Friday, 31 May 2013

Campaigning For The Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary

When editor Elizabeth Crawford was alerted to the discovery of a box of ancient diaries and memorabilia, she knew she was onto something extraordinarily special. In 2013, it is now so rare to come across forgotten treasure troves stuffed away in attics and cupboards – not least because we’ve all converted our attics into studio flats, and our cupboards into extra bedrooms. But what Elizabeth was shown was a complete set of a suffragist’s diaries throughout her entire life, in which the suffragist had painstakingly preserved flyers, photos, banners and other mementoes.

Shortly before Christmas I was lucky enough to go up to Parliament and hear Elizabeth talking about her new book – Campaigning For The Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary. She brought with her some of Kate’s diaries, and some of the (now very fragile) treasures that had been preserved within them. The talk was only an hour long, but it was the most engaging and fascinating session about the life of a woman nobody had ever previously heard of.

Kate Parry Frye was not a suffrage leader, she was not a militant, she never went to prison and she was never force-fed. But she was an extremely active member of the suffrage campaign from 1911 onwards, and toured all over the UK setting up meetings, organising speakers, campaigning, building awareness, knocking on doors and tirelessly raising people’s consciousness about how vitally important it was that women were entitled to equal political representation.

Just some of Kate's diaries. Photo by Elizabeth Crawford.

Kate was an avid diarist throughout her entire life (1878-1959), meaning that Elizabeth has worked hard to edit down Kate’s voluminous notebooks into this beautiful book that focuses on the suffrage era. Carefully introduced with a chapter by Elizabeth setting the scene and telling us about Kate’s upbringing, aspirations as an actress, extraordinarily long engagement to John and bringing us up to her life in 1911 when Kate launched herself head first into the suffrage campaign. Although the first suffrage entry Elizabeth finds in Kate’s diary was in March 1896 (when Kate would have been 18) when she attends a meeting with her mother where Millicent Fawcett is the guest speaker.

Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary is a deeply important book. Never before have we been able to see such a detailed, first-hand, day-to-day account of the suffrage campaign from someone who worked on the ground level, doing the un-thanked drudge work. The finished book is an absolute credit to Elizabeth and her publishers Francis Boutle – it is easily the most beautiful book in my suffrage library, and is wonderfully illustrated with scans of many of the letters, flyers and photos found in Kate’s collection, as well as containing side panels on each page explaining who the many extra characters Kate refers to are. The attention to detail in this book is exemplary, and so rewarding to read. What a treat.

For more information or to buy a copy, please visit the Francis Boutle website

Please click here to read an article by Elizabeth about the book, illustrated with photos from the diaries. 

Bring Out The Banners

This is a suffragette novel aimed at children – I’m guessing around the 10-12 years age range.

Geoffrey Trease’s novel Bring Out The Banners was originally published in 1994, and has recently been resurrected by Bloomsbury imprint Flash Backs. While it’s not breaking any new ground in the suffragette-novel-for-kids territory (working class girl befriends privileged aristocrat girl, they unfurl Votes For Women banners at a theatre, they improbably meet Mrs Pankhurst, they go on a number of marches and end up arrested where they are force fed) this is one of the better books I’ve read that covers this territory.

Trease brings in lots of accurate historical information to illustrate the plot, he peppers his cast with a few real characters (Mrs Pankhurst, Annie Kenney, Grace Roe), and explains the facts in a very easy-to-understand (but not patronising) way.

If you’re looking for a good book to introduce your kids to the suffrage movement, then Bring Out The Banners is a good place to turn.  It is well written, has an engaging plot and is historically accurate.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Heat Lightning – Helen Hull

I really don’t know what we’d do without Persephone Books. Their reprints of forgotten literary treasures are a source of such pleasure to their squillions of readers, and by virtue of typically being set in the past (which was the present, of course, when they were written), they provide wonderful escapism from our contemporary woes.

