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Campaigning for Peace: a profile of Caroline Playne

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Written by
Richard Espley

To conclude this month’s Senate House Library theme, “War and Peace,” former Head of Modern Collections Dr Richard Espley pays tribute to peace campaigner Caroline Playne, who donated many valuable resources to the library.

Caroline Playne (1857-1948) was one of many campaigners in early twentieth century Britain who devoted their lives to improving a society which largely declined to listen. She spent decades campaigning for peace and the better understanding of the causes of conflict, including numerous international trips to conferences and congresses and publishing four densely referenced histories of the First World War. However, Playne is now almost entirely forgotten; it took forty years for her to be recognised in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where it was noted that ‘there is uncertainty about much of Caroline Playne’s life’.

Detail from “Everywoman and War”
The title page of Caroline Playne's "“Everywoman and War.” 

Playne’s histories are challenging, highly seasoned works, driven on by a relentless passion. Her argument is amassed through vast quotations of a startling range of primary and secondary sources, with substantial reference to nineteenth-century philosophy and to autobiographies of the powerful from across Europe. Indeed, one of the few reviews of Playne’s first major work, The Neuroses of the Nations (1925) that is not purely dismissive remarked unkindly that ‘the ultimate value of the book [...] will lie in its availability as a mine of useful quotations’. (L. G. Robinson, Review of The Neuroses of the Nations, Economica, 16).

All this material is put to use for one overriding purpose, to diagnose the ills of society. Mental illness is Playne’s frequent metaphor for what had happened to her culture, while its greatest symptom, and its greatest vector for further neurosis, was the Great War. One lengthy quotation will perhaps demonstrate both the tone and the direction of Playne’s whole oeuvre, in its passion and its certainty. There had been, she insisted, a “failure of men’s nervous systems to adjust themselves to the ever-increasing strain of life under highly stressed and complicated conditions of existence. Out of this failure of adjustment arose nervous excitement, nervous depression, general irritation, resulting in anger and passion. Primitive passions burst forth, accompanied by emotions of instinctive type. The effect of this upthrust of ancient and obsolete furies into the nervous order was so turbulent, that, as has been said, they swept the masses out of the path of reasonable advancement and plunged them into a series of group-neuroses. (Playne, Neuroses of the Nations).

In 1938, at the age of 81 and in despair at the onset of another war, Playne crafted a carefully selected collection of books, newspapers, pamphlets and ephemera to be gifted to the University of London. Despite failing health and the clearly muted interest of the institution, she agonised over her choices and until the very morning that the material was collected, continued to change titles and replace copies with better editions. The care is not surprising, in that this collection had effectively become her proxy for her own campaigning life, offered to the next generation to explain what those around her would not hear:

“My great desire is that the collection may be of use to future students in studying the psychological causes of the decline and fall of European civilization in our times.”

Playne donated the books that had most influenced her own writing, and the evidence of her evolving thought in drafts and notes, cuttings and marginalia. This is an astoundingly rich horde of material, combining the ephemeral with the august, and representing all viewpoints from the anti-war rhetoric of the Union for Democratic Control to the strident and jingoist nationalism of Horatio Bottomley’s John Bull.

There is a haunting moment in one of Playne’s diaries, donated alongside her books. Finding herself sitting “in a pretty drawing room,” she considers how far away she is from the “heaped-up slaughter” and reflects that “reality is too superbly awful to be coexistent.”

Such was Playne’s purpose and fortitude that she continued to campaign in a world of which she had despaired and from which she had withdrawn herself. The Playne Collection in Senate House Library is her last, peaceful weapon, hurled at an uncomprehending world, and to read it is to honour her memory. 

Dr Richard Espley 

Chief Librarian, V&A Research Institute