Monday, 24 December 2018

'The Call' - Edith Ayrton Zangwill

Things that are thrown out of windows during the narrative of The Call include (but are not limited to) prison food, Bovril, inedible rock cakes and copies of The Vote magazine. Given the force with which Edith Ayrton Zangwill’s excellent 1924 novel rattles through its nine-year period, it is no surprising that the undesirable elements are discarded. Though, I should add, the hurled copy of The Vote is swiftly replaced following a fresh purchase of the magazine by the determined would-be reader.

In 2018, it is of course only right that a publisher of forgotten books by women authors should publish a book about the suffrage movement, and in The Call Persephone Books has chosen a mighty volume. It’s long, it’s sprawling and it calls on a catalogue of wondrous elements. It’s fair to say it’s one of my favourite ever Persephone Books (and I’ve read about two thirds of their 130 to date).

Our shero Ursula is deemed the eccentric daughter of a social butterfly in a well-to-do London home. She hides away in her laboratory upstairs in the servants’ quarters, conducting endless experiments into gases. Her charming mother frankly despairs of her daughter ever settling down and living a ‘normal’ life, but her mother’s love and fondness for her daughter also shines through - especially given her crusty old step-father’s pig headedness.

Filling her time with laboratory work and being the lone woman at science meetings, Ursula has few friends apart from the older (and married) Professor Smee, who is besotted with her but whose ardour she does not even notice. But the more her scientific experiments get noticed by the academy, the more Ursula’s star rises and even when she meets the dashing Tony Balestier with whom she falls in love, her devotion to her science cannot be dampened. That is… until she falls in with the militant suffragettes.

Swinging from being a strident opposer to the women’s movement to a committed leader, Ursula is soon prioritising votes for women over everything else. Including Tony…

I will give no more away about the narrative of The Call, except to say that the call of the title can be interpreted in a number of ways: Ursula’s scientific work, her devotion to women’s suffrage, her commitment to Tony, her objection to the violence of war, or her determination to invent a means of extinguishing the ‘liquid fire’ that the Germans are using during the war.

This is a thoroughly compelling book, starting in 1909 and enduring until 1918. Edith writes in an accessible and enjoyable way, and even the potentially tedious ‘science parts’ are not alienating to a non-science type such as me (Edith’s own step-mother was the scientist Hertha Marks Ayrton, which should explain her insight into the subject). The descriptions of suffrage life are hectic and consuming, as that life no doubt was - my only minor grumble is that Ursula moves into this life so quickly and exits it equally fast. But the sections about her prison experiences, especially the vivid and scalding descriptions of being on hunger and thirst strikes, are painfully shocking and well worth reading: all too often, contemporary onlookers do not seem to grasp the physical and mental agony of days and weeks on a hunger and thirst strike and how crippling this is to the person… and that is before even considering the torture of forcible feeding. Along with the description of the same experiences in Sylvia Pankhurst’s own writings, Ursula’s experiences in The Call are truly shocking. As they should be.

Re-publishing The Call is a credit to Persephone and this is exactly the kind of book that I hope they continue putting out. Suffrage novels written at the time are hard to come by (though I’ve recently read both Restored by Emily Spender and Mildred’s Career by Miss Ramsay, both of which were written in the 1870s about the pre-militant campaign, and Mildred’s Career in particular is perfect for a Persephone reprint - hint hint! You can read my review of it on the hyperlink).


On a personal note, completing The Call feels like a triumph. Following a bereavement seven weeks ago that left me devastated, my ability to read anything beyond a few lines here and there in a trashy magazine has been hopeless. Knowing what hot-water-bottle tomes Persephone Books can be, I was determined to push on with The Call. Everything about it seemed like it should be a tonic to me: woman writer, suffrage theme, defiance of social mores, page-turning plot. But with my mind in pieces and my concentration shot, I struggled. But I’m glad I pushed on, because the story has been totally engrossing and completing it has been a huge satisfaction. Onwards women writers.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Vote 100 - A Round-Up of Some of the Events

This has been an exciting year for suffrage themed exhibitions, owing to it being the centenary of when (some) women finally got the vote here in the UK. Of the (approximately) ten million suffrage events all over the country, I barely made it to a handful. Here are a few of my highlights, and do share in the comments about any favourite or memorable events that you attended.

