Think To Kill a Mockingbird, add a few more convincing African American voices, and a lot more mud. Spellbinding.
8th June, 1913
Kitty is perched on top of a tool shed. She looks down at Clara, her partner in crime, but her thoughts turn to their friend in Epsom Cottage hospital. Emily is breathing her last: ‘A comatose condition with a fractured skull, unlikely to make it through the night’. It’s been reported in Europe, even America, news reports say. Beamed along cables hidden under the Atlantic. And here they are, attempting to scale the perimeter fence of the Hurst Park Racecourse with the aid of a piece of carpet.
“Hurry!” Clara keeps looking over her shoulder towards the road.
The shed is at the edge of a cricket pitch adjacent to the race course. It backs onto the fence, halving their climb. Kitty brandishes the carpet above her head like a hunting trophy, swinging it back and forth and hoping it will catch on the double layer of barbed wire crowning the fence. She’s panting with the effort.
Clara stands by the base of the shed, taking in the spectacle. Kitty realises that, from this perspective, her friend can see up her skirts. She’s never been seen from this angle before. She notices Clara noticing this too. Clara quickly looks away, but not before glancing at her boots. Kitty is well aware they need a polish. Clara, looking for something to do, hands up their wicker suitcase of munitions.
Neither of them has much of an idea how they are going to scale the fence in their skirts, coming in at just above the ankle. They should have gotten hold of some breeches, Kitty thinks, and worn them under their clothes. But then what would they have done with their skirts? They would have been a beacon to any passers-by that something was amiss. Could they have hidden them in a bush? In the shed? Too late now, anyway.
All the while, Kitty has been jumping up and down, swinging the carpet at the fence as if it had just torpedoed the Conciliation Bill. Then it catches, hanging evenly over each side. Kitty’s joy mingles with a creeping foreboding. They’re not new to militancy, but they’ve never done anything quite like this before.
Kitty kneels down and leans her flushed face over the edge of the cricket shed. Their eyes are aglow with risk, their faces mere inches apart.
“Bravo,” Clara giggles, “Bravo sister!”
The night is calm, sound carries. Kitty shoots her friend a look.
“We can’t afford to forget ourselves now,” she hisses. “You’ll bring the police down on our heads.” Clara looks chastised, and Kitty feels a short stab of guilt.
Now they must scale it, and Kitty is the stronger of the two. She has been blessed with deep lungs and the statuesque figure so esteemed on the stage. She lays, belly down, on the cold corrugated roof of the shed. She stretches out her arms, and Clara grasps them, shoulder to hand, hand to shoulder. She hauls Clara up. Her shoe finds purchase on a windowpane, and the glass cracks. Even that small sound sends a whisper through the night.
It’s almost pitch-black. They are surrounded on three sides, four including the track behind the fence, by a sea-like expanse of turf. The cricket shed is a lifeboat, and they are about to disembark. Far behind them, streetlamps form the only tiny pinpricks of light. They are completely alone. Kitty puts her hands on her hips and stares out into the dark expanse, elbows jutting.
“Well then,” Kitty sighs, “up we go.”
Kitty bends her knees into a slight squat and braces her shoulders. She forms a cradle with her hands, lacing her fingers together. As the smaller of the two, getting Clara over is their first priority.
Kitty pushes up Clara’s damp boot with a grunt. Clara grasps at the carpet, pushes up through her elbows. She lifts one leg over, then the other. Kitty sees a flash of panic in Clara’s eyes as she surveys the drop. Gingerly, Clara tries to shift around to face the fence, but it won’t work unless she lets go of one of her hands. She starts to whimper.
“Clara. Clara,” she whispers as loud as she dares. “Take a deep breath. Calm down. Look at me.” Clara looks over her shoulder and Kitty manages to catch her eye.
“Now let go of one of your hands.” Kitty keeps her voice steady.
“I won’t be able to hold my weight.”
“Of course you will. It’s only for a second.”
Clara manages a weak nod and slowly releases her left hand.
“Good. Now swing round, Clara, quickly!” Please don’t fall, Kitty thinks, but Clara manages to shift herself around, before catching hold of the fence again in both hands and lowering herself down. Kitty shifts a step on the shed to get a better view.
“Now, start working your way to the bottom of the carpet. I’ll hold the other end so it doesn’t slip.”
A pause. Kitty can hear Clara trying to get control of her breathing.
