Una Maud Victoria Marson (5 May 1905 – 1965) was a Jamaican feminist, activist and writer, producing poems, plays and programmes for the BBC. Marson traveled to London in 1932 and worked for the BBC during World War II.
Early years (1905-32)
Una Marson was born on 6 February 1905, in Santa Cruz, Jamaica, in the parish of St Elizabeth. She was the youngest of six children of Reverend Soloman Isaac, a Baptist parson, and Ada Marson. Una had a middle-class upbringing and was very close to her father, who influenced some of her fatherlike characters in her later works. As a child before going to school she was an avid reader of available literature, which at the time was mostly English classical literature.
At the age of 10, she was enrolled in Hampton High, a girl's boarding school in Jamaica of which her father was on the board of trustees. However, that same year, Reverend Isaac died, leaving the family with financial problems, so the family moved to Kingston. Una finished school at Hampton High, but did not go on to a college education.
After she left from Hampton, she found work in Kingston as a volunteer social worker and used the secretarial skills, such as stenography, she had learned in school.
In 1926, she was appointed assistant editor of the Jamaican political journal Jamaica Critic. Her years there taught her journalism skills as well as influencing her political and social opinions and inspired her to create her own publication. In fact, in 1928, she became Jamaica's first female editor and publisher of her own magazine, The Cosmopolitan. The Cosmopolitan featured articles on feminist topics, local social issues and workers' rights and was aimed at a young, middle-class Jamaican audience. Marson's articles encouraged women to join the work force and to become politically active. The magazine also featured Jamaican poetry and literature from Marson's fellow members of the Jamaican Poetry League, started by Clare Macfarlane.
In 1930, Marson published her first collection of poems, entitled Tropic Reveries, that dealt with love and nature with elements of feminism. It won the Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica. Her poems about love are somewhat misunderstood by friends and critics, as there is no evidence of a romantic relationship in Marson's life, although love continued to be a common topic in her work. In 1931, due to financial difficulties, The Cosmopolitan ceased publication, which led her to begin publishing more poetry and plays. In 1931, she published another collection of poetry, entitled Heights and Depths, which also dealt with love and social issues. Also in 1931, she wrote her first play, At What a Price, about a Jamaican girl who moves from the country into the city of Kingston to work as a stenographer and falls in love with her white male boss. The play opened in Jamaica and later London to critical acclaim. In 1932, she decided to go to London to find a broader audience for her work and to experience life outside of Jamaica.
London years (1932-36)
From 1932 to 1945, Marson moved back and forth between London and Jamaica. She continued to contribute to politics, but now instead of focusing on writing for magazines, she wrote for newspapers and her own literary works in order to get her political ideas across. In these years, Marson kept writing to advocate feminism, but one of her new emphases was on the race issue in England.
Marson first moved to London in 1932. The racism and sexism she met there "transformed both her life and her poetry"; The voice in her poetry became more focused on the identity of black women in England. In this period then, Marson not only continued to write about women's roles in society, but also put into the mix the issues faced by black people who lived in England. In July 1933, she wrote a poem called "Nigger" that would appear in the League of Coloured Peoples' journal, The Keys; one of Marson's more forceful poems addressing racism in England, "Nigger" only saw light seven years later when it was published in 1940.
Outside of her writing at that time, Marson was in the London branch of the International Alliance of Women, a global feminist organization. By 1935, she was involved with the International Alliance of Women based in Istanbul.
Marson returned to Jamaica in 1936, where one of her goals was to promote national literature. One step she took in achieving this goal was to help create the Kingston Readers and Writers Club, as well as the Kingston Drama Club. She also founded the Jamaica Save the Children Fund, an organization that raised funds to give the poorer children money to get a basic education.
In promoting Jamaican literature, she published Moth and the Star in 1937. Many poems in that volume demonstrate how despite the media's portrayal that black women have inferior beauty when compared to the whites, black women should still be confident in their own physical beauty. This theme is seen in "Cinema Eyes", "Little Brown Girl", "Black is Fancy" and "Kinky Hair Blues". However, Marson herself was affected by the stereotype of superior white beauty; Marson herself, her biographer tells us, within months of her arrival in Britain "stopped straightening her hair and went natural".
