Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds not Words Scene 3 Part 1

8th June, 1913. Hurst Park Racecourse, Molesley, London

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Emily has breathed her last in hospital. Kitty is attempting to scale the perimeter fence of the Hurst Park Racecourse with the aid of a piece of carpet. 

“Hurry!” Clara hisses.

Kitty is perched on top of a tool shed on the edge of the cricket pitch. She brandishes the carpet above her head like a hunting trophy, swinging it wildly back and forth and hoping it will catch on the spikes on the double layer of barbed wire which crowns the Racecourse’s perimeter fence. She is alternately laughing and panting with the effort. Clara stands by the base of the shed, taking in the spectacle. From this angle, she can see up Kitty’s skirts. She realises that she’s never seen another woman from this angle before. She looks away, and then sees that her friend’s boots are in dire need of a polish. 

Neither of them has much of an idea how they are going to scale the fence in their short skirts, coming in at just above the ankle. They should have gotten hold of some breeches, Clara thinks, and worn them under their clothes. But then what would they have done with their skirts? They would have been a gleaming beacon to any passers-by that something was amiss. Could they have hidden them in a bush? In the shed? The shed is locked, and there are no bushes for a hundred metres, at least. Too late now, anyway. We’ll manage. 

All the while, Kitty has been busy beating the fence as if it had just torpedoed the Conciliation Bill. Then the carpet catches. They want to whoop with joy, but they manage to stifle it to a high-pitched whistle of air from their noses. 

Kitty’s flushed face appears over the edge of the cricket shed. She looks every inch the warrior queen, coarse red hair tumbling from her loose bun. Her face is full yet well-formed, with a long, proud nose. Clara imagines her statue by Westminster Bridge, standing tall in her chariot and leading her tribe into battle. Their eyes are aglow with the first heady rush only risk can provide. Their faces are just inches apart.

“Bravo,” Clara giggles, “Bravo sister!”

The night is calm, sound carries.

“Hush, Betty. We can’t afford to forget ourselves.” Kitty feigns a stern countenance, but breaks into a grin. 

Now they must scale it. Kitty is the stronger of the two. She has been blessed with deep lungs and the statuesque figure so esteemed on the stage. She has been kneeling, but now she lays down, belly down, on the cold corrugated iron 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 wide expanse of turf like a calm sea. The cricket shed is a lifeboat, and they are about to disembark. Far behind them, streetlamps form tiny pinpricks of light. They are completely alone. Kitty puts her hands on her hips, surveying her kingdom, elbows jutting. Luckily, Clara has thought to pass up their wicker suitcase of munitions before climbing onto the shed herself. 

“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. Getting Clara over is their first priority. How they will get the buxom Kitty over afterwards is anyone’s guess.

Kitty pushes up Clara’s damp boot with a resolute grunt. Clara grasps at the carpet. She’s past the halfway point, momentum tipping. Gingerly, she tries to turn her body to face back towards the fence from the other side, but soon she has worked herself into a breathless muddle. 

A few seconds later, she hangs from the end of the carpet on the other side to shorten her fall, Kitty grasping it from the cricket pitch side of the fence so that Clara doesn’t take it with her. There’s still a good few feet to drop. The fence trembles dramatically, then Clara plops down onto the racecourse. Her skirt is rucked up around her thighs like a carelessly dropped china doll on a carpet of grass. She’s sitting in a cloud of white, lace-trimmed underskirts, boots sticking out at jaunty angles. She has survived, they are criminals once again. Clara looks back over her shoulder and giggles. It is catching. 

Now it’s Kitty’s turn. She stares at the fence, willing it to bend, break or melt. 

“Can I help?” Clara hisses.

“I don’t think so.”

Kitty hurls the suitcase over the fence like a champion shot putter. Then she jumps. Her hands miss the crest of the carpet. She slides back down, jumps again, and again. Just before she thinks her hands may start bleeding with the friction, she jumps high enough to grasp 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. She thinks to herself, this would make an excellent film. A dramatic comedy. Two ladies versus an unscalable fence. 

But seconds later, Kitty is clutching at Clara on the other side. They are indefatigable. No cuts, scrapes or bruises. A small miracle, sent by the Maid of Orleans. 

They stuff their munitions back in their suitcase. They scurry over the long grass, wet with dew, before reaching the Grandstand. 

“We’re here”, Clara whistles.

“What a marvelous beacon it will make,” Kitty winks. 

They race up the steps, drunk on adrenaline. In a southwestern suburb of London, under a clear, starry sky, their grand tribute to a fallen comrade begins to take shape. 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, hearts leaping.

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 no man or woman can bend fire to their will. They hear a whoosh as they scamper away from the pavilion. They don’t turn back at first, desperate to put a safe distance between themselves and the blaze. The whoosh becomes a roar. The two women start fleeing for their lives, silhouetted starkly against the blistering inferno. 

The whole Grandstand is aflame, crackling and chattering, and now the women are whooping with exhilaration and delight, skipping, driving themselves onwards. The clatter of falling roof beams muffles their cries. The stresses, strains and enforced silence of the previous hour find their release. 

They are just a few hundred metres away from the conflagration when an ear-splitting boom tears the sky apart. The co-conspirators spin around, skirts billowing, flames in their eyes. Some of the Grandstand’s roof goes flying into the air. The building’s gas piping has exploded. Kitty and Clara turn to each other, brimming with emotion. Fear and euphoria. Words fail them.

They escape the same way they broke in, a suitcase lighter. Kitty hopes all trace of their kit will be destroyed in the flames. It’s more difficult to scale the fence from the racecourse side, but Kitty finds that, after giving Clara a push, she can find toe-holds in the metal fence. 

A small grey purse drops from the folds of her dress. It lands silently in the thick grass, unnoticed. 

Once they are clear of the fence, they embrace. 

“We made it,” one of the women murmurs into the other’s hair. 

“We did.” Kitty can offer no insight.

Categories
Historical Fiction

Kitty Marion: The Most Badass Suffragette You’ve Never Heard Of

Kitty Marion (Katherina Maria Schafer) c. 1913.jpg

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.

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Marion being badass in front of the police

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.

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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.

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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!