A few seconds later, Clara’s hanging from the end of the carpet on the other side to shorten her fall, but there’s still a good three feet to drop. She plops down onto the racecourse. She’s sitting in a cloud of white, lace-trimmed underskirts, boots sticking out at odd angles like a china doll. She has survived; they are criminals once again. Clara looks back over her shoulder, eyes glazed with shock. But then she grins, and it’s catching. She gets up.
“You did it!” Kitty reminds herself to whisper.
Now it’s Kitty’s turn. She stares at the fence, willing it to bend, break or melt.
“Can I help?” Clara calls slightly too loudly from the other side.
“Come and grab the suitcase.”
They manage to slide it between the fence railings. It’s a tight fit, even with Clara pulling. The momentum makes Clara stumble backwards as the suitcase comes free.
Kitty gathers herself. Then, she jumps. Her hands miss the crest of the carpet. She slides back down, jumps again, and again. Her hands are rubbed raw when she finally jumps high enough to grip its peak. She can feel the fence’s barbs and spikes, menacing under the thick fabric. She hopes it holds. She’s not going to end this night in hospital, for Pem’s sake.
Kitty’s legs are scrambling, looking for toe-holds. She’s slowly managing to pull herself up. This would make an excellent film, she thinks. A dramatic comedy. Two Ladies Versus an Unscalable Fence, so the title would say, overlaid with a jaunty piano tune. But it’s not a film, and anything could go wrong.
Kitty manages to turn her body and shimmy to the bottom of the carpet. Rammed onto the spikes by the weight of two successive women, it holds. She drops onto the grass with a thud. Clara closes the few steps between them, and they clutch at each other, their success a small miracle. But for the first time, Kitty notices a long, thin scrape along the inside of her forearm, from wrist to elbow. It’s opened up the entire sleeve of her shirt. She doesn’t even remember how it happened. She stares at it oozing droplets of blood. Strange, she thinks, it doesn’t even hurt.
They pause for a minute to catch their breath before scurrying over the long grass towards the grandstand.
Clara whistles softly at the imposing structure. “We’re here,” she breathes.
“We are,” Kitty replies.
They race up the steps, drunk on adrenaline. In a southwestern borough of London, under a vast black sky, their grand tribute to a fallen comrade begins to take shape. Kitty tries the door. To their surprise, it’s unlocked. They pour out a gallon of oil, spreading it behind seats, in front of doorways. The wood is tinderbox dry; it hasn’t rained in over a week. They converse, when necessary, in stage whispers. Kitty almost forgets to spread out the papers, but then draws them from the suitcase. In the moonlight, she can just about make out the words Rebellion against Tyrants is Obedience to God. Emily’s favourite phrase. She makes a quick lap around the grandstand, dropping them on the grass at regular intervals.
When Kitty returns, Clara lights the candle stub with a match and places it on the oil-soaked rag. It should give them an hour to make good their escape, but it catches far too quickly, flames licking up the wooden columns. They hear a whoosh as they scamper away. The whoosh becomes a roar. The women’s sharp-edged silhouettes break into an urgent sprint.
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.
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-”
“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.
Get thee out of Thy country, and from Thy kinship and from Thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show Thee
Katherina is standing at the bow of a ship. A ferry. Eine Fähre. It’s evening, and the sun is inching towards the horizon, bleeding crimson. The air is salty and still. She turns her head. Behind her, yellow fades to indigo as a thin crescent moon appears. The stars shine sharp and cold over the continent, but Germany is behind her now. That new country, knitted together by willpower alone. She’s leaving everything. Tante Lisette, Tante Mariechen, Onkel Heinrich, her school-friends and the ruins on the hill behind her grandfather’s house. Can she still call it her country, if she never goes back?
Around her, a few passengers take quiet evening strolls along the deck. She can hear smatterings of German mixed in with the strange new tongue she’ll have to learn. To her, English sounds indistinct, like someone talking around a boiled sweet.
She turns back to look out to sea. West, towards her new home. Tomorrow, they’ll be landing in Harwich. For now, all she can see is the sea stretching for miles all around, mirroring the sunset. It’s eerily calm. She tries to picture Tante Dora in her head, but it’s been years since they’ve laid eyes on each other, years since Dora moved to London. Will she even recognise me? Katherina thinks. It’s the same every time she ends up on another relative’s doorstep. Katherina is that you? If you carry on like this, you’ll be too tall to marry!
