Friday, 20 July 2018

'Old Baggage' by Lissa Evans

For nearly a decade, I've kept my eyes open for books about the suffrage campaign (and written about many of them on this blog). And while I'll happily devour both fiction and non-fiction with a suffrage bent, I've a strong preference for fiction - because it seemed so hard to come by until recently. 

Last February, I stumbled upon a copy of Crooked Heart by Liisa Evans and absolutely adored it (you can read my review here). It followed ten-year-old Noel who had been brought up by his godmother Mattie, a former suffragette, and it was a smart, buzzy and interesting take on the suffrage novel. So it made sense that I was also going to love Lissa's new novel, Old Baggage, which was published recently. 

Old Baggage is a prequel to Crooked Heart, and I'm delighted to say that we have even more of Mattie in this novel. It also poses the interesting but rarely considered question: "What do you do next, after you've changed the world?" Mattie was a strident suffragette, she had thrown herself heart and mind into the campaign, but now it's 1928 and universal suffrage has finally been achieved. 

Now in her mid-50s, Mattie is stuck living in the past. Her home is called The Mousehole (in reference to it having been a place of recuperation for hunger striking suffragettes who had been temporarily released from prison under the 'Cat and Mouse Act'); she lives companionably with sister suffragette Florrie; and she spends her evenings giving informative lectures about the suffrage campaign to increasingly disinterested audiences, for whom the events of the recent past are meaningless. Mattie needs something more. 

And that something more comes in the form of waking up the new generation of young women... and trying to teach them how to engage with the modern world, to be an active part in it, and how to look after themselves and to be something. But of course, the path of resistance is not a smooth one...

Old Baggage is a really enjoyable and enlivening read, and Mattie is a truly wonderful character - I really hope we see more of her in the future and that Liisa's next book goes back a previous decade and shows Mattie, Florrie and co battling in the midst of the suffrage campaign. Fingers crossed. You can never have enough strong, bold and determined women in literature.

The question of what you do next after you've effected change is a really interesting one, especially in the field of women's rights and specifically suffrage. For the big names such as Millicent Fawcett and Sylvia Pankhurst, we know what they went on to do because their names never stopped attracting interest. But for the everyday foot soldiers such as Mattie, the women whose names weren't in the newspapers but without whom the war would not have been won... the question of how their lives changed is fascinating and often ignored. Yet those women were changed for ever and armed with an impressive toolkit of skills for life, both mentally and physically.

When you have thrown every ounce of your being into a campaign, day in, day out, for decades... and then that campaign is won... while you are delighted, you must also be left feeling flat. When you have gone to prison and endured the trauma of hunger strike for that campaign... and now audiences no longer think what you did was astonishing but merely a curiosity... that must leave you totally deflated. 

There is a lovely scene towards the end of Old Baggage (this isn't a spoiler) when Mattie, Florrie and their sister suffragettes are preparing to go to the polling booths for the very first time (as unmarried women, the 1918 Act still didn't give these warriors the right to vote). This is a monumental day for them, and celebratory cards are posted, motor cars booked to mark the occasion, and they go to the polling stations in unison. Only, of course, there is nobody they want to vote for... all of the candidates are miserable old men who don't have any intention of improving the lot of the new wave of women voters. Which is not a situation that has changed, in many places. 

Lissa Evans is a wonderful storyteller, and having absolutely adored both Crooked Heart and Old Baggage I must seek out some of her other novels. I'm reliably informed that Their Finest Hour and a Half is a cracker, so that's where I'll be heading next.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Bristol Music: Seven Decades of Sound

Bristol is a city known for several things (hot air balloons, street art, big old bridges, a very large ape up at the zoo), but chief among them is surely its distinct music scene. From 1950s’ crooner Russ Conway to contemporary chart botherer George Ezra and everyone in between, there is a strong sense of sound coming from this special city.

To tie in with a major exhibition at the city’s M Shed museum, music journalist and publisher Richard Jones has written Bristol Music: Seven Decades of Sound to collect together a snapshot of 70 years of Bristol’s distinctive hum.

