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. 

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