Going along with her feminist principles, Marson worked with Louise Bennett to create another play called London Calling, which was about a woman who moved to London to further her education. However, the woman later became homesick and returned to Jamaica. This play shows how the main character is a "strong heroine" for being able to "force herself to return to London" in order to finish her education there. Also in the feminist vein, Marson wrote Public Opinion, contributing to the feminist column.
Marson's third play, Pocomania, is about a woman named Stella who is looking for an exciting life. Critics suggest that this play is significant because it demonstrates how an "Afro-religious cult" affects middle-class women. Pocomania is also one of Marson's most important works because she was able to put the essence of Jamaican culture into it. Critics such as Ivy Baxter said that "Pocomania was a break in tradition because it talked about a cult from the country", and, as such, it represented a turning point in what was acceptable on the stage.
In 1937, Marson wrote a poem called "Quashie comes to London", which is the perspective of England in a Caribbean narrative. In Caribbean dialect, quashie means gullible or unsophisticated. Although initially impressed, Quashie becomes disgusted with England because there is not enough good food there. The poem shows how, although England has good things to offer, it is Jamaican culture that Quashie misses, and therefore Marson implies that England is supposed to be "the temporary venue for entertainment". The poem shows how it was possible for a writer to implement Caribbean dialect in a poem, and it is this usage of local dialect that situates Quashie's perspective of England as a Caribbean perspective.
London years (1938-45)
Marson returned to London in 1938 to continue work on the Jamaican Save the Children project that she started in Jamaica, and also to be on the staff of the Jamaican Standard. In 1941, she was hired by the BBC Empire Service to work on a programme in which World War II soldiers would have their messages read on the radio to their families.
By 1942, she became the programme's West Indies producer. During the same year, she turned the programme into Caribbean Voices, as a forum in which Caribbean literary work was read over the radio. Over two hundred authors appeared on Caribbean Voices, including V. S. Naipaul, Samuel Selvon, George Lamming and Derek Walcott. Through this show, Marson met people such as Clare McFartlane, Vic Reid, Andrew Salkey, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Jomo Kenyatta, Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey, Amy Gravy, Nancy Cunard, Sylvia Pankhurst, Winifred Holtby, Paul Robeson, John Maseballfield, Louis MacNeice, T. S. Eliot, Tambimuttu and George Orwell. The latter helped Marson edit the programme before she turned it into Caribbean Voices. She also established a firm friendship with Mary Treadgold, who eventually took over her role when Marson returned to Jamaica. However, "despite these experiences and personal connections, there is a strong sense, in Marson's poetry and in Jarrett-Macauley's biography [The Life of Una Marson], that Marson remained something of an isolated and marginal figure".
Nevertheless, her radio show, Caribbean Voices, was described by Kamau Brathwaite as "the single most important literary catalyst for Caribbean creative writing in English". Since on radio the poems could only be appreciated orally, Caribbean Voices helped to influence later Caribbean poetry in having a more spoken form; as Laurence Breiner notes, through the medium of radio "much West Indian poetry was heard rather than seen".
Life after World War II (1945-65)
Details of Marson's life are limited, and those pertaining to her personal and professional life post-1945 are particularly hard to come by. In 1945, she published a poetry collection entitled Towards the Stars. This marked a shift in the focus of her poetry: while she once wrote about female sadness over lost love, poems from Towards the Stars were much more focused on the independent woman. Also at this time, Marson wrote at least one article entitled "We Want Books - But Do We Encourage Our Writers?" in an effort to spur Caribbean nationalism through literature. Her efforts outside of her writing seem to work in collaboration with these sentiments, though conflicting stories offer little concrete evidence about what she exactly did.
Sources differ in outlining Marson's personal life during this time period. Author Erika J. Waters states that Marson was a secretary for the Pioneer Press, a publishing company in Jamaica for Jamaican authors. This source believes that she then moved in the 1950s to Washington, DC, where she met and married a dentist named Peter Staples. The two allegedly divorced, allowing Marson to travel to England, Israel, then back to Jamaica, where she died in 1965. Another source, written by Lee M. Jenkins, offers a very different tale for Marson's personal life and says that Marson was sent to a mental hospital following a breakdown during the years 1946-49. After being released, Marson founded the Pioneer Press. This source claims that she went in the 1950s to the US, where she had another breakdown and was admitted to St. Elizabeth's Asylum. Following this, Marson returned to Jamaica, where she rallied against Rastafarian discrimination. She then went to Israel for a women's conference, an experience that she discussed in her last BBC radio broadcast for Woman's Hour.