While not claiming to be an exhaustive collection, there are certainly a lot of stones upturned in this picture-heavy collection - everyone from indie pop pioneers Sarah Records to self-styled Scrumpy’n’Western performers The Wurzels are in here, although there is inevitably a hefty lean towards the more recent trip hop acts.

Just like the exhibition that accompanies it, the Bristol Music book invites contributions and collaboration from readers who want to share their own memories of gigs and bands in Bristol, and their own stories. It’s a great little collection and a must-have for the book shelf of any discerning music fan in the South West.

You can buy a copy of Bristol Music direct from Tangent here.

And for more information on the M Shed exhibition, which runs until 30 September 2018, click here.

Monday, 25 June 2018

'The Cause' comes to Bristol

Photo: Jim Wileman

A new play inspired by an imagined meeting between two great leaders of the women’s suffrage campaign comes to Bristol on 6 July. Tickets here.

The Cause depicts the explosive meeting of minds when Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst come together at a time when campaigns for women’s rights were at their most revolutionary and embattled.

Written by Natalie McGrath, and directed by Josie Sutciffe, The Cause explores the struggle, and the effects of campaigning for a cause by different methods. There was a divide between the violent direct action of the suffragettes and the peaceful constitutional means of the suffragists.

The play is produced by Dreadnought South West, a charity which connects individuals and communities through telling great and courageous stories about women.

Director Josie Sutcliffe said: "This play considers the impact of a lifetime of political campaigning on an individual, asking: ‘how far would you go for what you believe in?’ Many women gave up a great deal; home, family, children, and in some cases their own lives, to join the suffrage campaign. We hope that The Cause will provide a stimulus for debates on gender inequality, democracy and citizenship amongst many different groups within the communities we will visit."

Playwright Natalie McGrath said: "This tour feels timely with the current energy and visibility of women’s rights and gender equality campaigning that is taking place, and the centenary of the first votes for some women. As we developed the work, we met many women who have been campaigning for a long time. I really felt those stories that were shared with us at Dreadnought very deeply, and they have emerged as being at the heart of this play about Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst."

Monday, 4 June 2018

Young Anne

There is something bittersweet about reading Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple (one of the recent reissues by Persephone Books). On one hand, it’s a Dorothy Whipple so you know you’re in for a treat. But on the other hand, it’s the final Dorothy Whipple left for Persephone to republish so now the final page has been turned and… no more new Whipples. I am bereft!

For their final Whipple, Persephone have gone back to the beginning with Dorothy’s first ever book. Originally published in 1927, Young Anne is a clearly autobiographical book about Dorothy’s own formative relationship with the real-life George Owen who was killed in World War One. And as a tribute, the man who has stolen Anne’s heart is also called George. Which is a name the character dreams about calling her son, should she ever have one.

Young Anne follows the first 20 years or so of Anne Pritchard’s life, from girlhood to marriage. The only daughter in an Edwardian family that favours sons and practices Victorian values of showing the children no affection whatsoever, headstrong Anne is packed off to a convent in the hope it will quieten her down. Instead she becomes infatuated by the romanticism of Catholicism and the subject of young girls’ crushes. When her emotionally detached father dies and leaves Anne and her mother destitute, Anne is taken in by her witch of an aunt while her mother moves on rotation from one relative’s spare room to another, dependent on the kindness of others. The only constant and comfort in Anne’s life is the family’s maid Emily, who has known her since she was a baby.

Seeking financial independence, Emily defies her austere aunt and enrols on a secretarial course before taking an office job where she finds her husband. But all of this happens around the real heart of the story, and that is Anne’s love with her friend’s cousin George Yates. George is a bright, kind and sparky young man from a poor family, and he has a huge chip on his shoulder about his lack of wealth and his lower status than Anne’s. But Dorothy’s descriptions of the building love and passion between the two is convincing and when Anne suddenly breaks it off with George, the reader is left as confused as he is.

But being Dorothy Whipple, nothing is straightforward and love cannot run smoothly. While Young Anne has all the hallmarks of a fledgling novelist finding her voice, the distinctive sound of Dorothy Whipple can easily be heard in this compelling novel. While a Whipple can never be called a challenging read, they are always compulsive and I enjoyably sped through Young Anne in one weekend.