Her hand slides into the pocket of her coat and clutches at the crumpled paper covered in her uncle’s scrawl. She’s been taking it out, smoothing it, studying the words for days; the paper is limp and worn from so much folding and unfolding. Katherina could recite the address, directions and names backwards by now. But she’s unsure how to say the English words. London Liverpool Street. It has a strange rhythm. Lon-don Liver-pool Street. The ‘r’ is all wrong, too soft and slurring. She practiced with Onkel Heinrich, but she’s convinced she’ll never get it right.
A breeze quickens and pulls at the strands of hair escaping from her hat. She stands with her back straight in her first long dress. She is travelling alone; she even has her own cabin. Her uncle has organised everything.
Get off the ferry at Harwich and find the train station. It should be down the main road towards the centre of town and off to the right. If you get lost, ask someone to help. It’s not unusual to find someone who speaks German in a port town. If you can’t find anyone who speaks German, they can point it out to you. Once you’re there, take the train to London Liverpool Street. Get off at the last stop. Aunt Dora will meet you there. She’ll take you to her home in Epp-
“Guten Abend, Fräulein.” Good evening, miss.
Katherina jumps, her hands gripping the railings. A woman is standing next to her, staring out to sea. She is small and slight and elegantly dressed in wine-coloured brocade with a large bustle. The woman’s German has a distinct accent. English, maybe, but Katherina’s not sure. The woman smiles at Katherina over her high-necked collar. Her hands are tucked into a fur muff.
“Guten Abend,” Katherina’s greeting comes out as an embarrassing croak. She coughs to clear her throat.
“Aren’t you afraid?” The woman continues.
“Entschuldigung?” says Katherina. Excuse me?
“I said, aren’t you afraid?” The woman repeats. Katherina understood her the first time, she just hadn’t a clue what to say. She gathers herself.
“No. Should I be?”
“You are travelling alone, aren’t you?”
Katherina wonders if the woman has been watching her. A hot trickle of anxiety starts to pool in her gut. She decides there’s no point in lying. The ship is neither large nor full.
“Yes, I am.”
“I would be afraid.” The woman says, frowning.
“I’m not sure I follow. And we haven’t been introduced.” Katherina is starting to feel stupid, and she hates feeling stupid.
“I’m sorry, my dear. My name is Mrs Brightwell. But you can call me Ilse. A pleasure to meet you.” Ilse inclines her head. Her eyes are a deep brown, like the coffee her father used to sip in the mornings. It contrasts with the blonde hair sticking out from underneath her elaborate, feathered hat. The knots and braids are starting to pull loose ever so slightly.
Katherina has no idea what to do now, doesn’t know if Ilse wants to be greeted as an equal, or be deferred to. Her clothes hint at wealth. Should she curtsey like a girl? Should she offer her a hand? Incline the head, or bow? To get it wrong could be an affront, but so could doing nothing. It’s already too late, she thinks.
Ilse seems to sense her discomfort, and briefly puts a hand on her arm. It’s warm under her soft leather gloves. She looks to be in her mid-twenties, so she’s not old, just a good decade older than Katherina.
“Ilse’s a German name.” Katherina blurts out, then grimaces. But if Ilse is bothered by Katherina’s bald observation, she doesn’t show it. She only lets out a short peal of laughter that carries over the quiet deck and the sea.
“Indeed it is. My mother was German. She fought to name me. She said it wasn’t fair if my father got both names, and I suppose she was right.”
Ilse pauses for a while, seemingly lost in a memory.
Katherina shifts from foot to foot. How to continue the conversation? “And your surname?” the question is out of her mouth before she can shut it. Her father always told her to speak less and think more, especially around strangers. But her father is far away now, and this woman has a presence. The warm kind of presence that makes you say things.
“My husband’s. I haven’t been Mrs James Brightwell for long.”
“Congratulations. Did you move to England recently?”
“No. I grew up in London, where my father grew up. So, I’m not quite one or the other. My mother’s family are always imitating my accent.” Her face darkens for a moment, like clouds over the sea. “Actually, I’ve just been visiting them in Kiel. With James,” she adds.
Katherina is a little surprised at how Ilse seems to take everything in her stride. From the scant details she’s picked up about the English, they’re supposed to be reserved. But then again, having barely spoken to anyone outside her own family, she’s out of her depth. Finally, she remembers her manners.
“I’m Katherina. Katherina Schäfer.”
