Thinking philosophically does not come naturally as one travels along the A20 in Ashford. It is a fairly anonymous stretch of road, punctuated, as you drive towards the ‘Cow’ roundabout, with the Ashford International Hotel and Sainsbury’s Superstore on the right; the left side bordered by trees, behind which are modern houses and flats. Yet, the A20 Avenue stands out because it’s ‘name’ is that of a woman: Simone Weil.
Born in February 1909, Simone Weil was a French philosopher, Christian mystic and political activist. After her father, a medical doctor, was sent to fight in the First World War, she, in sympathy with his meagre rations, gave up sugar. She was 6. In 1919, aged 10, she declared herself a Bolshevik. At secondary school, she finished first in the General Philosophy and Logic exam; Simone de Beauvoir came second. In her later teenage years, she was also a Marxist and Trades Unionist. She became friends with Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army, though they both argued against each other’s ideas, both in person and in print. Trotsky stayed in her parents’ flat in Paris when he was there for secret talks in the mid-1930s.
She left her job as a teacher to go and work incognito as a factory worker at Renault, believing this experience would enable her to connect to the working class. In 1936, despite her professed pacifism, she left to fight in the Spanish Civil War. After burning herself on a fire whilst cooking, she was forced to go to Assisi to recuperate. Not long afterwards, her unit was almost entirely wiped out in an attack, with every female member being killed.
All the while, she was writing on philosophy, politics and Christian mysticism.
In 1942, she came to England with the intention of joining the French Resistance. Instead, she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive; the plan was that she would be sent to France as a clandestine wireless operator.
(If you click on the photo’s caption, above, you will be taken to Historic England’s three photos of the Grosvenor Sanatorium).
To this end, she engaged in a punishing work regime, but in 1943 was diagnosed with tuberculosis and instructed to rest and eat well. Neither of these things came naturally to her because of her political beliefs. She limited her food intake to what she believed residents of German-occupied France would be eating. Her condition quickly deteriorated, and she was moved to the Grosvenor Sanatorium in Kennington, Ashford (above). She died there in 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34. She is buried in Bybrook Cemetery in Ashford, off the Canterbury Road.
After her death, her writings became more widely known. Both TS Eliot and Pope Paul VI said that Weil’s religious writings made her one of their greatest influences. Albert Camus said that she was “one of the only great spirits of our times”.*