No Surrender is one of Persephone’s new books for the Autumn/Winter. It is being republished one hundred years after it was written, and is a striking document of the women’s suffrage movement. What makes it particularly interesting is that when it was published, the granting of a vote to selected women was still seven years away, and so Constance Maud had no guarantee that the movement would be successful. As such her prose is passionate and earnest, and her portrayal of the unjust suffering women went through in prison in order to make a stand for their beliefs is incredibly powerful.
The plot centres around two women from two different classes; Jenny Clegg is a Yorkshire mill hand who is drawn to the women’s movement in order to gain equal wages and rights for working class women, and Mary O’Neil is an Irish aristocrat, moved by the plight of the working women she has seen and incensed by the limited role her class gives to women. The two are thrown together after Mary tours Jenny’s mill while on a visit to her relatives who own them, and Mary is inspired by Jenny’s fervour. Mary is already a part of the women’s movement, and she convinces Jenny to join. After showing much promise as a public speaker in the North, Jenny is summoned to London, and there her adventures as a militant suffragette begin.
It is a frustrating movement to be part of; the women are fighting against wider public opinion, and not just that of the men, who fear for their own hold over the country if women dare to get involved in the running of it; but of many women too, who consider the fight for the vote unladylike, hysterical and going against the natural social order. However, the majority of women who are against – or ‘Anti’ – female suffrage are of the upper classes, and have no concept of the suffering of women outside of their social sphere, who are paid much less than their male counterparts and have no rights over their children or property. Their comfortable lives revolve around dinner parties and social calls; their husbands bring home the money and make all the decisions, and they are content with such a passive existence. They see women’s role as being within the home, and nothing more; the very notion of women having an equal footing with men on the world stage is enough to send them into a frenzy of fear. What would a world look like where women could compete with men and were no longer treated as delicate, gentle beings, having all their material wants taken care of by their male relatives? It is simply unimaginable, and something the Antis will do anything to stop.
Meanwhile, Jenny and Mary are busy getting themselves imprisoned for their cause and going on hunger strike, and are converting people left, right and centre by their calm and reasonable arguments that demonstrate the good sense of giving women the vote. Women from nations that have already been granted the vote are drafted in to make their case of how well they have used their vote to benefit everyone, including men. High society girls stage protests in dining rooms; banners are surreptitiously stitched for bazaars in suffragette colours; unsuspecting MPs are ambushed in country churches on Sunday. No longer content to sit in stuffy drawing rooms or stand at mills for hours all day while men get to go out and play an active role in the world, or share their own working lives but get paid more for it, the militant suffragettes like Mary and Jenny are determined to do whatever it takes to make their voices heard.
Books written during the suffragette movement are rare; as such, Constance Maud’s didactic and often cliched prose can be excused to a certain extent as what she has to say is so fascinating and informative. I had no idea of the conditions women prisoners were kept in, and of the horrible nature of force feeding. I found the novel especially eye opening for its portrayal of the ‘Anti’ movement, headed up by upper class women who were afraid of having their place as the fairer sex – the ‘angel of the house’ – destroyed and the chivalry and protection they were used to benefiting from eroded as women took a more equal position in the working and political worlds. I could understand their fear, but I could understand more the frustration of those women who were desperate to have their voices heard and a chance to improve their own lot in life. Having to deal with the obstruction of silly, misinformed and selfish women who wanted the world to stay the same because they didn’t want their pampered lives to change must have been simply infuriating.
Overall, No Surrender is a thought provoking and intriguing look at the arguments surrounding the women’s suffrage movement, but I do have to say that as a novel, it doesn’t quite work. The characters are rather one dimensional; they are just there to serve the purpose of hammering Maud’s political arguments home, and the attempt at forcing a romantic plot into the mix is rather clumsy and unconvincing. Judging from the preface, however, Persephone know this and are publishing it regardless because of its historical importance, and I can’t say I disagree with them. Despite my reservations, it is a fascinating and unique chronicle of the women’s suffrage movement, written at a pivotal point in its history, and is a stark reminder of the inequalities women were and still are subject to in the so called ‘modern’ age. Reading No Surrender did shock me by demonstrating that, in many ways, attitudes Maud reports in 1911 are still in existence today. I think that, one hundred years on, Maud, who was so hopeful about the potential of a world with politically active women in it, would be disappointed at the gender pay gap and lack of women in positions of political and economic power in 2011. No Surrender might not be the finest novel in the Persephone canon, but it certainly provides much food for thought, and I would say it is an essential read for anyone interested in women’s history or the suffrage movement.
I was very kindly sent No Surrender to review by Persephone Books. It will be published in late October, along with Dorothy Whipple’s sublime novel Greenbanks, which I have just re-read and will review shortly. I warn you now – get your pre-orders in, because you won’t want to wait a minute longer than necessary to start reading it when it is released!