Ilse smiles. She has pretty white teeth. “You might want to re-think being Katherina. Or are you content with it being pronounced incorrectly from now until eternity? By the people over there, I mean.” Ilse tilts her head towards the West, towards the sunset. “Katherina,” Ilse says with an exaggerated English air, drawing out the th. There’s a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
Katherina grins. She turns away slightly, thinking. Ilse reminds her of happier times long ago, times she spent with Tante Lisette amongst her mother’s friends, talking and singing songs. They would let her try on perfume and tell her stories about her mother before her lungs gave up. Until her father came to take her back. She remembers the flash of sorrow in Tante Lisette’s eyes. Then, home was quiet again. Fraught.
A nickname. It’s something she’s never considered before. Maybe she’s right, Katherina thinks. A new beginning.
“I’m only speaking from experience.” Ilse tips her head conspiratorially. “Half of my receipts still have Lisa on them. Part of me curses my mother for not calling me Jane, God rest her soul.”
A comfortable silence settles between them. Katherina is curious about her new friend’s mother. She wants to tell her that she lost hers, too. That she can hardly remember her mother, not even if she closes her eyes really tight and thinks as hard as she can. But something is holding her back. She hasn’t breathed a word of it for years, not to anyone.
Ilse looks at her sideways. Part of Katherina wonders if she’s reading her thoughts. Katherina shakes her head. No, that’s stupid.
“Katherina,” Ilse turns to her now and looks her straight in the eyes again, “be careful. If I’ve noticed you’re travelling alone, so have others.” Ilse darts a look around the deck. Kitty follows her gaze. A few metres to their right, an old man coughs into a dirty napkin. A seagull is perched on top of one of the stacks, squawking. The sky has now faded to a dusky pink.
“Lock your cabin to-night.” Ilse squeezes her arm.
“Why?” Katherina asks, frowning. Her mind has been too caught up in other things to give the matter any thought. But Ilse has jolted a vague memory of her uncle telling her something similar.
Ilse casts her eyes to Heaven and crosses herself and mutters an English prayer under her breath before replying.
“Have you ever travelled before?”
Katherina hesitates before replying. She knows that Ilse must look at her and see a child.
“No, I haven’t.”
“I thought as much. And alone at that. Trust me. Don’t talk to any men, lock your cabin to-night, and you’ll be fine.” She smiles again, this time reassuringly. “Which cabin are you in?”
I’ve already told this woman so much, thinks Katherina. There’s no hiding on this ship, either. She takes a breath.
Ilse smiles. “You’re only two doors down from me, then. I’m in number two. If there’s any trouble, anything at all worrying you, come and knock for me. Any time.”
All Katherina can manage is a tentative nod.
“So, I really must be off.” Ilse has turned brisk and smooths out her skirts. “James must be wondering where I am by now. I told him I was only going for a breath of air. He gets terribly sea-sick, you know. Awful company.” Katherina could swear Ilse winks before she walks back down the deck, skirts swinging behind her. After Ilse leaves, Katherina feels strangely lost. The breeze is pulling at her and the air now has a cold edge. It’s September, but the nights are already drawing in. She runs through the conversation in her head, once, twice over. Is she missing something? Katherina doesn’t know why she should be afraid. Strangers had only ever been kind to her. The man stamping her papers had given her a strange look and asked her some questions, but that could hardly be considered an emergency.
Eventually, Katherina returns to her cabin and undresses, careful to lock the door. She hangs up her coat and hat. In her loose white nightgown, she sits on her bunk in front of the tiny mirror and starts to pull out her hairpins, then brushes through her hair. The same as her mother’s. Katherina remembers it tickling her face as she put her to bed at night. The soft murmur of her voice.
She stares at her reflection. Long nose, full lips, tired eyes. At some point, someone must’ve come in to leave a small pitcher of water in the basin below the mirror. It’s gone stone cold, but she pours some out and splashes her face with it regardless.
Through her porthole, she can see that it’s pitch-black outside. She can hear the gentle creaking and swaying of the ship. Footsteps pass above her and, in the corridor, doors open and shut. The small cohort of passengers are settling themselves in for the night. She’s pleased she hasn’t gotten sea-sick like she’d feared. She opens the drawer in her narrow bedside cabinet. In it, there’s two Bibles: one written in what looks like Danish, and one in English.
Katherina picks up the English one, leafing through the pages. They’re thin, yellow, and well-thumbed. She wonders how many other passengers have opened this book and looked for guidance. The church in Witten had been a safe haven for her, and her grandmother was devout in the best sense of the word, but Katherina doesn’t often pray.
