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Mary Chamberlain

Mary Chamberlain studied Politics at Edinburgh at a point in history when students were a crucial part of political debate and protest. She tells us about being a founding member of the University's Politics Society and a career that has finally led her to her dream job.


Mary Chamberlain



Year of Graduation 1969
Mary Chamberlain

At the moment

I live in London, and have done since I graduated, with a brief sojourn in East Anglia, and a longer sojourn in Barbados. After I retired as Professor of Caribbean History at Oxford Brookes University, I wrote an international best selling novel which started a second career as a novelist.

Your time at the University

I was the first girl in my family to go to university. Convent educated, naive and gauche, I entered a savvy world of blue jeans and donkey jackets, white boots and mini-skirts. My parents were strict, my home life constrained, so for me university represented escape. I chose Edinburgh because it was 400 miles from home. I went up to read History but was seduced by Politics and the charismatic James Cornford. The Politics department was small, young and ambitious, the departmental air democratic and egalitarian. In 1967, we set up the Politics Society, of which I was its first secretary. Perhaps Politics attracted a particular kind of student. Most of the articulation of student unrest between 1967 and 1969 was spearheaded from students in the department, not least in the memorable challenge to the then Rector, Malcolm Muggeridge over the University Health Centre’s refusal to prescribe the pill for single women. Muggeridge resigned as Rector in protest, using the opportunity of a sermon in St Giles’ Cathedral in 1968 to publicise his decision nationally.

Town and gown was a strange business. Edinburgh was a capital city with a cosmopolitan and European past. It felt like a European city. But it was dour and puritanical, marked by poverty. It was only 20 years since the Second World War had ended. The Grassmarket was lived in by dossers and much of the Royal Mile bore the scars of slum dwelling. Students could rent flats with no bathrooms for five shillings (25p) a week in a no-mans land (now redeveloped) between Chambers Street and George Square. Men and women had separate unions. Still, there was haggis sausage in Leith Street, fresh doughnuts at 3am from the all-night bakery in Patrick Square, and cheap gut-rot wine from Valvona’s. 

More and more, I realise how my own work had been formed and informed by my early mentors at Edinburgh.

Your experiences since leaving the University

I took a scenic route to a career, via post-grad at the London School of Economics, and a number of short-term positions. In 1972, I was recruited by the ANC to work undercover in South Africa. On return, I became active in the women’s movement, and returned to my first love, history, but it was the new history ‘from below’, driven by the impulses of the 1960s and 1970s. My first book, 'Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village', pioneered oral history and was also the first book to be published by Virago Press in 1975. I began teaching in higher education, publishing three further books with Virago, before moving to Barbados. There, I switched fields from women’s history to Caribbean history.

My work has tried to chart the bleak underbelly of politics, the impact of political decision making and the power of political ideas through the lives of women picking up the pieces, or colonial subjects resisting racial and Imperial categories, or West Indian migrants navigating the crucibles of international relations. More and more, I realise how my own work had been formed and informed by my early mentors at Edinburgh. In 2009 I retired as a professor, and launched a career as a novelist which had long been a secret dream of mine. My ‘debut’ novel, 'The Dressmaker of Dachau', sold to 19 countries. My second novel, 'The Hidden' was published in 2019 and my third 'The Forgotten', is published this September. I am currently working on my next novel, all of which attempt to explore some of the untold stories of the Second World War.  

This year I received an honorary degree from the University of East Anglia – it was a huge honour, the cherry on the icing of a long and happy working life.

Alumni wisdom

This is your world. Think what you can do to make it better, fairer, safer, and at peace with itself. So whatever you do, always be kind, considerate and tolerant. Be proud of who you are and what you’ve done, and respect those around you. Cherish your friends and family. Be positive and optimistic, even though life may slap you in the face from time to time. Follow your instincts and your interests, grab opportunities even if, at first glance, they may appear to lead nowhere. Be alert. Be flexible. Open to suggestion. Luck is made, never found.

Related links

Politics at Edinburgh

Mary Chamberlain