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. 


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. 

Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Constance Maud’s ‘No Surrender’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A forgotten gem, but only if you adore Suffrage history.

No Surrender: A novel of the Suffrage movement eBook: Maud, Constance: Kindle Store
First published in 1911


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.

Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Jenni Murray’s ‘Votes for Women’

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

A charming selection of Suffrage biographies which does nothing to challenge the popular narrative on the Suffrage movement.

Votes For Women!: The Pioneers and Heroines of Female Suffrage (from the  pages of A History of Britain in 21 Women): Murray, Jenni:  9781786074751: Books
Maybe the review by the Daily Mail on the front cover should have set alarm bells ringing?


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.

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: 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)


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.

Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds Not Words Scene 5

A girl skips home from school. Her long, red hair- the colour of sin- is gathered in a thick braid down her back. As soon as she is home, a tall, proud man – her father- has her knitting and practising her handwriting. He has a good hand himself, and she must learn it perfectly. She often sits by the window and watches the other village children playing in the street. Sometimes, all she can hear is the gentle clack-clack of her needles slowing building row upon row of useful fabric, a warm weave of knots. Sometimes, her father sits next to her, reading the newspaper. Then, the soft rustle of the pages mingles with the clicks of her knitting. But it’s only that quiet when it’s raining or winter and the street is dark or cold and empty. Other times, her father teaches her how to hold a pen. She tries to keep her fingers straight, how he likes it, but her hands are clammy with the effort. Her father stands over her, long and lean, smelling of pipe smoke and lye. He leans forward, supporting his pipe in his right hand and himself on the back of her chair with his left. He chews on the mouthpiece, grinding it between his teeth. He has piercing green eyes and a strong nose. He is a handsome man, the villagers say. The spitting image of the Kronprinz Frederick.

Kitty’s hand slips. Her index finger crooks up. Her father grunts with displeasure and sends the bowl of his pipe cracking down onto the crest of her skull. Kitty feels faint. Waves of pain throb through her, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. She wants to cry, but that’s not allowed. Crying is weakness and girls are weak. Tears would prove it. She grits her teeth and carries on writing. A bead of sweat falls from her nose and onto the paper, blurring the ink. A shot of fear races straight to her heart. But this time she is lucky, very lucky. Her father hasn’t noticed because his eyesight is slowly failing him. 

There’s another noise in the room. She looks up. A woman is curled in the corner furthest from the door. She hangs her head, arms hugged around her knees. Her nightshirt has ridden up, revealing a delicate, lacy network of bruises up her shins. She is crying softly. She knows this must be her mother- her long, auburn hair just a few shades darker than her own. 

Kitty’s writing desk faces the window, so she has had to crane her neck around to see the sound’s source. She remembers her schoolwork and flinches, waiting for the pipe to come smacking down once more, this time for her insolence and unscholarly distraction. But her father is gone. 

Her mother senses Kitty’s presence. She raises her head and must be seeing Kitty silhouetted in the soft, afternoon light which falls through the window and illuminates the dust motes hanging suspended in the air. The room is panelled in dark wood, and bare except for desk, mother and child. She opens her mouth, and Kitty wants to run to her, to rub warmth into her blue-white hands, but she stops dead and the blank fear returns. Her mother is looking at her with her father’s piercing green eyes, full of contempt. It’s not right, it doesn’t fit, because her mother’s eyes were blue, weren’t they?

The woman in the corner raises a long, pale finger and points at Kitty. She speaks with her father’s voice.

“Unnatural child, why don’t you love me?”

Kitty screams until a creak at the door cuts her off. Perhaps her father is back, or is he in the corner? She doesn’t know where to look.

“Hello, Kitty.”

A tall man strolls in, but he is not her father. Her little writing desk has become something larger, more stately, poised on polished mahogany legs. There’s now a low couch in the corner where her mother was crouched just moments ago. An ostentatious chandelier hangs low from the ceiling. Through the window, Kitty can see that she is a few floors up, and that the street below is busy. Women stroll past, clutching decorative parasols or unruly children. Men in tall hats huddle together, moustaches quivering. 