There’s a lot going on in Young Anne. While ostensibly a novel about young love and the influence it can have on the rest of your life, this is also a novel with sparks of feminism (Anne can’t understand why she must fold sheets while her brothers need not; she is frustrated at how hard it is for young women to be trained for employment; her mother becomes a burden to others when she is left widowed and homeless). But more than anything, this is evidently a story about Dorothy Whipple’s own love for George Owen.

Friday, 6 April 2018

'Art and Suffrage'

Anyone with an interest in the history of women's suffrage in the UK will surely have come across historian and writer Elizabeth Crawford. Her two key books, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Regional Survey and The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide are indispensable to anyone interested in researching the women who campaigned in their own area... and were absolutely essential tools when researching my own recent book, The Women Who Built Bristol (to which Elizabeth also generously contributed several entries).

As well as these reference guides, Elizabeth has authored a number of other books, and the one that I recommend to absolutely everybody (if you're only going to pick one) is Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye's Suffrage Diary, which I wrote about a few years ago upon publication. You can also watch a video of Elizabeth talking about Kate here (and see the back of my head throughout, sorry about that!).

Now, published in February to coincide with the centenary of when (some) women received the vote, Elizabeth has published Art and Suffrage: A Biographical Dictionary of Suffrage Artists

This beautiful, fully illustrated new book covers the lives of more than 100 suffrage artists (mostly women), many of whom I did not previously know about although their artworks were largely familiar to me. So it was truly fascinating to read the stories about the people who created these important pieces of suffrage propaganda and merchandise, and to read about how these artworks came to be and the reasons behind them. It adds a whole new level to my understanding of the imagery of the suffrage campaign. Because, of course, it is hard to imagine a political campaign that was more visual than the suffrage one.

You can visit Elizabeth's website here, and her publisher's website here to buy the book. 

Monday, 2 April 2018

'Mollie on the March'

'Mollie on The March' by Anna Carey

Hurrah, Mollie Carberry is back! You may recall that last November I wrote on the first instalment from YA writer Anna Carey about the schoolgirl suffragette in Dublin. The good news then was that Anna was close to finishing the second book in the series, and the better news is that now that book - Mollie on the March - is published. 

Picking up where The Making of Mollie left off, Anna reunites us with our teenage shero who is still fired up from secretly painting a postbox with suffrage slogans alongside her best friend Nora. This time, Mollie and Nora are keen to be even more militant in their actions and to join Mollie's big sister Phyllis and her suffragette friends on marches and demonstrations when Prime Minister Asquith makes his visit to Dublin. Except, in the new book, Mollie and her crew get into far bigger and more daring but exciting scrapes.

Adding a fly to the ointment is Nora's wretched goody-two-shoes cousin Grace, who we met in the first book as a nuisance at school. This time, Grace has come to stay with Nora for the summer... and Nora and Mollie are determined not to let Grace find out about their suffrage plans for fear she will stop them taking action. Although there's a new side to Grace that readers may not be expecting...

As before, Anna uses real historical events as the basis for her storytelling, as well as peppering a few real-life characters into the background. And as before, the overall effect is one of magically capturing the moment and enveloping her reader in the scene.

I hope we see more books about Mollie and Nora in the future. Bravo, Anna!

Sunday, 25 March 2018

'Tory Heaven'

Tory Heaven by Marghanita Laski

Also going under the title of Thunder on the Right (and inexplicably as Toasted English in the US), this 1940s British political satire by the versatile writer Marghanita Laski has finally been rescued from its long-out-of-print status by Persephone Books.

Laski will be no stranger to regular Persephone readers, because the publisher has reprinted four of her other novels prior to Tory Heaven - which is published in April 2018 (and for which I was fortunate to receive an advance copy). From the haunting ghost/horror story The Victorian Chaise Longue to the wartime social commentary of To Bed With Grand Music, it is clear that Laski was a writer who was more than capable of turning her pen to whatever genre she preferred… and then layering it with nuance.

