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Historical Fiction Prose

WSPU Summer Festival, 1913

Contextual Note:

This work has grown from my research on the WSPU’s militant suffrage campaign in Britain, specifically the life of Kitty Marion‒ a crucial yet under-remembered figure in the movement. The main thrust of my novel will cover the years of heightened violence‒ 1912-1913 ‒however the first chapter in this submission goes back to Kitty Marion’s childhood, a time when she was still Katherina Maria Schäfer: a lone, 15-year-old German migrant on the ferry to Harwich. 

Between the years 1886 and 1913, Kitty builds up a moderately successful career on-stage in music halls and theatres all around Great Britain. Kitty wrote an autobiography which was only published in full in 2019. This has formed the backbone of my research. I have taken the events of her life and worked them into a narrative, rather than lifting description or dialogue verbatim.

Kitty comes from a middle-class family, yet never marries and becomes financially independent from a young age. She joins the WSPU in 1908 after attending a rally in Hyde Park on ‘Women’s Sunday’. Katherina had a traumatic childhood at the hands of her father. This, coupled with abuse and exploitation by her acting agents, forms the main impetus for her involvement in the campaign for the Vote, which she believed would be a means to fight issues such as sexual/child abuse and financial exploitation. As a militant WSPU campaigner, she instigated several arson attacks and was considered one of the most dangerous women in the country by Asquith’s government. These chapters depict Kitty as a militant, talking with fellow militants at the WSPU’s Summer Festival in Kensington, and then carrying out an arson attack on the Hurst Park Racecourse in Richmond. The arson chapter cuts off on a cliff-hanger at around the halfway point.

Aside from Kitty Marion, the characters of Emily Wilding Davison, Mary Leigh and Clara Giveen are all also real. I found out via Kitty’s autobiography that she spoke with Emily the day before her widely-renowned actions at the Epsom Derby, although Kitty does not go into detail. The arson attack was carried out four days later in Emily’s honour. Ilse Brightwell is, however, a figment of my imagination drawn from passages in the autobiography where other ferry passengers showed a concern for Kitty’s welfare.


3rd June, 1913 

“I’m thinking of making a protest.” Emily’s words land abruptly between the three of them.

Mary pauses, cup halfway to lips. 

Kitty arches an eyebrow. Making a protest, isn’t that all they ever do? 

In the hall, waitresses mill around with businesslike grace, carrying trays laden with tea sets and cakes to the eager customers. Their green high-necked dresses and white muslin aprons could look clinical if it weren’t for the purple ribbons fixed around their waists. A few have pinned pristine white flowers in their hair. The mood, aside from their little table, is buoyant. Most of the waitresses are smiling. 

Kitty’s attention turns back to the table. She looks Emily in the eye.

“My dear, you’ll have to be more specific,” Kitty lowers her teacup delicately onto its saucer. She’s had twenty-seven years to grow accustomed to these English habits.  

Above Kitty’s head, purple, white and green banners flutter from the rafters, streaming with ribbons. The colours are everywhere. She leans back and tunes in to the vibrant hustle and bustle of the bazaar. Laughter and chatter rise above more hushed and conspiratorial exchanges. To her left, a group of young women sit huddled around a map, heads almost touching. Towards the back of the tea-room, a group of upper class ladies’ pale necks groan under the weight of their extraordinary hats. At another table, a group of plainly-dressed women converse in the no-nonsense drawl of the East End. So many processions, depositions, marches, speeches, festivals; every time they gather, it’s astonishing. Over her friend’s heads, she can see clusters of schoolgirls pulling at each other’s sleeves so as not to lose each other in the throng. Maybe they’ve begged the entrance fee from their fathers that morning, claiming a forgotten field trip to Kew Gardens. They can’t have seen so many women in one place before, free of men. They must be overwhelmed.  

Emily has been quiet, but now her reply seems to burst from within. “Something dramatic. Something unforgettable. Something to make those bastards at Westminster really sit up and take notice.” 

“What are you planning?” Kitty asks. Her thoughts flash to the postboxes. To the severe burns up those postmen’s arms. It was all over the papers. An outrage, they said. That one wasn’t Emily’s work, it was up in Dundee. But the risks are the same every time.

Emily looks from her fingers to Mary, then Kitty, then back to her hands. They’re clutching her cup, knuckles turning the colour of aged plaster. Kitty wonders whether it will survive the assault. She imagines a brittle hairline fracture splitting and shattering. 

“I keep thinking about how the King will be there, and his wife. Standing in their box, surveying their fiefdom.” Emily’s lip curls, “We need a great tragedy. Every year, a new bill dies, and they do nothing. All the while, the Kaiser’s busy polishing his Dreadnoughts. We’re running out of time, and we have nothing to show for it. Nothing.” 

Her trembling threatens to swirl tea into her saucer like a Channel storm. Kitty sends a hand over the tablecloth in a rescue attempt. An awkward few seconds tick by. Mary looks at Kitty, cocks her head, eyes pleading say something. Kitty sighs.

“I know, Pem. We’re all tired of waiting,” Kitty uses her friend’s nickname to get her attention. Emily looks up. 

Kitty, encouraged, goes on. “We’re not young anymore. We can’t keep doing this forever,” she gives Emily’s hand a friendly squeeze, thinking back to her last great tragedy. A thirty-foot drop from the interior balcony of Holloway prison. A desperate protest, or a cry for help? They know, everyone knows, how she sometimes draws her curtains and doesn’t come out for days. She would never ask for help, but members still leave shopping at her door.  