If she concentrates really hard, she can guess at one word in ten. After a few minutes, she gives up and lays back on the bed. A wave of fatigue blurs her eyes and a pang of homesickness twists her stomach. What is she doing here? Thoughts of Onkel Heinrich flood her mind. The smell of his pipe tobacco clinging to his scratchy tweed as he hugged her. His kind, crinkly eyes as he waved goodbye to her in Deutz. Don’t worry, my child. It’s for the best. Katherina had cried until her head hurt, but knew it was the truth. Grandfather wouldn’t provide for her. Father had kept showing up on Heinrich’s doorstep, hurling abuse and threatening to pull her back by the hair if they didn’t give her willingly.
She lays awake, staring at the ceiling, for what feels like hours. Time moves strangely at night. Every now and again, she can hear a passenger coughing or turning over in their bunk. The walls are thin.
Her last thoughts before finally falling asleep are of seagulls, pearly white teeth, and Onkel Heinrich, dressed as Moses, parting the Red Sea.
A punchy story of sin and redemption.
Elizabeth Chadwick is a prodigious historical fiction author. She has dozens of books to her name, yet this was the first one of her which I read. It definitely didn’t disappoint, and I would go back for more, but it’s nothing groundbreaking either. It’s a good story told well, and based on sound research. Chadwick hit her stride when it comes to novels possibly even decades ago, so I’m not surprised that the storyline and character arcs are tight if not a touch formulaic.
I’m not sure why I’d never read something by Chadwick before. Possibly it’s because my historical fiction consumption tends to focus on later centuries- Tudor, Victorian. I have nothing against the medieval age but it does tend to be told as epic stories of knights and damsels, which is sort of the case here, but Templar Silks is also not completely typical of the genre. I studied the medieval age a lot at university, so I guess moving on to devouring Tudor fiction has been my way of rebelling since graduation.
I bought the book online, so I first noticed the reviews on the cover when I was about to open it up and start reading. They were certainly disconcerting. I saw the Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. I swallowed, my mouth went dry. Oh dear, I thought to myself, what kind of lens is this story going to be through? Then I read the blurb and realised it was about the Crusading era, and one knight’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. My hands were sweaty and my stomach twisted. I thought I knew why it had gotten such glowing reviews from such demagogic trash newspapers. Was this going to be another story of evil Saracens and turbaned foreigners with dark skin, glinting black eyes and scimitars razing villages of ‘innocent’ European settlers to the ground and eventually being cut down by the ‘worthy’ Crusader knights? Were beautiful blonde princesses going to be stolen away by the swarthy Moslems? Was it going to completely ignore the fact that people had been living in the Middle East for thousands of years before the Europeans rocked up and decided it was theirs?
Needless to say, I was rather anxious as I turned the first few pages. Fortunately, Chadwick does realise that it’s all much more nuanced than that. The book focuses much more on internal conflicts inside the court of Jerusalem, with different warring factions vying for supremacy in the face of a dying king. King Baldwin is slowly succumbing to leprosy in his early twenties. He is level-headed, wise and extremely intelligent, but he cannot help the fact that his body is failing and literally falling apart. The heir to the throne is six years old. Saladin, the bane of the crusader state, is lurking on the sidelines, really to take advantage of Jerusalem’s weakness. Guy de Lusignan, arsehole extraordinaire, is little six-year-old Baldwin’s stepfather and assumes he will be taking over the reins when King Baldwin dies. Leprosy Baldwin would do anything to stop that from happening. The Patriarch Heraclius is playing his own mysterious games, seemingly sitting on the fence and biding his time with his mistress, Paschia de Riveri. Most of the other princes and lords around Jerusalem would rather eat cold vomit than follow Guy de Lusignan. The city is on a knife-edge, it’s a tinder box waiting to explode.
And in walks William Marshal, whom history calls ‘the greatest knight’. His master, the Young King Henry, has died of dysentery, and William promises to take his cloak to Jerusalem and lay it on the altar at the Holy Sepulchre to make amends for their sins- the greatest of which was stealing from a Holy Shrine to the Virgin Mary to pay their mercenaries. Marshal arrives at court and has to play the game, which he accomplishes rather well until he falls into the arms of the mysterious Paschia…
I think Marshal’s character is written brilliantly. As ‘the greatest knight’, it would be extremely easy to make this character one-dimensional, to make him a bland, wholly morally good chivalric hero who saves the city- a Jon Snow-esque trope. However, Chadwick gives him depth and vibrancy. He sins, he makes mistakes, and he proves himself to be an astute political player as well as an outstanding warrior. Knights had to know how to do both – they had to manoeuvre for patronage and favours to survive. It was a delight to read in most places, and, despite it being around 500 pages long, I finished it in a few days. It’s a light read but still maintains beautiful description throughout. Chadwick is a great writer, but her prose is not as dense, complex or loaded as other writers such as Mantel. But that’s absolutely fine. Chadwick is great at world-building, giving us enough detail without the prose becoming bloated. Her development of the brotherhood between William and Ancel is one of the most touching aspects of the book.
