This month marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in Britain (well, some women – you had to be over 30) and in order to celebrate I have bought a nice stack of books about the suffragette movement. The first I’ve read is this wonderful young adult book by Sally Nicholls, which details the lives of three young Londoners from different social backgrounds who become involved in the movement. Evelyn is from an upper middle class family who lives in Hampstead; clever and ambitious, she is furious that her brother can go to university and have a profession, while she has to stay at home. Her parents plan on her marrying her childhood sweetheart, Teddy, and settling down for a nice suburban life of children and charity committees, but Evelyn can’t imagine anything worse. The suffragettes offer her an escape route, something to fight for, and a way to feel alive. Meanwhile, in Bethnal Green, May lives in straightened circumstances with her intelligent, independent and politically active mother, who is passionate about the suffragette movement. May loves joining her mother on the suffragette trail, and has plenty of idealistic views about what every woman should be prepared to do for the cause. However, her views become challenged when she meets Nell, a local girl living in the slums with her family, whose involvement with the suffragettes is no less passionate, but tempered by the day-to-day practicalities of having to earn a living and find food for the family table. May and Nell soon realise that they are attracted to one another sexually, but as the suffragette movement becomes more violent and war becomes ever closer on the horizon, the differences in their social situations and understanding of the world begins to form fissures in their relationship.
As the fight for political freedom develops, and becomes more desperate and violent, each of these three young women have to come to a decision about what they personally can stand to sacrifice, and how far they can commit to a cause that increasingly looks to be futile. Evelyn longs to make a stand, to go to prison and join the hunger strikers, but will it be worth the pain and shame to her family, and risking her relationship with Teddy? When Nell takes a job that goes against the morals of the suffragettes, May is furious and accuses Nell of not having the courage of her convictions, but May soon has to learn that convictions don’t put food on the table, and how long can one expect people to suffer for a cause that may never be won? This is as much a book about the conflict between self and society, reality and ideals as it is about the suffragette movement, and I found it incredibly thought provoking. The relationship between May and Nell was particularly well-drawn, with the exploration of the fundamental gulf in understanding between them of the reality of each others’ lives a real microcosm of the problems we all face in a world where half wants to impose their ideals on the other with no appreciation of the reality those others face. I so enjoyed how Nicholls deftly dealt with the fact that the suffrage movement was not a united front precisely due to the reality that not all women’s lives are the same, and even though this is a book designed for teenage readers, she doesn’t shy away from the complex and problematic nature of political and social beliefs and the conflict we all face in trying to live out our ideals in a world that is far from it.
I read this book largely because I wanted to see if it would be suitable for my students to read, and I was surprised by how much I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s definitely not just for teenagers, though if you do have teenagers – or are a teacher – and are thinking about giving this to them to read, please be aware there is some quite explicit sexual content in the earlier chapters that I would say makes this more appropriate for 13+. I’ll definitely be giving this to my students and can’t wait to see what they make of it. It’s a brilliant alternative view to the suffragette movement, and I particularly enjoyed that Nicholls also explores the impact of WWI towards the end of the book, which really shows the hardships faced by the poor who lost jobs and male incomes and suffered terribly in the early months before proper systems were put in place. I had no idea how involved the suffragettes had been in these working class communities, supporting women and starting kitchens and enterprises, and this is something I now want to find out more about. I’ve got two non-fiction suffragette books waiting in the wings to read: Jane Robinson’s Hearts and Minds and Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up Women!, though they will be probably be gathering dust for a little while as I’m studying a very reading intense course at university this term, as well as juggling applying for a PhD…it’s all go at Book Snob HQ! If you want to celebrate the centenary in your area, this article lists events and exhibitions in major cities across the UK. Also, one of the books that made it into my top 15 of 2017, and also features women fighting to live an alternative life of their choosing in the face of societal pressure, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik, is out this month in paperback (my review is here). Please do have a read if you haven’t already. Rachel Malik is speaking at Waterstones in North London on Friday 23rd February and I shall be going along to listen – it would be lovely to see some readers there!