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.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

'The Princess and the Suffragette'

Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1905 children's novel A Little Princess should be a staple on the shelf of every child. I've lost count of the number of times I've read it and remember loving the TV adaptation in the 1980s and thinking the story of good triumphing over bad was terrific. 

A Little Princess is the story of Sara Crewe, whose wealthy father is a widower who sends his daughter to boarding school with mean Miss Minchin in London while he is stationed in India. Despite her special treatment, Sara is a thoughtful child who looks out for the younger children, especially Lottie. When Captain Crewe dies, he leaves his daughter penniless - and Minchin revels in relegating Sara to the life of a poorly treated scullery maid who sleeps in the cold attic and often goes hungry. Needless to say, the story ends well when (spoiler alert!) it turns out the kind man who has moved in next door was friends with Captain Crewe and he rescues Sara from her hellish life and invites her to live with him instead as, huh, it turns out she is the heir to a diamond mine.

Now, author Holly Webb has taken the story and moved it on a notch with The Princess and the Suffragette (PS: this is a book to be judged by it's lovely cover). In this new story, it is Lottie who is the focus of the plot with Sara merely being an occasional character in the background. This isn't the first time a contemporary author has written a new book developing Sara's story: Hilary Mckay did this in 2010 with her book Wishing For Tomorrow, which looked at what happened to the girls left behind with Minchin after Sara left. But Holly Webb's book gives the story a staunchly feminist spin by turning young Lottie into a firey suffragette. 

Even though she is just 11 years old, Lottie becomes instantly drawn to the work of the suffragettes after accidentally coming across a huge parade while out for a walk with the school. Although newspapers are banned for the pupils, as are books not approved by the teachers, Lottie finds out more about the movement after she befriends the school's maid Sally who she spots at the parade, and over the next few years the two girls try to do their bit to support the cause of votes for women. Ultimately leading to a big life-changing twist for young Lottie. 

The Princess and the Suffragette is a great little story for younger readers, introducing them to the themes of the suffrage movement and some of the key historical events (Emily Wilding Davison's activities at the Derby, the West End window smashing campaign, the WSPU shops etc) as well as a cracking sub-plot about fathers having full rights to their children in the even of a marriage break-up and the mother having no claim over her own child whatsoever.