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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.

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