We know very little about Mary Bosanquet, who wrote the first Bonhoeffer biography. Her lively book, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published in 1968, is filled, however, with a rich vein of primary source material.

We do know that Bosanquet, writing in the mid-1960s, had earlier become friends with Sabine Leibholz, Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, and both Leibholz and Eberhard Bethge cooperated with the biographical project. Sabine spoke with Bosanquet for “many hours” and was impressed with her “exceptional sensitivity,” saying “she has recognized Dietrich for the man he was. … I can fully agree with her interpretation.”

While Sabine’s glowing endorsement of the book (which includes more than is quoted above) might lead one to suspect Bosanquet functioned as Leibholz’s and Bethge’s proxy, the book transcends mere transcription of those two’s thoughts. It includes, for example, remembrances from Bonhoeffer’s beloved governesses, Käthe and Maria Horn. Although in their 80s, the Horn sisters took the time to write Bosanquet letters about their young charge.

In the biography, Bosanquet quotes Käthe Horn’s letter at greater length than Maria’s.  Käthe remembers Sabine and Dietrich as “gifted and ready to learn,” as well as “jolly,” and notes the youngsters liked to surprise her with good deeds, such as setting the table for supper so she wouldn’t have do it. She also notes that the young Dietrich was “mischievious” and “up to various pranks.” Bethge’s portrayal of their mother, Paula, as emotional and a woman not to be crossed, gains credence from  Käthe’s recollection of a time Dietrich became “thorough nuisance.” Paula “descended upon him, boxed his ears left and right and was gone. Then the nonsense was over.” Maria Horn, however, noted that while the Bonhoeffer children were “high-spirited,” they “were never rude or ill-mannered.”

I was tantalized by these few breadcrumbs of recollection from Bonhoeffer’s governesses that made their way into the book. Surely their full letters must exist somewhere? I wondered, too, if Bosanquet could still be alive.

My Bosanquet sleuthing proved harder than I expected. The internet yielded no information –although I learned from bookseller sites that Bosanquet had published several other books, including Canada Ride, her account of riding across Canada on horseback in 1939 and Journey into A Picture, her story of being posted to Italy with the YMCA during World War II as the Nazis were being pushed out. I ordered the books, both out of print, from used booksellers.  Canada Ride, also published under the title Saddlebags for Satchels, duly arrived; Journey into A Picture never did.

Canada Ride yielded interesting biographical information about Bosanquet. She grew up in Beechingstoke Manor farm in the tiny village of Beechingstoke, England. Her father was a diplomat in Frankfurt, and so she spent part of her childhood there, developing a fondness for the German people. When she rode across Canada, her way of distancing herself from the war she knew was coming (it broke out during her ride), she was 24, and had already had a Christian conversion experience. On March 31, 1939, when she boarded the Duchess of Bedford to sail to Canada, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was visiting Sabine in London during the “glorious” spring of 1939.

Canada Ride, translated into German, became a best seller there after the war, perhaps in part because Bosanquet spoke generously of the Germans in the book, stating when the war broke out that she could never hate them. In 1948, Bosanquet met and hit it off with Sabine. This isn’t surprising, given that the two women were from the same social class, elite but not aristocratic, close in age, had lived in the other’s home country,  were fluent in both German and English, and were intelligent, accomplished women.

All of this fascinated me. Since I dscovered Bosanquet was born in 1913, I now imagined she had passed away. (She may still be alive at 101–she was born in December, 1913.) Knowing her father was a diplomat helped me locate her particular family, but as for any direct descendants I was stymied. I contacted a British cyber friend and genealogist, Ron Dunning, who established that Bosanquat had married a Robert Sinkler Darby in Princeton, NJ in 1947. The intrepid Ron also discovered  that the couple had three children, moved back to England and that at least some of the now adult children (and/or their own children) live near Bath.

Since that time (last June), I have been too busy to pursue this line of sleuthing any further, but would be interested to know if any of Bosanquet’s Bonhoeffer papers are extant. To the extent she corresponded with Sabine, Eberhard, the Horn sisters and others, her materials would surely be of interest to Bonhoeffer scholars. I hope to share more information as I have time to continue these researches and would be glad of any input.

I find it fitting that Bonhoeffer’s first biographer was a woman, an accomplished author, and a friend of Sabine’s. After all, as I discovered, except for Eberhard, Bonhoeffer’s innermost circle consisted entirely of women, and except for Eberhard, Dietrich was closest to Sabine. I’m not surprised Sabine would strike up a friendship with Bosanquet–or that a woman would be the first to tell Sabine’s beloved brother’s story. 

Topics: Women in Bonhoeffer’s Life




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