Tory Heaven was first published in 1949 and is a satire of the British class system. It follows a British refugee, James, who is rescued from a South Sea island in 1945. Our hero makes his way back to Britain where he is met by a very different country to the one he left several years previously: the class system has now been reinforced with a rigidly enforced categorisation of people into As, Bs, Cs, Ds or Es. With As being entitled to every luxury and privilege known to mankind, and Es being treated as barely human.

Fortunately for James, his public schooling and charmed upbringing has him designated as an A - but he quickly realises that for all the good food, comfortable lodgings, obsequious staff and available women thrown at him, he has lost his right to independent thought and action in this Conservative utopia. Upon visiting his family (who are also As), James is horrified to see them uncomfortably dressing formally for dinner and ploughing their way through endless courses of stodgy British fare because this is what their servants expect… and if they veer away from tradition then spies may well report them to the authorities who will strip them of their status.

In this way, it is easy to make a topical comparison to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, where every home in the new kingdom of Gilead is at risk of housing a secret ‘eye’ for the government who can report back on regimental slips in the home and cause the offender’s hand to be amputated… or an even worse punishment. The class battles in Tory Heaven also reminded me of Henry Green’s 1939 realist/modernist novel Party Going, which claustrophobically hones in on a group of toffs who are stranded at Waterloo Station after fog shuts down the transport system, so they decamp to the railway hotel and behave abysmally as their entitlement and self-perceived authority over one another comes to the fore. In both cases, the upper classes are shown, as in Tory Heaven, to indulge only their own needs and to see the lower classes as nothing more than animate objects that exist to serve their whims. It also called to mind Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd (also reprinted by Persephone), where our once shero returns to an England in the grip of WW2 and finds it an utterly alien existence.

In Tory Heaven, James realises he is in a waking nightmare because his every action is monitored and there is a script he is expected to follow for both his words and actions… and woe betide anyone who falls out of line with the expectation for their class.

The gender roles are also rather horrifying in Tory Heaven, just as they are in The Handmaid’s Tale. When James first arrives in London, he stays in a plush hotel and finds that along with hot water, fresh linen and delicious food, he is also supplied with a beautiful naked woman in his bed to cater to his desires. The Ministry of Social Security (ironically, a far cry from our contemporary understanding of social security) is keen to source bachelor James an eligible debutante for his wife… rather than allow him to marry his own choice of bride, Penelope, who, despite being an A, is also over 30 and therefore not marriage material. And conversely, while men and women who are As lead a luxurious if stifling life, their counterparts in the E class are degraded beyond belief: the only profession deemed suitable for E class women is prostitution.

Laski’s light-hearted style of writing make this an easy and enjoyable read but this certainly doesn’t detract from the message she wants to make. And it’s not a stretch to imagine that Persephone has chosen 2018 in which to reprint this class satire, with its roots in the effect war has on the surviving nation. The parallels readers can make between the Britain of 1949 that Laski writes about and the Britain of 2018 that we inhabit today are, sadly, plentiful. And remain shameful.

Monday, 19 March 2018


With a cover endorsement from the mighty Amy Poehler and a back cover blurb that takes me back to my mid-90s fanzine days, this young adult novel has a lot going for it. It was initially brought to my attention by someone on Twitter, who as a sister mid-90s Riot Grrrl fan recommended it to me - and she was right!

Our shero Viv attends school in a small US town where football is king and casual sexism in the corridors is something the girls are encouraged to shrug off. Rooting through her mum's box labelled 'My Misspent Youth', 16-year-old Viv finds a stash of '90s Riot Grrrl fanzines, photos of her mum as an angry, feminist teenager and tapes of music by grrrl bands such as Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy. All of which inspires Viv to secretly start her own fanzine, Moxie, which she distributes to the girls at school to encourage them to fight back against the rampant sexism inherent in their lives.

What I particularly love about Moxie is that Mathieu doesn't shy away from the word 'feminism'. In fact, she goes to great lengths to have the characters realise that feminism is something to be embraced and welcomed into their lives, she shows how feminism makes their lives better, and how it enriches them to live a safer and happier life without experiencing everyday sexism and being grabbed by entitled boys in the school corridors. 

This is a bloody great book - both for teenage girls and for grown women like me who lived through and loved the Riot Grrrl movement. 'Moxie girls fight back!'

