Any historical narrative is shaped by its conclusion, and I knew about the end of Dorothy’s life before I knew anything else about her. In 1925 she was committed to Hanwell Lunatic Asylum, and remained in psychiatric institutions until her death in 1964. What she did at the start of her life however was quite remarkable, and I have wanted to find a way of retelling her story in a way that celebrates the energy and verve of this extraordinary personality.
Dorothy’s adventures are recounted in her short autobiographical book Sapper Dorothy, first published in 1919 but still in print today. On first reading, I was immediately engaged by the exuberant and unusual voice that jumped off the pages, and the story that defied all my preconceptions about female aspirations in World War One. In June 1915 Dorothy set off for northern France, intent on becoming the first female war correspondent. She wheedled and hoodwinked her way to procuring uniform and false papers, and ended up spending ten days under enemy fire on the frontline of fighting, disguised as ‘Private Denis Smith’. Finally discovered, she was sent packing back to England – not before being interrogated by some of the highest-ranking officers in the Third Army. And there was one line that caught my eye: ‘if my highly respectable guardian, living in that dear old Cathedral city, could see me now, they would have forty fits.’
Having grown up in a ‘dear old Cathedral city’ myself, this oblique reference piqued my interest. Following a hunch, I began what was to turn into a year-long process of research. Following a paper trail of letters, photographs, census entries and asylum records, I have confirmed that Dorothy’s cathedral city was in fact the same as mine – Salisbury.
A shared geographical point of reference enables a deeper level of imaginative engagement with her story; and for this reason I decided that the show had to be made in Wiltshire, for an audience in the south west. I have wanted to explore the forgotten story of Dorothy’s childhood as a teenage orphan sent from London to live with her guardian in the Salisbury cathedral close; and I also wanted to ensure that who she was and what she did was remembered and celebrated as part of our regional World War One centenary commemorations.