Lady Blomfield: Her Life and Times – An Interview with Robert Weinberg

Lady Blomfield 350x530The recent post in honour of the Day of the Covenant that asked us what we thank Abdu’l-Baha for really got me thinking. I am grateful for the rich constellation of historical accounts of the life of the Master — many give us an intimate glimpse of the Perfect Exemplar. I am also thankful for the life stories of those bright souls who knew Him and who served Him.

Lady Blomfield was one of those early believers whose spiritual conquests are moving and fascinating. Her contributions to the Cause span a unique period in history as the hostess to the Master in the United Kingdom, a collector of recollections by the ladies of the Holy Family, and a literary assistant to the Guardian. Her services to the wider society in which she lived — at a time of suffrage and World War I — are inspiring.

Owing to the dedicated work of Robert Weinberg, we can now enjoy and study Lady Blomfield: Her Life and Times. Robert graciously agreed to give us a behind-the-scenes look at his marvellous and thoroughly-researched book recently published by George Ronald.

Baha’i Blog: Hi Rob! Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your newest book. Can you tell us a little about yourself, your work as a writer, and Lady Blomfield: Her Life and Times?

I always loved to write – particularly about art, films, music and history. My early professional career, though, was spent entirely in radio news. What I gained from that experience was the ability to write very quickly and concisely; sometimes you have to turn several news stories round in just a few minutes in order to get them into the next bulletin! As my career progressed, I moved more into radio production and that gave me the opportunity to work on scripts and to write with different ‘voices’ for different presenters, and to try to tell stories in a compelling way.

I still apply the principles of radio production to my factual writing: you gather the material, looking out for the ‘good quotes’ and arrange it in a way that propels the narrative along, prompting images in the mind of the listener/reader. Another rule of radio is always throwing forward – giving the listener a reason to keep listening for longer. I apply that too in my writing across chapter breaks, always trying to entice the reader to keep going because something else interesting is coming up.

Having said I write quickly, it should be said that Lady Blomfield: Her Life and Times took 15 years to complete! Probably, in real time, though, the actual writing took about four or five months – but I was trying to fit in the research for all those years around my job and other activities. From time to time I would take a week’s leave and write a chapter but then not do any work on it for a whole year. Then when I went back to it maybe for a weekend I would spend the entire time reviewing and rewriting the chapter I’d already written. At one point I had my laptop stolen and lost a substantial chapter that I hadn’t backed up – so that was another setback. It was only when I finally got a long run of free weekends in late 2009/early 2010 that I had the time and freedom to actually sit down and write. By then I felt I had done as much research as I could and my publisher George Ronald specifically wanted the book in time for what was then the approaching centenary of Abdu’l-Baha’s sojourn in London.

The book is fundamentally a fairly straight-forward, chronologically organized account of the life of an extraordinary woman from an underprivileged background whose conscience, coupled with her later social status and wealth as a young widow, prompted her to champion so many good causes – from women’s suffrage to anti-vivisection; from prisoners’ welfare to her role in the early establishment of the Save the Children Fund. Baha’is know her primarily as Abdu’l-Baha’s hostess during His two visits to London and for her historical account, The Chosen Highway, but she lived a long and fruitful life and I think many readers of the book have been surprised at just how much she also assisted Shoghi Effendi in his work, how she involved herself in so many diverse aspects of society, participated in the prevalent discourses of her day, and dedicated herself to social action.

Baha’i Blog: What is the process like to write a biography of an early believer?

I am not sure if the process of writing a biography of someone who was an early believer is any different from writing about any figure from history. The ease or difficulty of the process depends on whether the primary source material is easily discoverable. With Lady Blomfield I benefitted from the fact that she was a prolific writer of letters and other accounts and those papers were preserved in various places. Her husband’s life – he was a distinguished architect from a well-known clerical family – is also well reported in various journals and books, so gathering the information was not too difficult.

Early on in the process I develop the habit of compiling and regularly adding to a chronology – so whenever a piece of information, a letter, details of an activity or some related historical event becomes available I note it in the chronology and then file the document in date order. Usually what happens is that the chapter structure emerges quite logically around definite events or periods in a person’s life so the writing flows quite easily from there. What is quite exciting is when you are able to piece together an event from a range of documents – letters, diary entries, reports from newspapers – and you can tell the story and include a variety of perspectives or sources.

Baha’i Blog: I’m sure the editorial process for a work of non-fiction for which you’ve conducted a lot of research is difficult. Did you have to let go of any stories or facts that you found really fascinating when you edited the book?

If you’ve seen the size of the book, you’ll know there’s not a lot left out!
But mainly there’s always the decision to be made with any biography about how much one divulges someone’s private life and affairs – that is if anything comes to light which might substantially change the way a person is remembered, or damage someone’s reputation. Thankfully that didn’t happen with Lady Blomfield; I didn’t find any particular skeletons in her closet that would dramatically alter posterity’s perception or opinion of her. But there was, for example, talk in one of her letters of her having a gentleman interested in her at a certain point. I didn’t venture any further into that because the relationship clearly did not go anywhere. I did mention it to the extent that it demonstrated that she was not willing to give up her causes for someone who wasn’t going to support or encourage her in pursuing them but I couldn’t see much benefit in trying to establish who this man was or the nature of their relationship.