Kitty turns away from the window, from a London both distant and familiar. The man has gotten closer, much closer. Why did she ever let him out of her sight? He has positioned his body between her and the door. His huge desk is behind her. She knows she is trapped, and he knows it too. He is so close she could count the crumbs in his beard and smell the day-old gin on his breath. Gin he keeps in the top left-hand drawer of his desk. She knows because she has seen him taking it out, pouring it and returning it with an almost clerical solemnity. She knows because he has offered her some, and she has seen the flash of indignation in his eyes as she declined. 

“How about a kiss, my dear Kitty? Just a harmless kiss.”

She backs away until her hips collide with his monstrous desk. She makes to slide over it, lithe as a river eel, but he catches her around the waist in one sly, practised movement ill-fitting with either his paunch or his advancing age. Kitty should be terrified. She knows she was the last audition that day. She knows that the others have gone home by now. She did not notice whether his secretary has also left for the day or whether she lurks somewhere, complicit.

“I don’t understand you, Kitty,” he remonstrates, “young girls like you like to be made love to, they like to kiss. You’ll never be a success in the music halls if you don’t, my dear.” There is a malign glimmer in his watery, bloodshot eyes. Her so-called agent presses himself against her, trying to plant his lips on hers, scratching her chin with his wiry bristles. She squirms like a polecat, clawing him and screaming, drawing her knee up to the one place she knows men are vulnerable. He gasps, withdraws, his breath catches, his face contorted with pain, but he still has a vice like grip on her wrist. He’s not going to give it up, he’s not going to be bested. Not by her. He’s panting, a hairline scratch underneath his eye seeping blood, and still he tries to pull her towards him. Kitty feels herself losing her balance in slow motion. She pulls back, tips, falling towards the desk, her leg lifting, wading through treacle. Or is the desk falling upwards to meet her temple?

The last sensations Kitty remembers as she loses consciousness are the running of water, a gushing, rushing feeling, and the ringing of church bells somewhere far off in the distance. 

Suffragettes at Holloway prison, London #HappyInternationalWomensDay |  Suffragette, Women in history, Holloway prison

Kitty wakes up on her narrow pallet bed. She’s glistening with sweat, and her cheap, off-white nightgown has gone almost translucent pressed against her legs and stomach. It’s cold in her cell, and already she starts to shiver. She draws her  scratchy, prison-issue woollen shawl around her. Her escapades the previous day provoked the wardresses to force her into regulation clothes. She looks up at the small, grated window. Weak morning light filters through, and she feels dirty. She feels the same outrage and wounded pride, clenching her fists around the bed frame. They’ve escaped from their drawer again.

She’d come to her senses that day fully clothed. Either someone had heard the commotion, or his predilections didn’t stretch to the unconscious. Either way, she hadn’t stayed to discover which. She remembers the moments after fleeing, after extricating herself from that man’s office. Dazed and bewildered, she had burst out onto the streets of London. She was not yet twenty. She had felt ashamed of something she was in no way accountable for. All she had wanted was to stand under a stream of scalding hot water and scrub herself raw with carbolic soap, but instead she had stood at the railing of Westminster Bridge and gazed down into the sluggish brown waters of the Thames below. She had pulled herself back. That was the day she realised that courage had nothing to do with men.

Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds Not Words: Scene 3 Part 2

8th June, 1913. Kew, London

Clara is still clutching the carpet. They have no idea what to do with it. Kitty slings it over her shoulder, and they run hand in hand towards the nearby towpath. There’s a ditch and a copse of trees lining the furthest edge of the cricket pitch. They hurl it in and cover it with some hastily kicked earth and twigs. Luckily, it’s not a garish colour, but, sooner or later, it will be found. Their backs are now to the racecourse, but even from here they can feel an echo of its immense heat. Their cheeks are still flushed.

As they near the gas lighting, they stop to rearrange their hair and dress. 

“Do I look respectable?” Clara asks, plaintive. She’s brushing dirt from her sleeves and rearranging her hairpins. 

“Never!” Kitty beams. For practical reasons, they have opted to go hatless tonight. It only serves to make them more conspicuous. 

They set out along the towpath, being the natural choice and much quieter than the streets around Hampton Court Palace, although it is now after midnight – too late for respectable ladies to be out unaccompanied. Too late, even, for respectable ladies to be out at all. Aside from some figures in the distance, the path is empty. 

They finally have the time and inclination to talk freely.

