A forgotten gem, but only if you adore Suffrage history.
This is a book with two protagonists: Jenny Clegg and Mary O’Neil – succinctly encapsulating the two distinct halves of the militant Suffrage movement: working and middle-class women. Jenny is a young mill worker from the North, and Mary is a middle-class woman from Ireland. They both join the militant Suffrage movement of the WSPU for similar reasons: freedom and equality for women. It is repeatedly pointed out here that it wasn’t all about the Vote: the Vote was a means to an end. It was a practical vehicle to push through social reform.
This is, in some ways, more of a political treatise than a novel. There’s not a huge amount of plot arc, and most chapters are overwhelmingly composed of dialogue, which often consists solely of pro and anti-suffrage arguments. If you have a keen interest in Suffrage history, you will enjoy this book as a social document of its time. If not, you probably wouldn’t finish it. Edwardian novels were crafted completely differently than today, and the chapters which cover Jenny and her interactions with her family and community are written entirely in a Northern vernacular, which make it peculiarly difficult to read. This book is not elegant, it is prone to cliche: its main goal was to win women over to the Cause, not to craft a beautiful piece of art.
Jenny and Mary are empathetic, if not quite ‘real’, characters. Their speeches often spill over into the unbelievable and are rather long, but this book really manages to capture the social mood of the time. There was mass unrest: general strikes, incessant militant activity, working-class people rising up against their old capitalist, landed masters. The Socialist movement was thriving, encapsulated by the character of Joe Hopton, who eventually becomes Jenny’s fiancee in a final nod to traditional sentimentalism.
These characters are more archetypes than believable vignettes of humanity- they are ‘flat’ rather than ’round’, they don’t have the many idiosyncrasies or contradictions we would expect from a modern novel. Having ‘flat’ characters is not necessarily a bad thing though, Maud gets her point across very well, using the characters as a mouthpiece for Suffrage ‘propaganda’, to call it that. It was invaluable to me as a resource to the many arguments and counter-arguments which existed at the time, and as a window into the ways in which Suffragettes spoke to politicians, ordinary men, and each other.
The vernacular made it slow-going at some points, although the novel would have lost something were northern, working-class mill workers talking in Queen’s English. Some of the scenes were incredibly long and so packed with dialogue I didn’t really get a sense of place. If it were up to me, I would have cut the novel by about 20%. But that’s sort of beside the point. I am glad women at the time were putting pen to paper, it has given me a wealth of insight and inspiration.