Saturday, 17 March 2018


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.

Friday, 2 February 2018

'A Petrol Scented Spring'

A Petrol Scented Spring by Ajay Close

Wow! This book has been sitting on my To Be Read pile for well over a year. Thankfully, something made me finally pick it up to take on a succession of long train journeys at the weekend and I am now a) kicking myself for not having read it sooner and b) praising myself for picking such an absorbing and compelling and wonderful book to accompany me on my travels.

A Petrol Scented Spring by the Scottish author Ajay Close came to my attention via nothing more exotic than my periodic online search for novels about the suffrage movement. But this is far from your bog-standard suffrage novel; this is something quite, quite different.

Set in Perth, Scotland, we are offered a rare glimpse of suffrage life north of the border, which is a welcome change from the majority of novels that are London-centric. As such, the real-life characters who Ajay has used as the basis for many of her characters in the meticulously well-researched A Petrol Scented Spring are not ones I had previously known of, but have now becomes ones I want to know more about.

Centered around the suffocating and almost-mediaeval Perth Prison, we meet the reclusive and repressed prison doctor Hugh Ferguson Watson. A man in his early 40s who has been kissed only once as a teenager and who seems to have scant idea how to relate to actual humans, particularly female humans. Watson’s previous role was as the doctor in a mental asylum, where he learnt how to force feed patients who were not of sound mind. Now, he has been enlisted to the prison services to deal with hunger striking suffragettes and begin the barbaric process of force feeding these political prisoners.

Watson becomes obsessed with one suffragette in particular, Arabella Scott - a woman who his ‘love’ obliges him to torture in the most bizarre and disgusting means possible in order (in his mind) to keep her pure for himself. Arabella is a strong-willed woman with a sharp intellect, steadfast composure and unerring stubborness to endure multiple force feedings every single day… during the entire nine months of her incarceration. As if this brutal twice-daily assault was not enough (we read graphically about how Arabella regurgitates the egg mixture forced into her stomach by a greased tube, and how it comes out stained pink with blood and gritty with bits of broken teeth), Watson keeps Arabella in solitary confinement from the other prisoners, but with at least one wardress to sit in her cell and prevent her leaving her bed, sitting up or even turning to lie on her side - causing the most unimaginable pain in the prisoner’s motionless body. Yet somehow, Watson believes he is doing this because he loves Arabella and wants to keep her pure.

Ajay Close does a wonderful job or bringing the stinking, wretched prison to life in the reader’s head. She conjures up cold walls dripping with damp, fetid and stinking rooms with windows that do not open, and the horrors of the screams from other cells that echo down the corridors. We read graphically of prisoners who are force fed via the anus. We read graphically of prisoners who are left close to death thanks to Watson’s abusive treatment of them. And we read graphically of prisoners whose most intimate body parts are exposed and ogled by Watson’s lecherous assistant, Dr Lindsay, who leaves the suffragettes terrified that he will rape them.

And then we meet the naive Donella; a well-brought up young lady who is staying in Perth with relatives to recuperate after an illness. By chance she meets Dr Watson, falls in love and the two quickly marry, despite the heavy suspicion of her sister Hilda. There’s something about Donella that appeals to the sexless Dr Watson: she looks identical to Arabella. But of course, she is not Arabella… and there the novel takes an even more cruel and horrible turn.

Honestly, A Petrol Scented Spring is the most gripping and compelling novel I’ve read for months. It quite genuinely is a page-turner. I usually find it very hard to read books on trains as all the noises and people and announcements distract me, but A Petrol Scented Spring managed to completely catch my attention and draw me in to its dark, stinking and brutal world. I even had to stay up reading it into the twilight hours when I got home to ensure I found out how it ended. Hint: you should do the same.

PS - As further proof of my newfound adoration of Ajay Close, please have a read of the ‘About Me’ page on her website. One day I hope to engineer a situation where we go out for drinks together, ‘cos she sounds like she would be a bloody good drinking companion.  

