Since settling on the Suffragettes for my historical fiction project, reading into their lives has only proven to me how great an idea it is. This week I’ve been reading Kitty Marion’s autobiography, which has been as entertaining as it was enlightening.
I often find our modern historical and public focus on the Suffragette movement a bit distorting. Our perception of the period is too much based on the Pankhursts and the efforts of middle-class, educated women. Yes, the Pankhursts were the figureheads and forerunners of the Edwardian movement (although its roots stretch back much further), but we have overlooked the efforts of lower-class Suffragettes working at the grassroots and on the streets for too long. I think that the Suffragette’s militancy and violence is also often overlooked in our whitewashing of history. To this day, we still see female militancy and violence as something distasteful, and in our worship of the Pankhursts as icons of their time, we like to gloss over the nitty gritty, the window-smashing arson which helped to get women the right to vote.
Although Kitty Marion (Kathaerina Maria Schäfer) came from a solid middle-class background, she straddles the class boundary in an interesting way. As a music hall and theatre performer, she was self-sufficient and completely independent from the age of seventeen. She wasn’t formally educated past the age of fifteen, and she never married, so she certainly doesn’t fit the middle-class educated housewife image that we now have of the Suffragettes. I think more historical fiction needs to be written about working-class Suffragette activists to try to fill this gap in the public eye. Suffragette fiction is strangely lacking in any case- a search on Waterstones threw up only one recent novel, which, judging by the cover, situated itself firmly in the realm of the historical chick-lit.
Katherina Maria Schäfer was born in Germany in 1871, the year of Germany’s unification as a nation state. Her mother died when she was a toddler, and her father was a moderately successful engineer. She had an unhappy childhood, although she doesn’t dwell on this much in her memoirs. She was passed between her father’s rough care and that of other relatives. Her father was emotionally and physically abusive, which helped to turn Kitty away from the attentions of men for the rest of her life. At the age of fifteen, she left Germany to live with one of her aunts in an Eastern suburb of London, probably Epping. She spent two years there as a kind of live-in unpaid skivvy, with her aunt discouraging her from leaving the house much, learning English, or finding work.
However, Kitty is anything but biddable. She is naturally inquisitive and self-motivated, teaching herself English by listening into conversations on the street and comparing German passages of the Bible with the English. After a few years of living in England, her written English is near-perfect and her accent has all but disappeared, a testament to her natural intelligence. She becomes a stage performer at the age of seventeen and begins to travel the country, finally tasting the freedom and independence she was craving. She spends years as an itinerant performer going from show to show in all corners of the UK. Her red hair and charm arouse interest in a few suitors, but she vows never to marry. After spending her childhood living under her father’s fist, she would never subject herself to a life of obedience and restriction. For the same reasons, she never has children despite enjoying their company. In short: a lesson in late Victorian badassery, when we think about how uncommon it was for a woman to travel alone, stay single and make her own money at the time, without resorting to prostitution.
Which is what we’re coming onto now. In her career as a performer, numerous managers and insalubrious types proposition her or try to force her into trading sexual favours for employment or promotion. She even has a few close calls with sex traffickers, such as a couple who promise her a shining future as an actress in Paris. Marion, kept in a state of natural innocence by her confined childhood, is shocked by this. Sexual abuse in the theatre industry is one of the reasons she turns to the Suffrage movement.
In her career as a militant Suffragette, Marion is involved in campaigning, from the innocent – selling their newspaper, Votes for Women, on street corners- to the extreme: arson and violence against property. After Emily Wilding Davidson throws herself under the King’s Horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, Kitty and a fellow Suffragette go on a dangerous mission to set fire to the Grandstand on the racetrack at Hurst Park, a plan which both succeeds and fails. They manage to climb over the huge perimeter fence with the help of a carpet, and the pavilion burns, but they are captured the next morning. Marion also goes on window-smashing raids along Oxford and Regent street, and takes part in the heckling of Cabinet ministers outside the Houses of Parliament.
She is arrested countless times and sent to Holloway Prison, where she goes on hunger and thirst strikes which are ‘remedied’ with government-mandated force feeding, which amount to torture. A tube is forced down her nose or throat, and then various calorific liquids are poured in, resulting in immense pain and vomiting. Some women even died as a result of the torture, as some of the liquid could get into lungs and cause pneumonia. Marion underwent this procedure an astonishing 232 times. Later, she is continually released and re-arrested under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, after the force feeding episodes had proven themselves a PR disaster of momentous proportions for the Government. The public, largely opposed to the Suffragettes, were nonetheless incensed and shocked by these stories of invasive torture and subsequent health complications and suffering. Force feeding was largely stopped, but instead Suffragettes were released after they had weakened considerably due to their hunger striking and then re-arrested when they had regained some strength and weight on the outside.
The cycles of starvation and force feeding took their toll on her body and mind, but Marion possessed an exceptional iron resolve and continued her protests behind bars – once successfully setting fire to her furniture and bedding using the gas lighting, almost suffocating herself in the process. Ultimately, Marion’s militant activities stop at the outbreak of the First World War, along with all other militant Suffrage activism, as the Pankhursts urged mobilisation for the war effort and the futility of doing violence to property at home in the face of the mechanised slaughter of WWI.
Kitty Marion’s autobiography is a uniquely exciting and insightful source material for writing historical fiction. Some of the scenes described are just as daring and thrilling than the best of novels. Had I written a novel about this and the Suffrage movement never happened, I would be laughed off the stage. Impossible! they would say, write about something more believable!