Sunday, 9 October 2011

“No Surrender” by Constance Maud – book review


When suffragette Constance Maud published her novel No Surrender in November 1911, the fight for British women’s suffrage was still ongoing. Women over 30 did not achieve the vote until 1918, and universal suffrage for adults over the age of 21 was not reached in Britain until 1928 (and not lowered to 18 until 1969).
This makes Maud’s novel all the more poignant – that it was written at the time these events was happening affords the retrospective reader the accuracy of information it is impossible to guarantee with contemporarily written historical novels, no matter how much research the author does. If any more confirmation of No Surrender’s authority is required, take comfort knowing that when Emily Wilding Davison reviewed it in 1911, she stated: “It is a book which breathes the very spirit of our Women’s Movement.”
So it is wonderful news that the ever-reliable Persephone Books are reissuing No Surrender this November, 100 years after its initial publication. Quite how the book has never been reprinted in between is a mystery, as is the dearth of suffragette novels in general.
While No Surrender is based on fictional characters, it is clearly taking great inspiration from actual events and some of the protagonists are reminiscent of real suffragettes. Our heroine Jenny is a northern mill worker whose passion is fired by the Votes For Women movement, and she throws herself life and soul into the cause, where her life and work becomes entwined with that of the mill owner’s daughter, Mary O’Neil, who is equally determined that women should be equal to men.
Each chapter is in a different setting and as a result No Surrender encompasses a whole range of scenarios and situations. From the dank courtyard where the suffragettes await sentencing, to a political dining room where a plan is afoot to invade the dinner, and a city high street where an impromptu public address kicks off.
However, the most harrowing and affecting by far is the grim chapter where Mary is abused and insulted by the prison warders in her solitary confinement cell, before they subject her to the ultimate torture – being forcibly fed: I had tears down my cheeks by the end, with empathy for this horrific and barbaric invasion. I recently learned that the brutal practice of force feeding originated in lunatic asylums, and the prison officials opted to take inspiration from the asylums – likening political prisoners to the mentally ill.
Maud does an astonishing job of conveying the clear arguments and campaigns of the suffragettes alongside the equally sharp arguments of the Antis. It seems obvious to readers in 2011 that women should be entitled to the same voting rights as men, but then a stark comment from an aspiring politician, Joe Horton, in No Surrender brings to mind the recent comment from Conservative MP David Willetts. Horton tells Jenny in the book: “While the woman is thus taking the work that legitimately belongs to the man, what becomes of the ‘ome and the children? – her legitimate sphere?” I’m sure we all recall Willetts saying only this April that educated women were responsible for the lack of jobs for working-class men.
It’s frightening how far we have come, yet how far we still have to go.
No Surrender is a sensitively written and accurate account of the suffrage campaign, but please don’t think this is a historical issue. As Lydia Fellget points out in her introduction: “All adult women have now had the vote for over 80 years. Yet, although women make up the majority of voters in the UK, in the 2010 general elections only 143 of the 650 MPs elected were women. Representation of women in parliament is the new frontier for campaigners such as the Fawcett Society and so, as Emily Wilding Davison wrote in 1911, ‘the end is yet to come’.”
For information about Persephone, and information about how to order No Surrenderplease click here to visit their website. (published on 20 October),
For information about the Fawcett Society’s current campaign, please click here to visit their website. I am proud to be a paid-up and active member of both the national Fawcett Society and the Bristol Fawcett Society.

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