Political Animals

Someone ought to do a book about political animals. I don’t mean those people who are so keenly involved in politics that they can think of little else; I mean literally political animals. So far in my research on the history of Votes for Women I’ve come across several suffrage terriers; some cats, mice (working for the enemy, set loose to frighten imprisoned suffragettes), rats (thrown as missiles and very dead) and lots of horses.

When the journalist and suffragist Vera Chute Collum was commissioned by the Daily News to join the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage (see posts below) in the summer of 1913, she hit upon the idea of riding a horse to attract attention, give her a good vantage point for taking photographs, and save her legs. She kitted herself out in a khaki ‘knickerbocker suit’ – very daring – so that she could ride astride. Now all she needed was the horse. So she put an advertisement in the magazine ‘Common Cause’ and found the most beautiful and placid mare for the duration. She only got really frightened once (the mare, not Vera) when some anti-suffragists blew a cornet in her ears; otherwise she was a model of forbearance and dignity.

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She wasn’t the only four-legged pilgrim. Polly, Noah and Asquith drew the three caravans travelling from the north-west to London on the Watling Street route. Polly was a heroine who kept going for hours, up hill and down dale, when pursued by stone-throwers near Stoke-on-Trent. She never complained. Noah was also well-behaved but Asquith, we can imagine, rather less so.

Not only did the militant suffragette Hon. Evelina Haverfield take part in processions in London on horseback; she used her knowledge of her favourite animals as a weapon of defence. She was able to make police-horses sit down during demonstrations by tapping them smartly in a particular place on the hind legs, which must have been extremely gratifying, and was once arrested for physically – and incredibly bravely – trying to lead them out of police cordons and formations against their riders’ wishes.

When the journalist Henry Nevinson was asked to ride a horse at the head of a men’s suffrage parade in London in 1911, he was a little nervous at first. His job was to carry ‘an enormous flag attached to a large and heavy pole. Happily I was mounted on a wide and beautiful mare, who, though disturbed in mind by the shouts and cheering all the way from the Embankment, though St James’s and along the length of Piccadilly, entered into the spirit of the occasion and marched with decorum; except that every now and then she turned round to wonder at the banner, and once, while we were halted outside the Ritz Hotel, seeing within reach a little girl’s straw hat surrounded with life-like daisies festooned about the brim, she proceeded to bite at it for hay, costing me half-a-crown in compensation’ [Nevinson: Fire of Life, 1935].


Women of the Road

There are not many episodes to which you can point and say with absolute confidence that they changed history. Or maybe that’s rubbish: perhaps every episode changes history to a degree – but you know what I mean. The Great Suffrage Pilgrimage, which lasted for six weeks during the early summer of 1913, was one such occasion. An Awfully Big Adventure, it marked the end of the British public’s disenchantment with militant suffragettes and the political realisation that the Vote was something ordinary women not only wanted, but needed and deserved. The Pilgrimage gave women a voice; a dignified, unified, determined and spirited voice which for once, was not drowned in derision. That’s quite something.

As readers of this shamefully sporadic blog will be aware, the Great Pilgrimage really gets me going. Hardly anyone knows about it now; few credit its marchers with playing any significant part in the struggle for the Vote, and people simply don’t realise what an extraordinary odyssey it was both personally and politically. You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’m uncovering about its characters and their experiences on the road in the course of my research for ‘Hearts and Minds’…

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Marjory Lees and friends, Oldham archives.

However I’m so glad that in my enthusiasm for the ‘gists’ I decided not to ignore the ‘gettes’, despite my feeling that their part in the fight is a little over-exposed. As if one could – or should – ignore them. I made the arrogant mistake at the beginning of this project of thinking that everything we needed to know about the suffragettes was already out there. Wrong again: through talking to family members, reading first-hand accounts, listening to oral histories, I’m picking up details about the militants which have suddenly made them human, rather than cyphers. I don’t mean that I’ve realised the depth of their emotions (anyone who’s seen the film Suffragette will appreciate that) but I now know that they were brave, inventive, terrified, terrifying, and incredibly resourceful individuals. (If you ever guess what they used for a football in the prison exercise yard at Holloway, I’ll be astonished.)

