.w
  • Jane Conway, A Woman of Two Wars: The Life of Mary Borden (Munday Books, 2010.
  • Hazel Hutchinson, The War That Used Up Words: American Writers and the First World War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.
  • Wyndham Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering. 1937.
  • Paul O'Prey (ed.), Mary Borden, Poems of Love and War. Dare-Gale Press, 2015.
  • Max Wyndham, Under Two Flags: Life of Major General Sir Edward Spears. 1997.

External links[edit]

This article incorporates text from The Modern World Encyclopædia: Illustrated (1935); out of UK copyright as of 2005.