One of the two enormous suffragette lanterns at the Bristol parade

Marking exactly 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 (and my 40th birthday!), Bristol Women’s Voice organised a beautiful lantern parade in the evening on February 6. Literally thousands of women, girls and menfolk attended, many were dressed up, and almost everyone had a handmade torch-lit lantern as we marched and paraded from Clifton down to College Green. Despite the cold, rain and sleet, it was a truly magnificent event.

Sappho to Suffrage in Oxford
Sappho to Suffrage: Women Who Dared is a free exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and is a carefully curated selection from the extension collection that showcased some of the more notable pieces relating to women. Not exclusively suffrage related, the exhibition includes everything from Mary Wollstonecraft’s original notebook showing her working draft of Frankenstein, to a fabric banner from the Oxford Women’s Suffrage Society that had been used in suffrage parades a century before. This exhibition remains open until 19 February 2019, so you still have time to go.

Index of Suffragettes at the National Archives

On May 18, I went to a special evening event at the National Archives in Kew called Law Makers or Law Breakers? Alongside animated talks from Dr Naomi Paxton and actor Jessica Hynes (writer and star of suffrage sitcom Up The Women), it was a chance to see the brand new exhibition Suffragettes vs The State, drink at the Women’s Gin-stitute and drinks suffrage-themed cocktails. 

Millicent Fawcett at the LSE

Over at the London School of Economics, there was the exhibition At Last! Votes for Women, which took the refreshing approach of giving equal billing to all three of the major suffrage groups: not prioritising the Women’s Social and Political Union as so many exhibitions and events did. So we saw equal information and memorabilia about the Women’s Freedom League and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Socieities as well as the WSPU. My favourite item was the menu from the final dinner held by the vegetarian and teetotal NUWSS to celebrate winning the vote on equal terms as men in 1928: lentil cutlets in tomato sauce with Italian eggs, anyone?

Dr Naomi Paxton with our balloon suffragist Winifred

Elsewhere in London, the Barbican hosted a series of film screenings and events under the banner of Nevertheless, She Persisted. I attended a screening of the 1913 silent movie The Suffragette (about a convert to the women’s movement who develops a delightfully arsonistic streak, while sporting an impressively mammoth hat), starring Asta Nielson and introduced by Dr Naomi Paxton. A wonderful chance to see a feature length movie that was new to me, as well as another chance to watch a selection of the short films from the BFI’s Make More Noise collection (this gets wheeled out fairly regularly all over the place, and is also on DVD, if you haven’t yet seen this).

Votes For Women sweeties
The Museum of London holds one of the biggest collections of suffrage pieces anywhere in the world, and has a sizeable suffragette display as part of its permanent display. So I had high hopes for its Vote 100 exhibition, which were dashed pretty quickly. This tiny exhibition featured a literal handful of objects in a few glass cases, displayed in a dark room that was also showing on loop a short ‘talking heads’ film with suffrage writers. When I asked an usher if this was it or was there more elsewhere, it turned out I wasn’t the only one to think this exhibition  a phenomenal let down. But if you want to see it for yourself, it remains open - and free to attend - until 10 March 2019.

The Cause from Dreadnought South West

The Cause was a brand new touring play from Dreadnought South West, about an imagined conversation between suffrage leaders Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. I caught the play when it came to the Redgrave Theatre in Bristol in the summer, and was swept up in the tide of revolution stirring through Natalie McGrath’s tight script.

