My ongoing mission to compile an exhaustive directory of novels and non-fiction books about the suffrage movement continues with this review of Janet MacLeod Trotter’s novel The Suffragette (originally published in 1995, but republished in 2011).
Janet has made her career writing novels, mostly historical fiction, which clearly is the category The Suffragette falls into. The novel begins at the turn of the last century, and follows our heroine Maggie Beaton on her fight for female emancipation. What immediately makes The Suffragette different from so many other novels about the movement is that it is not only set in the north of England, but also profiles a working-class protagonist.
The Suffragette is literally illustrated with such detail about the slums of Newcastle, and the degradation and filth that Maggie and her family live and work in, that it is easy to quickly become absorbed in the world Janet recreates here. And the further Maggie becomes involved in the cause for suffrage, the faster you start turning the pages to see where her story goes next. I found that after Maggie was locked up in prison, and after reading the harrowing descriptions of her force feeding, that the story really picked up pace for me and I became completely absorbed in her tale.
Perhaps this is because Janet herself has such a strong link to the suffrage movement. She explained to me in an email: “My interest in the suffragettes was sparked by family stories of my three great aunts in Edinburgh, who were all members of the WSPU, and their mother, my great granny Janet, who accosted Winston Churchill with an umbrella and shouted ‘Votes for Women’ at him! He was then in the Liberal government who were denying women the franchise. Women got arrested for doing less, but luckily Janet was not.” This family story is paid tribute to in an anecdote near the start of The Suffragette.
Janet continued: “They also took part in the 1911 census revolt and the 1909 mass rally in Edinburgh for the Pankhursts, in which my aunties dressed up as figures from history – Mary Queen of Scots and Agnes Bar-Lass (both Scottish heroines). In the early 1990s, we moved to Morpeth and lived near the grave of Emily Davison, the great suffragette martyr, and it was researching more about her that spurred me on to write the novel. I wanted to highlight that there had been plenty of women outside London who fought hard to win emancipation.”
There are a lot of twists in the novel and I won’t spoil them, but I’d urge you to read Janet’s book and find out for yourself. There were quite a few areas where I really started racing through the pages to find out what happened as soon as I could, and also quite a few places where I seethed with rage on Maggie’s behalf. The Suffragette is a very convincing and vital novel on this topic.