So why four stars instead of five? I’m not sure. It was a great book. But it’s not Mantel. The baddies were obvious from the get-go. The affair was also obvious. Nothing came at me like a ton of bricks.
A creepy, lyrical slow-burner that blends several genres: historical fiction and supernatural thriller.
A woman, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is found dead by her son Cameron Brown. She’s floating face-down in the river next to her Cambridge home, The Studio, clutching a glass prism. It’s ruled an accident, but the truth is far more complicated than it first appears.
Lydia Brooke, an author, is Elizabeth’s friend and Cameron Brown’s ex-lover. Cameron hires her to finish Elizabeth’s manuscript on Newton’s alchemical research. Lydia moves into The Studio and things start to get decidedly creepy once she starts poking around in the history of Isaac Newton’s obsessions.
There’s also a parallel storyline. A radical animal rights organisation (NABED) is busy threatening both Cameron and Lydia by association. Cameron is a neuroscientist whose laboratory regularly test on animals. Lydia and Cameron have been involved in an on/off adulterous relationship for years. Dead animals start turning up, and workers at the laboratory are attacked.
Stott’s writing is beautiful. This is a brilliantly researched book with more layers than a matriushka doll. The book contains several extracts from Elizabeth’s manuscript, and I certainly found the exploration of Isaac Newton’s true-to-life involvement with alchemy fascinating.
The supernatural side of the book was extremely well-written. I love horror, I love creepy, so books with supernatural elements really appeal to me. Lydia begins to feel uncomfortable living in Elizabeth’s home, and the light start to play tricks on her. Manuscript sections start to appear and disappear. A dead can turns up on the doorstep.
The thriller side of the book is compelling, until the last few chapters. This is not a new book, it was released in 2007, and you can definitely feel the influence of Dan Brown’s the Da Vinci code. It contains historical mysteries and secrets, with clever people investigating them. It contains shadowy organisations with ulterior motives. Some of the main characters turn out to be the exact opposite of what they seem. Some doors are slammed in their face, other doors open. Despite the controversy, I absolutely loved reading the Da Vinci code, so this connection really didn’t bother me.
Stott’s writing is also very cerebral and philosophical in places. She goes to great lengths to paint a picture with words, and draws on a huge variety of sources and influences. There are references to a vast array of historical figures and authors, and Brooke and Brown’s snappy conversations are extremely interesting if you’re a nerd like me.
The plot twist was very predictable and also a bit too much of a stretch for me. I won’t ruin it for you, but it did ruin the last few chapters or so. Once I knew the twist, I didn’t really want to read past it, because the book already felt finished.
A charming and somewhat saddening family history which promised more than it gave.
Arnautovic tells the story of her own family in this brand new ‘novel’, a documentary tale which details a war-scattered family spread across several countries, from Vienna to Kursk and Moscow to Manchester.
Ljuba’s father, Viktor/Karli (he has an Austrian and, later, a Russian name), is transported to Moscow along with his brother as a child. Why? Their parents are socialist revolutionaries, supporters of the ‘Red Vienna’, a failed socialist project for the city which ended in a short yet bloody civil war in the 1930s. In 1934, Karli and Slavko are sent to Russia to grow up under the Bolshevist state. At first, things are great. They live amongst fellow socialists and other Austrian children in a state-of-the-art children’s home and remain shielded from the worst of the Great Purges.
But the peace doesn’t last. After the invasion of Russia by Nazi forces in the summer of 1941, the children’s home is disbanded and the children are treated with immediate suspicion. They are German-speaking. Hitler has broken the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. They could be moles or spies for the enemy. They could be sabotaging the Soviet regime from within. Karli is separated from his brother, and, after fleeing from several horrific ‘vocational schools’, he is sentenced to ten years in a Siberian gulag. Karli survives, but he will never see his brother again. He eventually returns to Kursk and marries a woman he met in the gulag called Nina. They have two daughters together, one of whom is Ljuba Arnautovic.