Monday, 29 January 2018

'Earth & High Heaven'

Gwethalyn Graham, photo via Persephone website

Earth & High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

Originally published in 1944, Earth & High Heaven (reprinted care of Persephone Books) by Canadian author Gwethalyn Graham is a fascinating and compelling look at the fledgling relationship between Jewish lawyer Marc Reiser and newspaper reporter Erica Drake, whose archaic parents are strongly opposed to her relationship with a Jewish man.

Set in Canada during the three months in summer 1942 between Erica and Marc’s first meeting, and Marc’s subsequent conscription overseas to fight in WW2, Earth & High Heaven is a claustrophobic and tense novel that neatly sums up the agonies of a love that is dampened by bigoted families.

There are chapters filled with intense dialogue and debate between Erica and Marc, and Erica and her stubborn mule of a father, Charles. These concentrated conversations feel tight and close and staccato, yet sadly just as relevant now in a post-Brexit, post-Trump age. But they are beautifully peppered with scenes of Erica at work with her newspaper colleagues on the local paper, where her quick fire wit and sharp talk with her colleagues brings to mind the obvious comparison of reporter Hildy Johnson (played by Rosalind Russell) in the brilliant 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday.

To a contemporary reader, the bigotry and prejudice that Erica’s parents irrationally hold towards Marc is stupefying. They won’t allow him in the house and therefore they have never spoken to him, yet they remain steadfast that their daughter would be ruining her life and become dead to them if she were to marry Marc, for no other reason than that he is a Jew. In 2018, this is startling to read. But in 1944, when Earth & High Heaven was published, this was doubtless a common view: one that Gwethalyn hoped to expose with her brutal novel showing up these ignorant attitudes.

Earth & High Heaven has sold 1.5 million copies since 1944 and been translated into 15 languages, as well as spending 38 weeks in The New York Times bestseller list. And having read it, it is easy to see why this novel has become such an important book.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

'Until We Win'

Shortly before Christmas I wrote a piece about Linda Newbery's 2004 novel for young adults called Polly's March, and added a PS that I'd spotted she had a more recent book out about the suffragettes. Well, now I've got my paws on a copy and am reporting back...

Until We Win: They Demand The Vote was published just last year by Barrington Stoke Teen and picks up the suffragette mantle and moves it onwards from Polly's adventures (NB: Until We Win features an entirely different cast of characters to Polly's March; it's not a sequel). 

In her new book, Linda focuses on 17-year-old Lizzy who is frustrated by the preferential treatment her brother gets and bored in her job, so when she meets suffragettes Julia and Elsie in a cafe her life is transformed for the better. Lizzy throws herself into the suffragette movement, fighting for votes for women and finally finding purpose to her life. 

With whistlestop breathlessness, Until We Win sees Lizzy rapidly move from office girl to suffragette to prisoner to war worker, touching on lots of significant historical details. Initially, I thought it a little odd how quickly the story moved from one element to another without giving too much focus to the different activities Lizzy became involved in, but after looking the book up on Barrington Stoke's website I realised Linda had written the book in a particular way to make it more accessible to dyslexic readers. The book has a reading age of 8 years but is intended to appeal to teenage readers, and even the layout and font used has been given consideration for dyslexic readers. Which is a fabulous initiative from the author and publishers.

Can we also give a big nod to the beautiful cover? Designed by artist Stewart Easton, the cover is a reproduction of an embroidery he created for the book in suffragette colours of purple, green and white and is deliberately reminiscent of the hand-sewn suffragette banners that the WSPU created to display at marches and events. You can read more about the cover design here. 

PS - The reason I have included Holly Webb's book The Princess and the Suffragette in the photo with this post is that I am LOVING the covers on the current crop of suffragette teen fiction. They're absolutely stunning and a far cry from the rather fusty covers that used to adorn teen suffrage fiction in previous decades. Hurrah for beautiful book covers.

'The Road to Representation'

Back in 2013, Bristol-based writer Lucienne Boyce published The Bristol Suffragettes, to document the case, struggles and achievements of the women who militantly campaigned for votes for women in Bristol. Having since written numerous essays and articles, not to mention given many talks, on the subject, Lucienne has now collected some of these together in her most recent book: The Road to Representation: Essays on the Women's Suffrage Campaign.