Up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I felt truly lucky to catch a performance of the outstanding and mesmerising one-woman play That Daring Australian Girl, about real-life Australian suffragette Muriel Matters who came to London and caused no end of mayhem in the name of votes for women. Her story was brilliantly told by actor Joanne Hartstone (who also wrote the script), who had come over from Australia to tour the show. It deservedly won five-star reviews all across the board.

Also causing a fuss in theatres was the hip hop musical at the Old Vic in London about Sylvia Pankhurst, called simply Sylvia, that enjoyed colour-blind casting and took a few liberties to achieve a rip roaring historical feast. Written by the exciting duo of Kate Prince and Priya Parmar, and with Beverley Knight as Emmeline Pankhurst, Sylvia had audiences dancing in the aisles. Let’s hope this sold out show returns.
Suffraducks at the Houses of Parliament

The Houses of Parliament naturally needed to get in on the act and did so with its Voice & Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition in its echoey grand hall. Recreating various key parliamentary places in the votes for women story, visitors were able to experience The Ventilator (the cramped loft space above the House of Common Chamber where women could try to watch proceedings), The Cage (an enclosed space where, hidden behind large brass grilles, women could try to find out what was going on) and The Tomb (the tiny little Ladies’ Members Room where the very first female MPs were expected to conduct their business). The suffragette bath ducks in the gift shop were a particular highlight and you can still buy them online. Unable to make it to the (now closed) exhibition? Fret not. You can watch a video tour of it on this Facebook link.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

'A Christmas Carol' at Bristol Old Vic

Felix Hayes as Scrooge - photo by Geraint Lewis
Bah humbug!

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a spectacular new musical show from the Bristol Old Vic, and this year the team has yanked the classic Charles Dickens tale A Christmas Carol out of the vaults. With the collective minds of Tom Morris, Lee Lyford and Gwyneth Herbert pulling the strings, this is one production that is guaranteed to leave you wishing a merry Christmas to one and all.

Relocated from the grizzly streets of Victorian London to the cobbled paths of Bristol, in this version of A Christmas Carol we find miserly loan shark Ebenezer Scrooge toiling away on Christmas Eve in his grotty office, with his put-upon assistant Bob Cratchit obligingly doing his bidding. Refusing to take part in the cheery Christmas celebrations, Scrooge ushers away carol singers and charity fundraisers and grumpily stomps home to his desolate and barren home for another night on his own. Or so he thinks… until his long dead colleague Jacob Marley summons up the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future to give Scrooge the biggest wake up call of his life.

Felix Hayes is simply outstanding as grumpy Scrooge. With his deep voice, lofty height and well crafted air of irritation, he perfectly conjures up the spirit of curmudgeonly old Scrooge. And he also conveys the change in Scrooge so well - there is something enormously affecting about seeing a big man crumble that will soften the hardest of hearts, and it is hard to imagine anyone else but Hayes who could have filled Scrooge’s boots so well.

Gwyneth Herbert as the Ghost of Christmas Present - photo by Geraint Lewis
But of course, he is far from alone on the stage. All of the classic characters from A Christmas Carol are here: Little Fan, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and co, they are all present and correct. And my word, if Tiny Tim’s scene doesn’t reduce you to tears then you have the soul of a stone.

I think possibly my favourite moment, and the most affecting part, was the simple scene when Scrooge - having seen the error of his ways - is clambering across a row of audience members to get back on the stage. As he climbs across the audience, trying not to knock over their glasses of wine, he asks them what they think he should do next. “Give your money to charity!” “Give all your money away” And as simple as this moment is, this interaction with the audience and Scrooge’s responses to them, really worked and, to my mind, was the most effective way of showing how much he had changed. (Maybe I’m just easily pleased, but it’s always fun when members of the cast come into the audience during a show.)

Bravo, Bristol Old Vic. A Christmas Carol is another triumph in your bursting catalogue of Christmas shows. Long may your reign continue. And long may you keep working with Felix Hayes.

A Christmas Carol is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 13 January 2019. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

Tiny Tim's heartbreaking bed scene - photo by Geraint Lewis