In her early years Helen D’Abernon (1866–1954) had been a society beauty, whose much-admired portrait by John Singer Sargent (1904) was reproduced on the frontispiece of her WWI and post-war memoirs Red Cross and Berlin Embassy 1915–1926 (1946). She had married Edgar D’Abernon in 1890. During the First World War, she worked as a lay anaesthetist in Italy and France. The British Embassy in Berlin had stood empty during the war. While Ambassador D’Abernon was occupied in Warsaw on an Anglo-French mission to stop a Bolshevik uprising, Helen D’Abernon travelled to Berlin to put the embassy to rights. She describes vividly in what state she found it in: utter disarray. In the early 1920s, she helped restore it to its former glory, and gave dinners and parties. About one of them, the diarist Harry Count Kessler remarked that he felt it to be in poor taste, in such politically fraught times, for D’Abernon to cavort around dressed as a shepherdess, but he was nevertheless struck by her social skills.
This impression was shared by one of her aristocratic visitors, Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, whose manuscript diary of her Berlin visit in many ways echoes D’Abernon’s own memoir. The mixture of shopping at Wertheim, a large and famous department store, and observing urban destitution, combined with high diplomacy and political talks with visitors and German diplomats and politicians speaks of the writer’s class habitus. Helen D’Abernon observed the deprived social circumstances of disadvantaged Berliners during chaperoned visits to soup kitchens and health clinics. She questioned the level of poverty, comparing it to what she had seen in Britain, and came to the conclusion that Berlin was better off.
She wasn’t really interested in the Germans, and her comments about their sense of dress, their – in her eyes – odd behaviour, and lack of finesse can distract from her excellent descriptive skills. Her work captures the transitional moment when, after war, revolution, and poverty, Berlin was heading towards a period of newly discovered sexual liberation, luxury leisure activities, and political dissent, which were to dominate the next decade. Gesa Stedman
[Helen D’Abernon], Red Cross and Berlin Embassy 1915–1926. Extracts from the Diaries of Viscountess D’Abernon (London: John Murray 1946)
Stedman, Gesa, ‘British Women Writers in Berlin: From the Cage of Diplomacy to the Gestapo Prison’, in Happy in Berlin? English Writers in the City, The 1920s and Beyond, ed. Stefano Evangelista and Gesa Stedman (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2021)
Stedman, Gesa, ‘“Restoring Friendship and Confidence as far as possible between the inimical Nations”: Post-World War I Berlin Through English Eyes’, Journal for European Studies, November 2021 (forthcoming)