“Did you see that! It went up like a Christmass tree! We barely made it out in time,” Clara squeaks, her voice tight. 

“Well, you know Betty, the best laid plans of mice and men…how could we know the fire would take so quickly?” Kitty’s rush is already beginning to fade, leaving an empty fatigue in its wake. She pinches the bridge of her nose and rubs her eyes. They sting with smoke.

“I wish Pem could see this. It’s spectacular.”

“Yes, but I wish that old turncoat would stop forcing our hand like this. Despite all appearances, I’m not a born criminal.” Deep down, she hates this whole business.  

“We’ll get our way, one day, for everyone’s sake. Until then, this is our duty. Pem may be gone now, but her words live on. Her beautiful words.”

Their boots crunch over the gravel. They are forcing themselves to take slow, measured steps. Clara’s eyes shine with tears. Kitty looks thoughtful. The river is on their right. It reflects the warm orange glow of the blaze, dancing and sparkling on its inky surface. By this point, clusters of onlookers are beginning to gather, men and women. Apparently, there’s no such thing as being out too late when there’s a jolly good spectacle. At first, Kitty can’t decide whether that raises or lowers their chances of getting caught. They may have a chance to blend in, but then she reflects on their hatless, dishevelled, manless condition. Tries to see themselves through a stranger’s eyes. There are now far more witnesses, far more people who could report having seen them, sticking out like sore thumbs along the Molesley towpath. The place is probably already swarming with police. A few men are already running towards the fire, eager to prove themselves. 

Kitty has been putting on a show her whole adult life. Feigning nonchalance is no great strain for her. She dawdles, gazing at the blaze, tipping her head to passers-by. Clara’s jaw, on the other hand, is clenched firmly. Her hair is plastered to her forehead with sweat. One of her sleeves is torn, revealing a flash of milky skin on her upper arm. They are a sight to behold.

As they begin to turn right over the bridge across the Thames, a fire engine screams around the corner, cartwheels screeching over the cobblestones, horses frothed and lathering. The ladies stroll over the bridge arm in arm. It would be easy to miss the conspiratorial gleam in their eyes. They walk in the direction of Richmond and Kew, ducking into sidestreets whenever policemen come dashing along on motorcycles. There really is something eternally enticing about fugitive status, about not quite legally existing in the world. Clara’s dark blonde hair threatens to spill down her back. She’s from a well-to-do family. Kitty effectively has no family at all, nobody to shame.

They meander through the streets of Fulwell, Twickenham and Kew for hours. They desperately try to remember Eileen’s instructions and not to look lost. By the early hours of the morning, they have covered almost eight miles from the scene of the crime, although the women have lost all sense of time. They are looking for the safe house, but London is huge, and neither of them have been to this area before. The suburban streets are quiet as the grave, and had Jesus rode in on a silver bicycle, he would have been less conspicuous than these two. 

“Excuse me ladies, are you lost?”

Kitty and Clara jump out of their skins, and then immediately go about disguising the fact. Kitty’s hand flies to her hair, as if checking it, although it now more resembles mistletoe growing on a tree branch. Clara places her raised hand demurely on her breastbone and looks up at the policeman through her eyelashes. 

“Why yes, sergeant, in matter of fact, we are a little bit lost.” For once, Clara is quicker off the mark. 

He doesn’t look like a sergeant, Kitty thinks. Far too young. He’s puffing up his narrow chest as we speak, and his chin strap doesn’t hide his acne. But there’s no harm in buttering him up. Clever Betty.

“Why are you two ladies out at a time like this?” 

He narrows his eyes. He knows they don’t look like fallen women. He shifts his weight uneasily from foot to foot. His boots look new, too stiff and shiny. Is he afraid of us? Kitty thinks. She almost laughs. Perhaps he thinks we’re going to pull out a horsewhip and start clobbering him with it, like plucky little Theresa and that oaf Winston Churchill a few years back. Unforgettable. Kitty pulls her thoughts back to the question at hand. 

“Sir, we’re music hall performers, you see. We’re often out late, it doesn’t bother us.” She flashes her most winning smile. 

The policeman begins to look mollified, but then clearly decides to put his extremely recent training to good use. 

“Which music hall?”

“The Prince of Wales on Tottenham Street, sir.”

You can see him calculating the distance in his head. 

