Saturday, 17 March 2018

'Emmeline' by Judith Rossner

Oh, man! What a blisteringly angry and epic novel this is! Emmeline by Judith Rossner has sat on my to-be-read pile for a few months and I was finally spurred to bump it to the top this week by the news that the brand new Persephone Books for Spring are soon to be issued and I am therefore falling behind in my Persephone reading. And despite being a hefty 409 pages long, I rattled though Emmeline in a mere 48 hours - such was my inability to put her down. 

Originally published in 1980, Rossner's sixth novel is a furious tour de force set in 1800s America, following the life of our shero Emmeline Mosher. Born as the eldest daughter in a large, working-class family in the small pioneering town of Fayette (a real town located in Maine), aged just 13 Emmeline is sent nearly 200 miles away to work in a cotton mill in Lowell, Massachusetts - because her destitute family is depending on her paltry income ($1 a week) for their survival. 

Just a child, our 13-year-old protagonist has no knowledge of the world. She is a naive and young girl with nobody looking out for her welfare, so she clings to her Bible and her code of good behaviour to protect her honour. Desperately homesick and feeling out of place in Lowell, being several years younger than most of the other mill girls, when her employer Mr Maguire shows kindness, of course young Emmeline responds. The child is desperate for someone to pay her attention... which the loathsome Maguire certainly does after getting her drunk and dazzling her with the luxuries of his home. 

It's hardly a spoiler to say that 13-year-old Emmeline becomes pregnant, despite having no concept of how babies are conceived nor of what the man 27 years her senior is doing to her (save only for the horrifying comment that because it makes him happy, she doesn't mind him doing it: "She did not understand precisely what had happened between them, though she knew that it was wrong because he had taken off some of her clothes. She had been uncomfortable - even briefly in pain - but none of that had mattered when measured against his holding her, his kissing her, his speaking to her affectionately ... The guilty feelings wouldn't matter, if he seemed happy." I mean - jeez! If that doesn't make you seethe with rage, I don't know what will). Of course, to a reader in 2018, it is clear that Maguire is not only a rapist but a paedophile. Worse, is the clear implication in Emmeline that this is far from the first time he has done this. 

And of course, it is not Maguire's life that is ruined. Sure, his unseen wife seems to sound a bit irked about the whole thing (and who could blame her?), but once Emmeline's pregnancy is revealed to him he pays her to leave and gets back to his life as before. No doubt looking for the next homesick, innocent child to seduce. 

Being an unmarried teenage mother is not even the worst thing that happens to Emmeline, but it is explicit that Maguire's abuse of her is the catalyst for the catalogue of sadness and injustice that fills her long and lonely life. I won't reveal the plot in the second half of Emmeline, but I will say it filled me with an overwhelming anger and sadness. None of what happens to our shero is her own fault. We are told again and again that she is a good, God-fearing young woman, whose only crime is her naivety. But if nobody is willing to educate young girls, that is hardly the fault of the girls themselves: how can they know what it is they do not know? This lack of education certainly doesn't stop her family, friends or neighbours from holding Emmeline responsible. But how can you be responsible for what you do not know you have done?

In the early chapters of Emmeline, I was reminded of the young Jane Eyre and her ousting from the cruel Reed family to life at the barbaric Lowood Institution. The documentary-style depiction of Emmeline's day-to-day life in the Lowell mill and boarding house is reminiscent of Jane's loneliness and drudgery at the school. But when Emmeline starts to fall under Maguire's spell, the tone becomes more reminiscent of work from Tracy Chevalier, who has mastered the art of writing compulsively readable contemporary historical fiction - and that's certainly what Rossner has written here. Emmeline is impossible to put down. The story fires ahead at a fast pace and the pain and perplexity Emmeline feels at the way she is mistreated and cast aside is fierce. The reader demands to know what happens next and is incapable of putting the book down!

What's even more staggering is that Rossner based her novel on the real life story of Emeline Bachelder Gurney and that is possibly the most anger-inducing element of this whole episode. That this was actually allowed to happen to a young child. Of course, there is more than just the patriarchal society to blame for Emmeline/Emeline's tragedy - we could also blame her family and her religion, who both compelled her to think kindly of others and to act to please others. The afterword by Lucy Ellmann in this new Persephone edition offers a thought-provoking and furious way to consider what you have just read.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

'Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage'

Those with an interest in the suffrage movement are being spoilt for choice with new books to read at the moment, but one I have enjoyed enormously is Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote by historian Jane Robinson. Not least because, look! What a beautiful cover it has!