I’m so enjoying my research. Travelling all over the UK and beyond – it’s the United States next week – has been exhausting but exhilarating. We should be intensely proud of our grandmothers, great grandmothers and their friends, whether they were peeresses or mill-hands, and of the men who supported them, for risking reputation, health, even life with such conviction and general good humour. Even grace.

Back to the Great Pilgrimage. I’m tempted, once centenary year comes round in 2018, to organise a smaller-scale march to commemorate my heroines. Maybe not with horse-drawn caravans packed with supplies of cake and copies of the Common Cause, and maybe not in long hot skirts caked in mud and hats bristling with pins (useful for prodding over-familiar or abusive hecklers), but in the same spirit as the original one. A crusading spirit, that is, of sisterhood, mutual support, hope and utter certainty that once women are free to make their own decisions, the world will be a better place for us all.

Join me, anyone?

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Common Cause, 1913.

Suffragettes, Suffragists, and the Centenary of Votes for Women

I’m thrilled to announce that I’m now working on my 10th book, Hearts and Minds, which is to be published by Transworld – part of the Penguin Random House group – to celebrate the centenary of votes for women. Mention ‘the Vote’ to most people, and stock images immediately come to mind: in a haze of green, white and violet, a group of determined-looking Edwardian women strides towards us in long-skirted suits wearing hats and glossy sashes; they carry inflammatory placards – ‘Who Would be Free Must Strike the Blow’ – or bricks; one or two of them are being man-handled by policemen with thin lips and helmets askew. Ethel Smythe’s ‘March of the Women’ is playing in the background. Perhaps we see a young girl with wild eyes and loose hair, strapped down in a prison cell and being force-fed through a tube, or Emily Wilding Davison lying on the Epsom turf with her broken head wrapped in newspaper. Ah yes, we say. The Vote: it’s all about the suffragettes.

In fact, it’s not. The suffragettes played their part, of course, and some lost their health, families, even their lives in defence of their political beliefs. But they were a brave minority: the ones who caught the headlines. Their militancy distracted public opinion from the patient, imaginative and more quietly courageous work being done by tens of thousands of ordinary women across Britain, dressed not in amethyst and emerald but in berry-red and leaf-green. These were the suffragists, or non-violent campaigners. The centrepiece of their crusade was a six-week march, proudly called ‘the Great Pilgrimage’, from the edges of the UK to London, culminating in a rally for 50,000 people in Hyde Park in 1913.

When they set out on the journey, they were housewives, grandmothers, aristocrats, illiterate girls, actresses, colliery-women, teachers, students; frightened, unsure, naive, perhaps a little reckless. Activists certainly, but all these other things too. By the end, they had become women of influence. Citizens of the world. Exhausted, but exultant. The Pilgrimage is what persuaded Asquith that women were not all hysterical harpies; that maybe they did deserve the Vote after all. It was a rite of passage, not just for the participants, but for those of us who have been following them to the polling booths ever since.

These pilgrims weren’t the only non-suffragettes to fight for the Vote. Men and women were actively and imaginatively involved from all walks of life, political and religious persuasions. The ‘anti’s are great to listen to, too, with their talk of women’s inherent physical and intellectual disabilities. ‘No doctor,’ said one harrumphing medical man, ‘can ever lose sight of the fact that the mind of woman is always threatened with danger from the reverberations of her physiological emergencies… There is mixed up with the women’s movement much mental disorder.’

I am so excited about this book. Can you help me with it? Are there any suffragettes or suffragists in your family? As usual, I’m interested in real people, not ciphers; the ordinary men and women whom historians so often ignore. Please get in touch via jane@jane-robinson.com: I’d love to hear from you.

Happy Birthday, dear WI!

It’s been a busy week for everyone involved in the centenary of the Women’s Institute. I wasn’t fortunate enough to get through the ballot for the Garden Party on Tuesday 2nd June, and I couldn’t apply for the Albert Hall AGM as I was working with the U3A that day. But that doesn’t mean I’ve missed out on the excitement. My name must be lurking somewhere on a dusty list at the BBC and ITV: when there’s something going on with the WI, who’re you gonna call? I’m honoured that this week, at least, it’s been me.

Local BBC and independent radio stations have been eager to pick up the centenary story. It might have been nice had they covered it on their drive-time shows (with a nice cup of tea and a suitable cake) but hey, I don’t mind being bright and breezy on air at – what was it this morning, for BBC London? Six-thirty am, I seem to remember.