I suppose one has to make a decision about whether sharing something about someone adds anything useful to the impression you are trying to convey of her. I think it’s powerful to show people as ordinary human beings who despite their very natural failings did extraordinary things. But I don’t think it’s just or fair to intrude on the things they themselves protected as private. For example, there was a whole period of her early life that is still a complete mystery to me – she did not document it and it seems she did not talk about it. I even hired a former private investigator-turned-genealogist in New York to try and trace living family members descended from Lady Blomfield’s sister. She did a fantastic job but the trail went cold in the 1970s. At one point, she uncovered a very public divorce case between the sister and her husband – they were Broadway personalities – but I decided not to go into all the detail because it wasn’t particularly relevant to Lady Blomfield’s own life and story. All of that expense and research ended up as about five lines in the finished book!

Baha’i Blog: You’ve also written about Ethel Rosenberg, another early British believer. What attracts you to writing about British Baha’i history?

The very first Bahá’í book I read properly – and loved – as a teenager was The Diary of Juliet Thompson. It set me on a path of wanting to know about early Western believers in general and I devoured all the biographies and historical works as they came out. It was actually the suggestion of the editorial team at George Ronald that I write about Ethel Rosenberg. Around 1990 they had decided they would like to produce more books about British Bahá’ís and around that time I had sent to them a semi-fictionalised life of Thomas Breakwell, which was never published. The more I researched about Ethel Rosenberg, in particular her artistic family roots, the more I wanted to know. Of course, when you are researching one person, other characters emerge and you think to yourself, “Hmm. I wouldn’t mind knowing more about him or her.” So that’s where the seeds of Lady Blomfield began as well. I always start with that question of wanting to know more about someone and if there isn’t anything available, well then I write it myself!

But I think the attraction for me in this period in particular is discovering just how connected the early British Bahá’ís were with events in their society: the suffragette movement, the First World War, the interest in spiritual movements at that time, developments in the church and politics. They were certainly interesting and very independent thinkers who were involved in many movements. You can see just how connected they were by the range of people and organisations that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed when he was in Britain – all of those meetings were initiated by His followers.

 Baha’i Blog: What are some aspects of Lady Blomfield’s life that have really inspired you?

 I think I have been inspired by her poetic and loving soul, her considerable literary abilities, her industriousness, and her courage at championing so many important causes and her fearlessness at bringing them to the attention of the society people whom she knew. London was well aware of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit and people flocked to see Him at Lady Blomfield’s home and other gatherings – that response was largely thanks to the social connections she cultivated and her openness in telling people about the Cause.

 Baha’i Blog: If you could ask Lady Blomfield one question, what would that be?

I would really like to know what happened in her life between leaving Ireland as a young girl and marrying Sir Arthur Blomfield. Her entire early life is a mystery still. But maybe she intended to keep it that way.

 Baha’i Blog: What’s next, Rob? Any new exciting projects on the horizon?

There is one book project I would like to start some time soon. But, rather than a biography of a single individual, it would be more of an attempt to capture a particular time and place in the history of the Faith and the many people who were connected with that period. I won’t say any more in case someone else steals my idea – because judging by the Lady Blomfield experience, it might take me another 15 years to get it done!

Baha’i Blog: No matter the amount of time it takes, we look forward to your next publication! Thank you for telling us about Lady Blomfield (which can be purchased here).

Rob’s book about Ethel Rosenberg, his edited work of the writings of the Baha’i potter Bernard Leach (Spinning the Clay into Stars), and a collection of letters the Guardian wrote to youth entitled …Your True Brother can also be purchased from George Ronald Publishing. If you are intrigued by Lady Blomfield, I highly suggest reading her book The Chosen Highway.

About the Author

Sonjel Vreeland

In her innermost heart, Sonjel is a mother, a wife and a bookworm but professionally she is a museologist and a library technician. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island, an isle in the shape of a smile on the eastern Canadian coast. Sonjel is a writer who loves to listen to jazz when she's driving at night.

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Discussion 1 Comment

  1. From page 277 of “Lady Blomfield – Her Life and Times”, the author, Robert Weinberg in the final four lines of the extract below notes from a conversation between him and Pauline Senior around 1996:

    A talk was also arranged, most probably by Lady Blomfield, for Martha [Root], joined by Laura Dreyfus-Barney, at the Religious and Ethics Committee of the League of Nations. Sitarih [i.e Sitarih (Star) Khanum – Lady Blomfield] then joined Martha for a weekend in Manchester, where this unparalleled promoter of the Baha’i teachings had been actively teaching for eight days. They held a meeting in the Victoria Hotel, Martha addressed two hundred boys and girls at a Unitarian Sunday school and both spoke in the Reverend H. H. Biggs’s Unitarian Church in Altrincham. After the service more than a hundred people remained for two hours to ask questions. (The following year Reverend Biggs was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the British Isles prompting Shoghi Effendi TO QUESTION ‘HIS UNRESERVED ACCEPTANCE OF THE FAITH IN ITS ENTIRETY’.) A young girl, Pauline Freitag, later Senior – who had recently joined the Baha’i Faith in Manchester and who met both Martha and Lady Blomfield on their journey to the city – recalled some seven decades later that THEIR AMERICAN VISITOR WAS ‘RIGHT BOSSY’ and that SITARIH ‘ALWAYS WORE BIG HATS’.

    A riveting and deeply researched work which i m o will stand the test of time. But, no one’s perfect right! Who, as a mere mortal, composes a work of nearly 500 pages without a glitch or three? On the other hand, maybe I’m looking cock eyed at a couple of the extracts I’ve capitalized above? From my neutral vantage point I wonder why such a talented writer includes at least in one example what prima facie amounts to gossip in its negative sense? Nevertheless, this amateur, if only for the overall (envied?) professionalism and particularly for its scholarship on page 276, would not hesitate to hand the work to all and sundry,

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