Hearts and Minds is a refreshing read because it takes as its focus not the Pankhursts and the militant suffragettes of the Women's Social and Political Union, but instead the law-abiding suffragists who campaigned peacefully for the vote for half a century or more. Since the 1860s, the suffragists lobbied and marched and petitioned for women to have the vote, never breaking the law or harming anybody in the process. Frustrated by the lack of movement, the Pankhurst family in 1903 started the Women's Social and Political Union, which ultimately led to a few years of headline grabbing stunts that are sadly what remains etched in most people's minds when they think of 'votes for women'... though this is not the true picture of the movement at all. 

So instead, Jane Robinson uses her wonderful new book to set the record straight and explain why the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (led by the peaceful Millicent Fawcett) were actually the ones who effected change. This culminated in the powerful Great Pilgrimage of 1913, which was made so much harder for the peaceful women who were often misjudged as militants and greeted with hostility and even death threats as a result. 

The Great Pilgrimage saw thousands of women march from all over the UK to congregate in London's Hyde Park for a huge rally, lobbying government for women's suffrage. Jane charts the adventures of the women focussing less on the stories of the big name women who are familiar to us, and more on the lesser known stories found by trawling personal archives, personal diaries and letters and so on, to uncover nuggets of information about their day to day lives during the six-week pilgrimage. I am inclined to agree with Jane that the stories of the everyday women involved in the suffrage movement are often a lot more revealing and interesting than those of the big name campaigners.

It is an utterly fascinating and absorbing read, illustrated by a wide range of photos that I had not previously seen and found very interesting indeed. This is a beautifully written and presented book, and is absolutely essential for anyone with even a passing interest in this fascinating period of women's history. 

Sunday, 25 February 2018

New book - and some upcoming talks and events

Tomorrow (February 26) sees the publication of my new book The Women Who Built Bristol (Tangent Books), which is a fundraising project for the charity Bristol Women's Voice. I'm really chuffed with the finished book - it was so much hard work but now having the actual book back makes it so worthwhile.

The best way to buy copies is direct from Bristol Women's Voice on this link - this is the only way to ensure that every single penny you spend goes to the charity. So please do buy direct. 

Containing 250 inspiring women, three sheroic dogs and one heartbroken barmaid from Easton. The Women Who Built Bristol is a bursting compendium of brilliant women who helped to shape Bristol into the vibrant city it is today. From pin makers to police chiefs, from workhouse inmates to lord mayors, this book shows that Bristol was built by women. Also contains 30 brand new illustrations. 

“Jane Duffus and fellow contributors of The Women Who Built Bristol introduce us to a glorious and eclectic set of women who are linked to Bristol. This a wonderful reminder of the texture of women’s lives and their influence in every sphere – something historical accounts often forget. A great initiative from Bristol Women’s Voice, I hope other cities also follow suit.”
Helen Pankhurst; granddaughter of Sylvia and great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst


  • Monday, February 26 - The Women Who Built Bristol book launch
  • Friday, March 2 - What The Frock! Comedy takeover of Claire Cavanagh's afternoon show on BBC Bristol Radio
  • Saturday, March 3 - 1pm - The Women Who Built Bristol panel event and book signing (with me, Finn Mackay, Naomi Paxton and Jacqui Furneaux) at City Hall, Bristol (free, part of BWV International Women's Day event)
  • Thursday, March 8 - 12pm. The Women Who Built Bristol talk at CW IWD event.
  • Thursday, March 8 - 7pm - The Women Who Built Bristol talk at Murmuration's International Women's Day event at The Forge, Bristol (info on this link)
  • Tuesday, March 20 - 7.30pm - The Women Who Built Bristol talk at Women's Institute, Gloucester Road, Bristol (WI members only)
  • Tuesday, March 27 - What The Frock! Comedy event (fundraiser for BWV, with comedians Cerys Nelmes, Kate Smurthwaite, Evelyn Mok, Amy Mason and Ada Campe)
  • Thursday, May 10 - 6.30pm - Helen Pankhurst talk, Deeds Not Words, at St George's Bristol (a ticketed Festival of Ideas event, info on this link)
  • Thursday, May 10 - 8pm - The Women Who Built Bristol panel event (with me, Rosemary Caldicott and Helen Wilde) at St George's Bristol (a ticketed Festival of Ideas event, tickets on sale soon)
  • Thursday, May 24 - 12.30pm - The Women Who Built Bristol talk at Bristol Central Library (more info available soon)
This list will be updated as and when new events are announced and tickets (if appropriate) go on sale. Please do contact me if you know of a suitable event or group to whom I could deliver a talk about The Women Who Built Bristol.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

In The Library of Smells

As part of the promotional blog tour to promote her fantastic new book A Library Miscellany, Claire Cock-Starkey is today sharing an extract from her book with MadamJMo blog readers. 

While we're about it, you can find out more about Claire by visiting her website here, and if you're in the Oxford area, you can hear Claire talking about A Library Miscellany (and her previous book The Book Lovers' Miscellany) on 20 March. More info on this link.