On Tuesday, the day of the Garden Party, I was summoned at two hours’ notice to Buckingham Palace to do a piece for the News at Ten. I’ve been peripherally involved with the media for ages now, but I still can’t quite get used to the last-minute, split-second nature of it all. I leapt on the train, my lunch half-munched, and found my way to ITV’s satellite-dish van in Green Park; meanwhile the newsroom had decided that it was too blustery to film outside (although right on cue, the sun came out as though someone had flicked a switch at 3 pm, when the Party was due to begin).

We eventually found an alternative venue for the interview – the gorgeous new library at LSE – and proceeded to film ten minutes or so of chat about the history of the WI, which was broadcast (cut, understandably, to a few seconds) that evening.

More radios the next day, and the next – I love it! Writing is such a solitary, physically passive sort of occupation. I grab any chance to get out and enthuse in public. And it feels such a privilege to be able to enthuse about the Women’s Institute, for which – as anyone who’s read A Force to be Reckoned With will know – I have unbounded admiration.

The television interview was different, but I have to say that most radio presenters tend to ask the same questions, and I thought it might be useful for those of you who are WI members involved with the local Press to know what those questions are. You’ve probably been asked them already, actually.

  1. Why Jam and Jerusalem?
  2. Still Jam and Jerusalem?
  3. Anything else apart from Jam and Jerusalem?
  4. Did the WI do anything before the Calendar Girls came along?
  5. Why are all WI members old?
  6. Why aren’t men allowed?

That just about sums it up, I think. I really hope this week will have finally changed the public’s mind about our radical, courageous, fun-loving and passionate organisation.

That would be the best 100th birthday-present of all.

An exercise in trumpet-blowing

My last post was about critics and reviews. Here’s a sequel: In the Family Way is not out until Thursday this week (5 Feb) but the coverage has been widespread already. Below is a sound-bite digest, compiled for my publishers, of all the reviews I’ve seen so far. I hope it’s of interest to those of you who helped me research the book; I can only thank you again for all your contributions. People kindly say I’ve given you a voice in the book, but really you’ve given me yours, and I’m grateful.

Here goes, then. As of today, 2 February:

In the Family Way is an important social history tracked through personal stories that need to be heard and will soon be beyond memory.  Elizabeth Grice, Daily Telegraph 24.01.15 (five-star review)

Robinson, who wrote the excellent Bluestockings, has a good eye for the human story and the affecting detail that brings alive the hypocritical moral landscape of the period. Daisy Goodwin, Sunday Times 25.01.15 (lead review)

[Robinson] has made contact with 100 unmarried mothers and their progeny and deftly interweaves their stories with the political and institutional history… The chapter on single fathers is especially interesting because it defies expectations.  Lara Feigel, Observer 25.01.15

Robinson has worked to give back a voice to those not traditionally allowed one… Taken together, the individual stories of secrecy and enforced separation form a powerful testament to the hypocrisy and cruelty of our culture.   Michele Roberts, Independent, 29.01.15

A fascinating journey into the history of illegitimacy… In this incredibly touching book, social historian Jane Robinson reveals family secrets kept for entire lifetimes, enabling us to hear long-silent voices… Elegant and compassionately written… Eloquent and highly readable. Family Tree Magazine, 30.01.15

 A four-page feature written by Jane appears in the February issue of Britain’s best-selling monthly magazine, Saga Magazine. 30.01.15

[In the Family Way’s] heart is firmly in the right place. It is a book that makes a woman want to reach for an AK47 to avenge the past; or at the very least to buy a copy to politicize their daughters.   Melanie Reid, Times, 31.01.15

The closer Robinson’s survey comes to our own day, the more shocking it grows… In the Family Way is not, incidentally, without its funny side. I particularly enjoyed this…   Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday. 01.02.15

Sunday Times ‘must read’ recommendation, 01.02.15

In the Family Way is both engaging and incredibly moving and will strike a profound chord with many readers.   Sarah Franklin, Sunday Express, 01.02.15

So there we are. All this makes it sound as though everyone has been raving in praise of the book; that’s not quite the case, as you’ll appreciate if you read Craig Brown’s review in the Mail on Sunday or Michele Roberts’ in the Independent. But I think – hope – all agree that it’s a book that needed to be written; a subject we need to address.

