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Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Fern Riddell’s ‘Death in Ten Minutes’

A non-fiction must-read for any angry feminist like myself.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Death in Ten Minutes: The forgotten life of radical suffragette Kitty Marion:  Amazon.co.uk: Riddell, Fern: 9781473666184: Books
Think of history as dry and dusty? Think again (along with the best cover design I have seen from any history book over the last few years)

Higlights

I have a special place in my heart for Fern Riddell. She’s part of a new wave of young, female historians who have brains and sass by the bucketload. Listening to her interview with Dan Snow on his History Hit podcast (an absolute favourite of mine) opened my eyes to Kitty Marion. The podcast is called The Violence of the Suffragettes and it’s available on Spotify if you’re interestered.

Without Riddell’s memorable monologuing in the subject, I never would have come across the Kitty Marion, and never would have settled on her for my historical fiction project at MA. Riddell opened my eyes to a more violent, racier image of the WSPU Suffragettes and I will be eternally grateful to her for it. This is her seminal work: she is the original ‘Marionist’ historian. She took the initiative of unearthing an unknown suffragette’s unpublished biography, blowing the dust off it, and blowing our preconceptions about the militant Suffrage movement out of the water.

Marion’s autobiography has since been published (and I am extremely relieved it’s available online via the UEA library). I’ve since read it cover to cover and had the same feeling as Riddell- that feeling of unearthing something absolutely extraordinary. Except I wasn’t the first to do it. Riddell’s Death in Ten Minutes is, at its heart, a biography of this formidable woman, but it is also so much more than that. Riddell was originally a sex historian, so she brings in a new take and analyses the available evidence in a different way to many Suffrage historians and second-wave feminists, who largely swept the Birth Control movement under the proverbial rug. After moving to the USA in 1917, Marion became an avid member of the American Birth Control Review (which later became Planned Parenthood). Although she had no known relationships herself, she supported women’s right to choose when and how they had sex and whether they had children.

The combined history of the Suffrage and the Birth Control movements, and indeed the historiography of the two, are extremely complex and intertwined. Many contemporary Suffragettes, subsequent Suffrage historians and second-wave feminists have taken a dim view of women’s sexual freedom, and therefore attempted to write Birth Control advocates (such as Kitty Marion) out of the history of the fight for the Vote. The Pankhursts had a narrow view of ‘correct’ and ‘upright’ womanhood. If a woman was unmarried, she was not supposed to be having sex. If a woman had sex or gave birth out of wedlock, or sold sex, she wasn’t seen as a ‘worthy’ woman with moral fibre. The white on the Suffragette banner stood for purity. Contemporary accounts of Suffragettes imprisoned in Holloway often bear a distinct flavour of prudishness or contempt towards the many sex workers also imprisoned there. Emmeline Pankhurst disowned her own daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst, for having a baby out of wedlock. Riddell proposes this tension as one of the reasons Kitty Marion’s name has largely been forgotten, despite being one of the most (in)famous and influential Suffragettes of her day.

Riddell really brings the militant Suffrage movement to life in this book. The Suffragette (note: Sufragette not Suffragist) movement of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) was not about middle-class ladies making lovely speeches and chaining themselves to railings. They set bombs, they set fire to postboxes, mansions, churches. They blew up railway carriages. They put chemicals in postboxes which gave postmen severe burns. They cut telegraph wires. They destroyed public property. They attacked politicians (with hatchets). They were radicals, they were dangerous women. I cannot stress these points enough. We find these facts distasteful. We want to remember them as peaceful victims. They were not peaceful, and they were not victims. They had agency. They fought in the literal sense of the word. And there, in the middle of it all, was Kitty Marion.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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