Which is exactly what we get in Helen Hull’s 1932 novel Heat Lightning, in which protagonist Amy seems to have more woes than the combined characters in EastEnders. All shoehorned into the space of one dusty week.

Amy returns to a sleepy Midwestern town to spend some time with her family – having left her husband and children at home in New York after a heated row, although we never discover the source of the row. Regardless, it is the catalyst for sending Amy back to her family… where she arrives to find scenes of barely controlled calamity.

Her sister has just given birth to another baby, despite her good-for-nothing husband being out of work, and the couple already having more children than they can possibly afford. Her cousin Tom is suspected of having got the house maid pregnant, and of introducing poor Curly to his illicit alcohol supplies. While Amy’s matriarchal grandmother is trying her best to rule over her wayward clan from the back seat of her treasured motorcar. 

And that’s just the start of it.

Over the course of the week in Heat Lightning, Helen Hull guides us through the topsy turvy times of this sprawling family, all seen through the anxious eyes of Amy. The weather is boiling, and the atmosphere in the pages is brooding and stifling at times, intentionally so to urge us into sympathy with poor Amy.

Helen’s writing in Heat Lightning is beautifully descriptive, and she has a fantastically lyrical turn of phrase to describe households, characters and settings… all of which really place the reader inside the constricting belly of the novel. While the subjects Heat Lightning deals with may seem like minor concerns, it is the mundanity of the concerns that makes them so compelling… because, unlike the dramas in EastEnders, these are all issues that could easily affect every single one of Helen’s readers. 

Friday, 3 May 2013

Major Tom - Bristol Old Vic

Victoria Melody likes a challenge. And glancing at her website, it's more than clear that this is one woman who has turned her hand to a lot of different things - wreaking havoc in Office Pervert, screaming on hills around the country, and bending the genders of people in her audience... to name three.

In Major Tom, Victoria focuses on the beauty industry and uses her inherent desire to catalogue her day-to-day life to create a compelling and funny account of how she decided to enter her beloved basset hound (Major Tom) into competitive dog shows. What sets this show off a treat is that Major Tom (who Victoria describes, accurately, as looking like a lovable old Tory) is on set at Bristol Old Vic throughout the show, and behaves beautifully when Victoria calls on him to do one or two tricks. 

However, it turns out that Major isn't a winning dog, and when he repeatedly keeps coming last Victoria is stung by a pang of guilt at how she keeps putting him up there to be judged - so decides to be judged herself. Quickly crowned Mrs Brighton, Victoria's next mission is to become Mrs UK and ultimately Mrs International. 

This is where Major Tom takes an interesting twist. Victoria cleverly contrasts dog shows with human beauty pagents to highlight the ridiculous lengths that people go to in order to fulfil the ridiculous and inflexible demands of perfection in the eyes of judges. Ultimately, who is anyone else to judge us? 

At several points, Victoria tells us she's a feminist, and illustrates this with the example of how on her hen night, her friends are shocked to discover she has pubic hair - and Victoria seems surprised that any adult woman wouldn't have pubic hair. 

Beauty pagents, and the business of judging others on their appearance, are clearly thorny issues for feminists. When one of Gok Wan's I-can-make-you-look-better-than-you-currently-do-sister type shows was filming in Bristol a few years ago, his producers seemed surprised that the Bristol feminists declined the invitation to take part or watch the show being filmed. What with it being a decidedly un-sisterly activity. 

However, Victoria's take on beauty pagents (which she says she is now pleased to have left behind her) seems one fuelled more by curiosity and journalistic documentation, than a real desire to become a beauty queen - although she does also come across as very competitive in her desire to win (and I guess if you're going to do something, why not do it to the max?)!

Major Tom is a fun show, and Victoria has an extremely likeable stage presence. The show puts an interesting spin on how we look at ourselves and just how daft the beauty industry is. And did I mention that there's a dog on stage?!

Major Tom is on at Bristol Old Vic until May 4. Click here for more information and to book tickets.