The conflicting details regarding Marson's personal life show that there is very little information available about her. For example, Water's article quotes Marson's criticisms of Porgy and Bess, yet provides no citation for this work. In combination with this is the limited record of her writings during this time period. Many of her works were left unpublished or circulated only in Jamaica. Most of these writings are only available in the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston. Given these constraints, it is difficult to understand the whole of Una Marson's accomplishments during the final period of her life.
Criticism and influences
Critics have both praised and dismissed Marson's poetry. She has been criticized for mimicking European style, such as Romantic and Georgian poetics. For example, Marson's poem "mimics the style of Kipling's poem". Author Denise deCaires Narain suggests that Marson was overlooked because poetry concerning the condition and status of females was not important to audiences at the time the works were produced. Other critics, by contrast, praised Marson for her modern style. Some, like Narain, even suggest that her mimicking challenged conventional poetry of the time in an effort to criticize European poets. Regardless, Marson was active in the West Indian writing community during that period. Her involvement with Caribbean Voices was important to publicising Caribbean literature internationally, as well as spurring nationalism within the Caribbean islands that she represented.
- Tropic Reveries (1930, poetry)
- Heights and Depths (1932, poetry)
- At What a Price (1933, play)
- Moth and the Star (1937, poetry)
- London Calling (1938, play)
- Pocomania (1938, play)
- Towards the Stars (1945, poetry)
- Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2011)
- Jarrett-Macauley, The Life of Una Marson.
- Waters, Una Marson, 204.
- Jenkins, The Language of Caribbean Poetry, 138.
- Banham, Hill, Woodyard, The Cambridge Guide to African and Caribbean Theatre, 212.
- Waters, Una Marson, 206.
- Donnell and Welsh, The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, 120.
- Narain, Contemporary Caribbean Women's Poetry, 3.
- Jenkins, The Language of Caribbean Poetry, 127.
- Jenkins, "Penelope's Web: Una Marson, Lorna Goodison, M. NourbeSe Philip", 139.
- Donnell and Welsh, The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, 185-186.
- Waters, "Una Marson", Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 157: Caribbean and Black African Writers, third series, 207.
- Jenkins, 128-29.
- Rosenberg, "The Pitfalls of Feminist Nationalism and the Career of Una Marson", 160.
- Banham, Martin, Errol Hill & George Woodyard, eds. Introduction and Jamaica. The Cambridge Guide to African & Caribbean Theatre. Advisory editor for Africa, Olu Obafemi. NY & Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 141-49; 197-202.
- Narain, Denise deCaires. "Literary Mothers? Una Marson and Phyllis Shand Allfrey". Contemporary Caribbean Women's Poetry: Making Style. NY & London: Routledge, 2002.
- Jarrett-Macauley, Delia. The Life of Una Marson. Manchester (UK): Manchester University Press, 1998.
- Jenkins, Lee M. Penelope's Web: Una Marson, Lorna Goodison, M. Nourbese Philip. The Language of Caribbean Poetry: Boundaries of Expression. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2004.
- Marson, Una. Assorted writings in Voices of Women in Jamaica, 1898-1939, ed. Linnette Vassell. Mona & Kingston: Dept of History, UWI, 1993.
- Ramchand, Kenneth. "Decolonization in West Indian Literature". Transition, 22 (1965):48-49.
- Rosenberg, Leah. "The Pitfalls of Feminist Nationalism and the Career of Una Marson". Nationalism and the formation of Caribbean Literature. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
- Donnell, Alison. "Contradictory (W)omens?: Gender Consciousness in the Poetry of Una Marson". Kunapipi (1996).
- Donnell, Alison, and Welsh, Sarah Lawson. The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.
- Waters, Erika J. "Una Marson". Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 157: Caribbean and Black African Writers, third series. 207.
- Biography of Una Marson, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- The Life of Una Marson at the Wayback Machine (archived April 29, 2009)
- Biography of Una Marson and limited preview of the book in Google Books
- Una Marson's Heights and Depths within the Digital Library of the Caribbean
- Una Marson's The Moth and the Star within the Digital Library of the Caribbean
- Una Marson's Tropic Reveries within the Digital Library of the Caribbean
- "West Indies Calling (1944)", BFI on YouTube.
- "Una Marson" at Naking Britain, The Open University.