“You’ve come a long way, then, girls.” Him calling us girls. The tenacity.

“We took the tram.”

“The trams are still running this late?”

The trams are still fairly new to London. Kitty desperately hopes that this green lad isn’t familiar with the timetables.

“It was still rather a long walk from the stop.”

“And why, after your shift, have you come this far?”

“We’d organised lodgings here. A much fairer price than in the City, you see. On West Park Road. But we couldn’t find them, and now we’re lost.”

The policeman nods, seems satisfied. He gives them directions to West Park Road, but the women know they have been rumbled. They hurry off in the direction of his pointed finger. He stares after them. For a few breaths, Kitty hears nothing but their heels clicking. Her feet throb, they’ve been on them all night. 

“We’re finished”, Clara groans once they assume he’s out of earshot. 

“I know.” Kitty grits her teeth. They’re both exhausted. They will be arrested the next morning at the latest. But the police want to see where they will lead them first. They want to know where these dangerous, violent women go to roost. 

They can feel their tail. The faint creak of a bicycle chain drifts on the still air. She wonders if he thinks he’s being subtle. They don’t really have a choice now but to lead them back to Eileen’s. Hopefully, she and her parents will be able to claim ignorance of the women’s actions. But for now, they have finally reached their safe harbour. Clara pulls at the latch key hanging on a chain around her neck, and it rises up from under her dress. They are now before a looming redbrick townhouse, framed by two pruned hedges. Its bay windows ape an unknowing stare. It’s a picture of solid, middle class English life, and here they stand, two free radicals. 

A low, wrought iron gate lets out a reedy creak of discontent as they push their way through. Clara fumbles with the lock before they can let themselves in. All is quiet. A grandfather clock ticks softly in the hallway. Kitty is shocked by her reflection in the hall mirror. She looks sallow, bedraggled. Maybe they are getting too old for this. The excitement of the last few hours has snuck off, taking her complexion with it. 

Kitty thinks of the policeman watching the house. He’s probably throwing himself into the saddle of his bicycle at this very moment, speeding off to the Kenley police station to deliver his prize nugget of intelligence, desperate to make a name for himself as a small fish in a big pond. I’ve got them! I know where they are! The Hurst Park Arsonists. Although, she does admit the title has a nice ring to it. 

She collapses into the soft white cotton sheets of the guest bedroom. As far as they are aware, they’ve slunk in without rousing Eileen, her parents or either of the maids. Kitty doesn’t even bother to undress. All she removes are her boots, still plastered with damp grass. She tries not to think of the ordeal ahead of her, to no use. Arrest, trial, imprisonment. Playing Cat and Mouse at His Majesty’s pleasure. 

Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds not Words Scene 3 Part 1

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

Image result for hurst park racecourse

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.

Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds Not Words Scene 2

3rd June, 1913. The Empress Tea Rooms, Kensington

“I’m thinking of making a protest.”

Kitty arches a full eyebrow. Isn’t that all we ever do?

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

Emily, clear eyes flashing: “Something dramatic. Something unforgettable. Something to make those bastards at Westminster really sit up and take notice.”

Kitty smiles. She loves hearing profanities dropping like black pearls from her friend’s educated lips. 

“How so this time?”

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

“I haven’t yet reached a decision. But I keep thinking about how the King will be there, and his wife. Standing in their box, surveying their fiefdom.” She curls a narrow lip, “A great tragedy would capture their attention. I simply can’t abide this waiting and postponing and waiting again. Who do they think we are? All the while, the Kaiser’s busy polishing his Dreadnoughts over the channel.”

Her hand is shaking so drastically it’s threatening to send tea swirling into her saucer. Kitty snakes a sympathetic hand across the muslin tablecloth, in an attempt to rescue cup, saucer and woman. Emily seems to be looking through them, rather than at them. An awkward few seconds pass, Kitty’s hand splayed, snubbed. Finally, she puts the cup down and reciprocates. 

“I know, Pem. We’re all sick of waiting. We’re not young anymore. We can’t keep doing this forever.” 

Kitty gives her hand a friendly squeeze, thinking back to Emily’s 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. They leave shopping at her door. 

A long pause. A clearing of throats. Emily was a loose cannon, even by their standards. 