Emily’s a ticking time bomb, Kitty thinks. She can see the headlines already: hysterical, crazed terrorist. But it doesn’t matter what they do, the words stay the same. 

“I have to disrupt the race.” 

That much Kitty could have guessed. So she asks another question. 

“How?” 

Emily doesn’t reply. Either she doesn’t know yet, or she doesn’t want to say… Kitty hopes it’s not the latter. And she doesn’t look well. Pale, worn. She’s left her head bare today. It’s better not to ask if she’s sold another of her summer hats. 

Mary, across the table, is hiding behind her teacup. Kitty tries and fails to catch her eye. She’s never been particularly tactful. But Kitty doesn’t know what to say, either. Didn’t they all swear to lay down their lives for the Cause? How far is too far? Kitty breathes out in frustration. 

“Pem, you’ve done enough.” Mary finds her voice.  

Emily shoots her a look. “It will never be enough. Not until the vote is ours.” 

“Nobody’s telling you to stop altogether. But you need some time to recover.” Mary’s warming to it now. 

Kitty nods in agreement. Militancy may unite them, but she’s not going to encourage her friend’s recklessness. Not this time, at least. The Cause is devouring Emily. Since Holloway, they can all see how her spine torments her. How she walks, hunched, like a woman twice her age. 

“I am as well as I need to be, Mary.” 

“They stopped paying you ages ago, Pem. They cut you off. They don’t listen to us. Why persist?”  

Kitty wonders who is meant by ‘us’.  

“You know I’m not doing it for the Pankhursts anymore,” comes Emily’s curt reply. 

“Neither am I. But who do you think will wade in afterwards? If you trust us, then you need to tell us what’s going on. Maybe we can help.” 

“I don’t think you can. Not this time, Mary. I’m sorry.” 

Kitty has been watching the exchange, eyes darting back and forth. But now she chooses her words carefully: “By all means, Pem, make a scene tomorrow. But we worry about you. We need you.” They need her alive.

A butter knife would be useless at cutting the atmosphere, it hangs so thickly. The women shift in their seats. A waitress comes to collect their empty teacups. Kitty and Mary look at Emily. Emily looks at nothing in particular. 

“I do not shrink from sacrifice,” Emily eventually replies. Her hands are in her lap now, wringing a handkerchief to death. 

Kitty can’t keep herself from thinking the word. Suicide. The mortal sin. A crime. None of them give a fig for legality, but this is something else entirely. Her heart clenches. Could she do it? Kitty has an image of Emily throwing herself from the grandstand, then one of a galloping horse. She squeezes her eyes shut. She doesn’t know if Emily could do it, and that scares her most of all. Not really knowing if she knows her friend.

Emily retreats back inside herself. She won’t broach the subject again. Kitty makes a few failed attempts at drawing her out. As usual, she has spoken so well yet said very little. Mary has her elbows on the table and is rubbing her temples.

 Talk slowly turns to innocent subjects, to the festival around them; they bury their misgivings under chit-chat. The Actresses’ Franchise League’s performance, the verdant setting. Kitty has been meaning to visit the haberdashery all day. Sweat has been pooling under her collar. She needs a new summer frock, but she hasn’t had work- paid work, not suffrage plays- in months. Earlier that day, Emily and Mary had laid a wreath in front of the statue of Joan of Arc. Emily brightens up at the memory, and proudly recants the words carved into its base: “Fight on, and God will give victory.”  

Eventually, Kitty makes her excuses and says her farewells. Mary pays for their tea. She used to be a schoolteacher, until the headmaster found out about her after-school activities. Luckily, her husband didn’t cast her out. Kitty wonders how they’re getting by. Her own savings are dwindling, and Emily’s threadbare dresses also tell a story.  

Mary excuses herself to go to the washroom. Kitty is passing Emily’s chair when she reaches out and grabs Kitty’s wrist. Emily presses a small, green purse into her friend’s palm. 

“For munitions,” Emily hisses. 

“Pem! What on ear-” 

“Take it.” 

“Where did you get this? Keep it!” What on earth is she up to? 

Take it.” She’s clearly not in the mood for dissent.  

Kitty relents and tucks the purse into her dress pockets just as Mary reappears, threading around the crowded tables. 

On her way out, Kitty almost walks past the haberdashery, but then a white silk scarf catches her eye. Someone has embroidered it with a border of delicate violets and Votes for Women. It costs more than she used to earn in a week, back when mainstream theatres did not baulk at employing her. Careful not to look into the little green purse, she reaches for her own, opens it, and finds a few pennies for some plain fabric she can transform. She’s tired of hoping they’ll make her a paid campaigner. Her mind turns to the women who stand at Whitechapel corners, barefoot and desperate.  

She pushes her way through the crowd. The Empress rooms have been transformed into a summer garden, with borders of pergolas and rambling pink roses. The scent is cloying. Noise echoes around the high-ceilinged hall, and she’s starting to feel dizzy. She impatiently passes stalls selling buttons, jewellery, hats, stationery, sweets, books, tea sets, even board games. There is nothing these women’s hands cannot shape.  

A minute later, she bursts out onto the street. The early summer sunshine feels dazzlingly bright. Kitty breathes deeply. For a woman who spends so much of her time locked in crowds, she wishes she minded it less.  

She touches the statue of Joan of Arc as she passes, for luck. God save the women with nothing to lose. 

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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