Fingers crossed for publication day. See you on the other side.


I carry my hardback of ‘In the Family Way’ around with me like a premature baby, wrapped in a scarf when I go outside (really!) and placed out of harm’s way in a companionable corner of the kitchen when we’re at home. I suppose it’s because it’s a pre-term copy, not properly due for another three weeks. I already feel the pangs of an over-protective parent when I hear that reviews are being prepared for it and talks planned. There’s also something of the vulnerability of having a real baby: one identity is shared between the two of us. Judge one and you judge us both.

But that’s where it ends. It’s tempting to get precious about the publication of a book. It’s my work, not my child. True, I gestated it (for over two years) and now it’s about to go into its little world to grow and flourish with all my hopes behind it. Yet in no time at all those hopes will be transferred to the new project. No author fortunate enough to attract national reviews would last long if they couldn’t dispel that vulnerability I was talking about pretty quickly.

If I tell myself that often enough, I’ll believe it.

I hope the book does well; of course I do. The reviewers must judge me as a writer because that’s what they do. But if there’s one thing I wish for ‘In the Family Way’ above all else, it’s this. That readers do not judge those mothers, fathers and children whose story it tells, but try to understand what they went through, are often still going through, and give them credit for doing the best they could in the circumstances. I’ve tried to celebrate the everyday strength of the human spirit in this book. If readers recognise that, and are as moved by it as I was, I’ll have done my job.

That sounds a bit heavy. So here’s a joke I found in a letter (included in the book) written in 1921. A young Scottish lad was courting, and asked his father for permission to get wed. ‘Father, I want to marry Janet McTavish.’ ‘Dinna do that, laddie,’ answered his father. ‘Ye canna, she’s your sister.’ Undaunted, he waited a few months, and then returned to his father. ‘Father, I want to marry Mary Findlay.’ ‘Ye canna, laddie; she’s your sister.’ The process was repeated once or twice, the boy always receiving the same answer. At last, he went to his mother. ‘Mother,’ he said, ‘I canna get wed, for Father says that every lass in the village is my sister.’ ‘Nay, laddie, dinna fret. He’s not your father.’


The finished book isn’t always enough. Each time I come to the end of a project, I look for a keepsake to remember it by; a physical emblem of two years (or more) of research and writing. For my first book, Wayward Women, it was an album of cartoons published in 1863 illustrating the perilous peregrinations of a spoof lady traveller who rejoiced in the name of the Honourable Impulsia Gushington. I’ll show you one of my favourite images (in a sophisticated Blog ‘first’ for me, if I can manage it). It’s such an exuberant book:

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‘Miss Gushington experiences a new sensation’

While I was writing about the Memsahibs involved in the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857-8 (Angels of Albion), on one of my habitual fossikings around junk shops I came across an anonymous-looking scrapbook packed with cuttings from British newspapers breaking the sensational news in 1857 and 1858 of massacres and desperate escapes. I was thrilled. It’s unique; not only an invaluable resource for me, but a live commentary on unfolding catastophe. Whenever I read it I feel as though I’m eavesdropping on history.

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I visited the Crimea to research my biography of Mary Seacole and came home with a sprig of aromatic herbs from the site of her ‘British Hotel’ and clinic. I like to think the plant was a modern descendant of Mary’s own personal pharmacopoeia. It’s dried to a powder now, but someone in Balaklava gave me the cartouche or medallion from a bottle of claret (or something similar) also found close to Mary’s temporary Crimean home. Surely the wine came from the generous cellars of ‘Seacole and Day’? Here it is.

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As the faithful few who follow this Blog will know, the book I’ve just finished is called In the Family Way and is about the experience of illegitimacy for parents and children between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties. Will I keep a souvenir of this one? Nothing tangible, no. But there is an image described to me during my research that stays in my mind and will continue to do so long after the book is forgotten. It’s of a woman in her sixties taking a bundle of clean laundry from the airing cupboard. The bundle is warm, heavy, and smells sweet. This is something many of us do without thinking, several times a week. For my contributor, though, the act has painful significance. Holding that bundle in her arms reminds her of the last time she held her baby son before relinquishing him for adoption decades ago and quietly, she weeps. That’s her souvenir.