“How are you going to…get the King’s attention?” Kitty wishes she had her friend’s way with words. 

Emily’s has left her head bare today, red curls rolled into a simple bun. Kitty won’t dare ask if she’s sold another of her summer hats.

“I need to disrupt the race.”

Her thin lips are set hard. Mary is hiding her anxiety behind her teacup. Kitty can feel her doe eyes pleading. But Kitty can’t save her, she doesn’t know what to say.

In the hall, waitresses mill around with businesslike grace. Their high-necked green cotton dresses and white muslin aprons are reminiscent of nurses’ uniforms, aside from the purple ribbons fixed around their waists. But a few have pinned pristine white flowers in their hair. They are smiling, no indecent advances today, and generous tips. No one will comment on the shape of their neck or the tint of their lip. Kitty leans back and tunes in to the pleasant hustle and bustle of the bazaar. Laughter and chatter rise above more hushed and conspiratorial exchanges. A group to her left huddles around a map, heads almost touching. And over her friend’s heads, she can see clusters of schoolgirls pulling animatedly on each other’s sleeves. They probably begged the entrance fee from their fathers that morning, claiming a forgotten field trip to Kew Gardens. They’ve clearly never seen so many women in one place before. It’s still overwhelming. Purple, white and green banners flutter from the rafters, aloof from the hordes below.

“Pem, you’ve done enough.”  

Kitty jumps. So, the quiet one has found her voice. “We’re all grateful for your commitment, but you still need some time to recover. You’ve put yourself in harm’s way for the Cause too many times. And they’re not even paying you for the pleasure,” Mary sniffs.

Kitty nods resolutely. She couldn’t have put it better herself. They are joined by the invisible thread of militancy. But this time, she’s not going to encourage her friend’s reckless streak.

“By all means, make a scene, my dear. Yet remember what we’re here for. We need you, Pem. We need your strength and wisdom.” Kitty stares straight into her friend’s eyes with the intensity of a roadside fortune teller.

A butter knife would be useless at cutting the atmosphere, it hangs so thickly. The unsaid word. The mortal sin. It hovers somewhere overhead, its mere presence illegal. The women do not care much for legality, but the rules of polite conversation still hold sway.

“I do not shrink from sacrifice.”

Emily clasps her hands together in front of her breast, almost as if in prayer. Kitty presses, but she retreats back behind her steely gaze. She’s dug a moat and pulled up the drawbridge. As usual, Emily has spoken so well yet said very little.

 Talk turns to more innocent subjects. Kitty has been meaning to visit the dress stand all morning. Sweat has been pooling under her collar and trickling down her back. She needs a new summer frock, but she barely has enough. Emily and Mary had had their photo taken in front of their patron Saint, Joan of Arc, earlier that day. 

Kitty rises, makes her excuses, and says her farewells. Luckily, Mary is still married not even estranged from her husband, and he allowed her enough to live. She pays for their tea. The other two women barely have two shillings to rub together. Despite her misgivings, Kitty has no idea she will never see her fellow militant again. 

On her way out, Kitty lovingly fingers the folds of a white silk number at the dressmaker’s stand. She orders the cheapest instead, a plain cotton one, delivered to her lodgings. She hasn’t done a proper show in weeks. Not in a mainstream theatre. They don’t want her. But she finds enough in her purse for the downpayment, and has enough stashed under her pillow for the rest. All for the Cause. She hopes she will be made a paid member before she has to run the streets of Whitechapel in rags.

She pushes her way through the crowd. The noise ricochets around the high-ceilinged hall. It is a warm day, and she is now starting to sweat profusely. She impatiently passes stalls selling buttons, jewellery, hats, stationery, sweets, books, tea sets, even board games. There is nothing 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.

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.

Image result for kitty marion stage
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.

Image result for suffragette force feeding

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!