Karli/Viktor eventually manages to get back in touch with his mother after twenty years. She lives in Vienna. After years of wrangling with Russian and Austrian bureaucracy, Karli and his family eventually get the necessary documentation to move to Vienna in the 1950s, just as the Cold War is hotting up. Karli loves his new/old life in Vienna, and finds it easy to re-learn his German, but Nina feels trapped and isolated. Eva, Karli’s mother, is less than understanding, despite them all having to live under one roof. Unsurprisingly the marriage breaks down.
Karli turns out to be the villain of the story, as he has an affair (he will go on to marry three more times), yet somehow manages to win sole custody of their children. But he has no intention of being a single dad, and parcels them off intermittently to children’s homes when his current wife or put-upon mother is unable to care for them. Nina is now homeless in Vienna after being pushed out of the family home following their divorce, and has no choice but to become a quasi-housekeeper-cum-domestic slave to a local violent, illiterate Ukranian widower. My heart bled for Nina for the entire second half of the book.
The story is told in short chapters (yay) with impressive flashes of quiet lyricism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Arnautovic’s prose. The story itself is one I have never heard of- I had no idea there was a civil war in Vienna in the 1930s, and I had no idea that there were so many young Austrian children sent to Russia to escape rising fascism in Germany.
Then there’s the maternal side of the story: Anastasia, Nina’s mother and Ljuba’s maternal grandmother, is a very interesting character indeed. In fact, I would have very much liked to hear more of her and less of Karli. She’s the first-born daughter of a first-born daughter’s daughter, and is the local wise woman. The people of her neighbourhood in the southern outskirts of Kursk think she is blessed with the second sight, and simultaneously revere and fear her. Towards the end, I was fed up with Karli’s selfish exploits and really wanted to hear more about Ljuba’s maternal line. This would definitely have improved the book.
I had a few problems with this book, and really couldn’t understand why it got such glowing reviews (4.4 stars on Amazon).
Firstly, the term ‘novel’ is misleading. It should be called ‘a family biography’ or something along those lines. I was expecting a historical novel and didn’t get one in the slightest. It’s not very literary, as dialogue is sparse and Ljuba’s storytelling is rather swallowed up by the documentary material included in this short volume. There are a lot of translated official documents included in italics, which are written in an incredibly bureaucratic German I found difficult to digest. There are interviews included, which I really feel that Arnautovic could have turned into convincing dialogue surrounded by prose. I felt this book could have been longer, as there was so much to tell. I also really felt that Arnautovic could definitely have been more imaginative and creative in filling in the gaps between the evidence. It could have been a well-researched historical novel, but it felt like a fragmentary anthology of documentary evidence.
I also had a problem with the sheer volume of letters included in the book. We hear from Karli, but replies from Eva, Nina or Erika (his second wife) aren’t included. Maybe they had been lost, but we’re only getting half of the story regardless. This made it frustrating for me, as the long-suffering women in his life became silent. Also, Karli is fairly uneducated and clearly not a born letter-writer. His writing was awkward and incredibly cringey in places. Arnautovic could have put these letters to good use, but they don’t quite work in their raw form.
Rebecca is my tutor for the historical fiction module, so I’m glad I can be largely positive about this.
I got this book months ago but I’ve finally just had the chance to read something purely for pleasure: that means in English, a novel, and nothing to do with my modules. Who knew that studying literature and translation would mean that I barely get the chance to read for myself? Oh yeah, I did know that.
Daniel Connor is an anatomy and medicine student at Edinburgh University. He is sent by his tutor to post-revolutionary France, where Napoleon has fallen and the King has been returned to the throne. He starts a job under Professor Cuvier at the world-famous Jardin des Plantes, categorising species.
Upon arriving on the mail coach, Daniel realises the beautiful woman he met the night before has stolen his corals, manuscript and bones which were the references and gifts needed to start his job at the Jardin. He drifts around Paris with his newfound Scottish friend and fellow student Fin, unable to start work, and a bit lost.
But the mysterious woman hasn’t disappeared completely. This becomes a thriller as well as a historical novel, with spies, jewel heists and rings of thieves in hiding.
Time and place were beautifully executed. early 19th-century Paris felt alive in my mind. I really enjoyed the first part of the book – the month in which Daniel gets drunk and behaves like most other twenty-year-old students in Paris with nothing much to do. Absinthe, gambling, phantasmagoria. Stott did such a good job of setting it’s making me want to go back and edit my own fiction, which is how it should be.