Produced in a similar style to The Bristol Suffragettes, The Road to Representation maintains a largely Bristol-centric focus to its articles and is a very readable selection of essays. These cover incidents such as the attack on the Bristol WSPU shop by angered students from Bristol University to the way a variety of businesses tried to cash in on the suffrage branding by stocking purple, green and white coloured items. Lucienne's new book also covers some areas that are perhaps less often considered with regards to women's suffrage, such as the way the anti-suffrage authorities repeatedly tried to discredit the women as being 'lunatics', and the link between suffragists and anti-vivisectionists (relating to the tale of the poor brown dog in Battersea, London). 

For some people now (many of whom perhaps do not even use their right to vote), they may wonder what the fuss was all about and question what difference it made whether women had the vote or not. One answer to this lies in Lucienne's chapter about women and education, which spells out the link between a lack of representation in the voting booth and a lack of access to higher education and qualification. It is good to see these debates widened out beyond 'merely' the case of votes for women, as of course the suffrage campaign was far more than a one trick pony. 

Lucienne's website can be found on this link and has more information.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Dear BBC, Please Repeat 'Shoulder to Shoulder'

You know, for all the period dramas that British TV creates that are rehashes of the same tiny pool of books (despite there already being approximately 7,436,871 TV and film adaptations of Pride & Prejudice, ITV are planning yet another for 2018 - yawnarama), the one time the BBC produced an original period drama about the vibrant and exciting suffragettes, they never felt compelled to capitalise upon it.

So come on, BBC, in the centenary year of when (some) women got the vote, please give us a repeat of Shoulder to Shoulder, which you first showed in 1974. It’s not even available on official DVD (and you’ve blocked the episodes that someone had uploaded to YouTube, although I appreciate, y’know, copyright etc), so we can’t even buy it to watch at our leisure. But after I tweeted about it last week, it turns out there’s a huge swell of licence payers all itching to see this ace feminist drama of yours.

Shoulder to Shoulder was six episodes of 75 minutes that focussed on the Pankhurst family and their allies within the Women’s Social and Political Union to show how the militants fought for votes for women. Shoulder to Shoulder was unprecedented in being a women-driven series about women’s history and feminist concerns on a nationally broadcasted UK TV station. I can think of no other TV drama on any station that has matched it in the 44 years since Shoulder to Shoulder was debuted in 1974. (NB: It is not true to say that Shoulder to Shoulder was never repeated… it was repeated on BBC1 at some point in the early 1990s. And a dusty iPlayer page tells me it was repeated on BBC4 in 2008. But really, that was quite a while ago… it would be lovely to see it again please. Especially in this centenary year.)

Also, I love the story of how it came about. Actor Georgia Brown (who played Annie Kenney in Shoulder to Shoulder), complained to the BBC about how there were no meaningful roles for women, so they told her to create a series she would like to act in. And that’s exactly what she did alongside script editor Midge MacKenzie and producer Verity Lambert. This in itself is utterly revolutionary. Can you imagine this happening now?

In 2014, to mark the 40th anniversary of the series, Birkbeck College at the University of London (my alma mater) held a special event reuniting some of the cast and crew and debating the significance of the series. You can read about it here. Janet McCabe, who helped organise the event, also wrote a few reports afterwards that you can read here and here. Suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford also gives the show a cracking recommendation on her website.

PS - Midge MacKenzie, who co-created Shoulder to Shoulder, compiled a huge and fascinating book with the same name to accompany the series. Alongside an unprecedented amount of detailed information, the book contains scores of rarely seen archive photographs. Bizarrely, although long out of print, you can currently buy second-hand copies of the book online for a small sum - though I wouldn’t hang around as I have a feeling these will soon be snapped up and the prices will then rise. It really is a fascinating resource.

PPS - There are one or two small websites selling DVDs of Shoulder to Shoulder. Please note, these are not official and are copies of the programmes that were videoed when it was on TV that have later been transferred to DVD. However, currently this is your best chance of seeing the programme and this is how I have seen it. But they are not official or of high quality.

And another thing... I am also working on another post about the show itself that goes into more detail about why it is such a cracking watch and why it deserves to be repeated this year.