Deeds not Words: Scene 1

I’m calling these posts scenes rather than chapters because I want to focus on some specific vignettes in my writing, and I may pad it all out later. I’ve found out that Kitty Marion was speaking to Emily Wilding Davison the evening before that fateful Epsom Derby, at the W.S.P.U Bazaar in the Empress Rooms in Kensington. Davison had spoken to Marion about ‘making a protest’ at the Derby, but noone knew at the time exactly what she was up to. Maybe Davison didn’t even know herself. Anyway, I want to reconstruct that meeting and conversation. But I thought the best place to start in any story of the Suffragettes is with that fateful day, the most iconic moment of the movement. Then, I can delve into the lesser known aspects. See this as a kind of prologue. This is at drafting stage. It’s only my second draft (my first draft was handwritten). If you have any suggestions or feedback, please comment. And without any further ado:

4th June, 1913

A woman positions herself at Tattenham Corner. She is unaccompanied, unusual for one so conservatively dressed. Unlike other lone women who frequent such occasions, she has not rouged her face that morning, and stares resolutely into the middle distance. The crowd presses eagerly at her back. It swells and cheers in anticipation of the oncoming riders, only the woman isn’t cheering. She’s somewhere around middle age, not beautiful, yet striking. Her gaze is steady. It’s a beautiful early summer’s day, but she wears a long, dark coat over her dress. Next to the woman, a frightened little girl clutches her mother’s hand. It may well be her first derby, and there are a lot of animated men in the crowd. 

Oncoming hoofbeats reverberate the turf, thud-thud-thudding in time with her frantic heart. She clenches her fist, unclenches. Her hand is clammy, and perspiration is beading her brow. Sweating is unladylike, but how can she not? Her face is shaded by her straw hat. She is rapidly expending her last few seconds of anonymity. Does she know she will soon be made a martyr to the cause? Does she know how Emmeline’s hands will quiver as she reads the news? She will be relegated to that category of celebrity whose stardom is only achieved in death. Girls who never knew her will weep at her funeral, for the Supreme Sacrifice.

Her intentions will be picked over with a fine-toothed comb and then sieved. Some grains will be lost in the weaving of history, so we say. But we forget that our only private sphere is our mind. Nobody can peer in, there are no windows. Nobody can draw intention out like from a magician’s hat. She has written of sacrifice, but what does that mean? A return train ticket, hidden in the folds of her coat, is that proof? Many will hold it up and say here, here it is, it wasn’t suicide (that dirty word). But routes of enquiry must be exhausted.

She draws a breath, pulling a scarf out from under her coat, striped with purple, white and green. The horses are almost upon them, flanks gleaming, spit mixing with spittle. The crowd, goading, pushes her towards the barrier. But she looks calm. She picks her moment, picks her target. Anmar, the King’s horse. The onlookers have exactly four seconds to register the impending tragedy. Anmar snorts, rears up, tries to jump the interloper. He only manages to get his front hooves off the ground before the force of their combined momentum pushes jockey and rider into the collision with the force of a galloping steam train. But for the fraction of a second, horse and woman eye each other, and know they are captives. 

A sickening crunch. The woman’s body flips like a rag doll, like a puppet on strings, extremities splaying. The horse screams. The crowd wails. Chaos reigns. 

The woman still clutches a scarf balled into her left hand, forming a fist. When you electrocute yourself, instead of letting go, your hand forms vicelike grip. You could save yourself, but you are forced by instinct to clutch what will kill you even tighter. Perhaps it was supposed to unfurl over the King’s horse like a banner, the ultimate irony. But instead she has taken it to the Great Beyond. Her eyelids flutter. A slow ooze of crimson blood trickles down her forehead. She is breathing, but she is already dead. She lies on her back in the damp grass of the Epsom Derby. We will never know whether she succeeded or failed. 

A policeman, one of the first one the scene, notices the scarf. He is more composed than the others, more alert. This isn’t business as usual, but he has seen worse on the streets of Whitechapel. He looks around. Nobody is looking at him. Clusters of frantic onlookers: bookies, jockeys, spectators – the men trying to keep the women back. Not for your eyes, madam. You’ll go weak at the knees. The horse neighs pitifully. The fallen rider groans. Her eyelids flutter. A man proclaiming himself a doctor is already leaning over her prone body, listening to her laboured breathing and wiping the blood from her temple. 

The policeman prises the scarf from her clammy hand. He stuffs the fabric into his pocket with the facial expression of a guilty schoolboy. But he is helping her, really. So he thinks. No need for them to know that she’s one of those women, if women are what they are. No need for anyone to know that it might not have been an accident, at least not yet. Suicide is a sin. Add that to their mountain of sin. 

But it’s no use. She’s wearing the colours underneath her coat.