It’s an incredibly interesting point in time to set a novel. Twenty years after the Revolution, just after Napoleon has been defeated after escaping from prison once more. Napoleon is on his way to the tiny rock which will be his ‘prison’ (a rather beautiful tropical island prison) for the rest of his life: Saint Helena. The ethos of the Revolution is crumbling all around them. No more liberté, egalité, fraternité, but no more Terror either. The lions are being pulled from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and given back to Rome. Everywhere, the European powers are descending on Paris and taking back what had been stolen from them: including the beautiful collection of fossils, corals and bones at the Jardin des Plantes.
Time was evoked beautifully, naturally and not too often. Paris- a seething metropolis where nobody is as they seems – seemed almost a third main character in the novel.
So why four starts instead of five? The plot felt a little weak at times. Case in point: the climax of the novel, a great jewel heist. The characters repeat time and time again how impossible it is to break into the Jardin’s Museum, how well-locked, how well-protected everything is. I was curious how they were going to figure out a way in. And in the end, I never found out. The other characters just kind of abseil from somewhere in the roof just like any first, tacky mental image you get when I say the words ‘Jewel Heist’. We also never really found out how Lucienne, the mysterious woman, manages to fake her own death to get away from Paris.
Jagot, the Parisian police-chief-cum-spymaster, really wants the diamond. This felt kind of cheap for a baddie, I thought there would be some deeper motivations at play than just wanting a diamond. Blackmail, extortion? Deep-seated lusts? No, dude wants to get rich. Also, he lets Daniel and Lucienne run around the city for months, although Lucienne is supposedly in hiding. Hmmm.
And now we come to character. Daniel doesn’t warrant being the ‘I’-narrator. He’s passive, dull, and I honestly couldn’t give you many adjectives to describe his character after a whole book. Which is a bit sad, because ‘I’-narrators give you the most insight into their personality. Naive? Biddable? Maybe these two. At times, he’s infuriatingly passive, and for someone who apparently adores botany and biology, he forgets about it all pretty quick. His mental monologues on corals, fossils and bones in the first half of the book don’t fit with his treatment of his job in the second half of the book- as just going through the motions until he can swan around Paris with his older girlfriend and drink absinthe after dark.
Whereas Daniel is flat and underdeveloped, Lucienne seems to have more character facets than seems plausible. She is a fallen aristocrat during the Revolution, whose life was saved in prison because another woman stepped up and was executed in her name (why? No idea). She dresses as a man half of the time, she is a thief, a coral enthusiast, a philosopher. Nobody seems to care that she is a woman alone, with no husband, no real home, no honest income. It felt too modern. Nobody struggles with that. She didn’t seem to have struggled being a fallen aristocratic female cross-dresser who began a sparkling career in thievery.
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.
A charming selection of Suffrage biographies which does nothing to challenge the popular narrative on the Suffrage movement.
This is a standalone extract from a much longer book – A History of Britain in 21 Women. It gives brief biographies of six women involved in the Women’s Rights and Suffrage movements from the Victorian to the Edwardian period: Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Constance Markievicz and Nancy Astor. There’s a short introduction by the author, and charming portraits of each of the women at the start of the chapters. It’s not long – only around 120 pages, and it’s a small book with a large font, so I finished it in one sitting. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but it’s a good introductory profile of six amazing women.
There’s not much regarding highlights to cover, other than it was a light and easy read and showed some depth of research. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include any WSPU radicals other than Emmeline herself, and I think there are far more interesting characters than the Pankhursts to write about. Too much has been made of Emmeline and Christabel’s contributions to Votes for Women, and the most interesting Pankhurst characters – Sylvia and Adela, are all too often shunted aside in favour of their more autocratic relatives. I’m only glad the author didn’t decide to cover Christabel – I have a lot to say about Christabel, and not much of it is good.
As a journalist, I don’t think Murray does enough to get under the skin of the historiography of the movement, especially in 2018. There has recently been a small wave of reckoning on Suffrage history – the materials, preserved by Suffragettes themselves in the early-to-mid 20th century, were often carefully vetted and audited to craft an image of the movement, and what the average person on the street will still picture if somebody were to say the word ‘Suffragette’ to them: white, middle-or-upper class, single, chaste, well-mannered and non-violent. Actually, many Suffragettes weren’t white, many Suffragettes were working class, many were married, many had active sex lives outside marriage or were employed in the entertainment industries, and many were violent. This book regurgitates the tired history of Suffrage by focusing solely on upper-middle or upper-class women, and completely omitting the radical violence of the WSPU. It was a cute read, but more needs to be done. It omits more than it tells.