Life on the Road

 

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My feet have hardly touched the ground since January, when Hearts and Minds was published. After a launch and lecture at the Women’s Library (LSE), I started on a round of talks and media appearances – 53 events at the last count – which won’t calm down till November. Perhaps naively, I had no idea how widespread publicity about the suffrage centenary would be. I have never been so much in demand as a speaker, and I love it. People ask if I get nervous. I don’t, because I’m used to public speaking and hugely enjoy interacting with audiences. It’s one of the best perks of my job as a writer. But there have been some unforeseen challenges. One of these was wondering how to respond live on air when a radio host introduced me with great aplomb as a historian not of suffragists, but ‘suffrage gits.’

Another was the visual media’s obsession with foundation, concealer, mascara and rouge. On 6 February, the very day of the centenary commemorating (some) women getting the vote in 1918, I had four TV things going on, with different companies. And each time I arrived at the relevant studio, I was greeted by bright and breezy make-up people who whisked me into their spangly lairs with tutting and rolling of eyes. “Ooooh, I think we need to colour you up a bit,” said the first one. She sealed my face completely in various products and made my eyelashes so bushy they scraped the inside of my glasses. Fine, OK, I thought. If this is what it takes.

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Woman at her Toilette, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (WikiArt.org)

The lady at my next stop took one look at me (by now as heavily made-up as I have ever been) and sucked in her breath. “Oh dear, Jane. Time for a bit of magic.” On went as much again. It was becoming difficult to smile. A quick taxi-ride took me to a lunchtime talk at a girls’ school where I apologised, mortified, for my bizarre appearance (though someone said I looked ten years younger. Only problem was I’d never met them before. How old did they think I was?). Then I dashed to studio number three. “Hi, Jane. Ah. We’d just like to treat you to a light going-over, if that’s OK? I think it’ll help.”

By now I felt inhuman. Greasy black smuts fluttered from my eyes every time I blinked, and my lips were not where I had last left them. I shrugged. What the hell. One must suffer for one’s art. The last engagement was back at the studio where I’d started. At least they wouldn’t try to tart me up any more. But my make-up artist had left for the day. The new one took one look at me, and…

It took me a good twenty minutes to get everything off that night. I have new respect for television presenters who go through this every day. Mind you, I’m a little more blasé now, and have more confidence; I just ask for the very minimum to make me look as though I’m alive (being Celtic, I’m naturally pale, and when I’m tired, turn a beguiling shade of battleship-grey). I’m not there as me, anyway; I’m there to talk about the people in my book.

And that’s been the greatest pleasure of the last few exciting weeks: the opportunity to introduce so many readers and listeners to the women’s march of 1913 – the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage – and to an alternative view of the centenary not exclusively involving suffragettes, but the non-militant majority, the suffragists. Theirs is such a live story; about #metoo, the gender pay gap, women’s activism and grass-roots solidarity; about having a voice and using it not so much to claim our own individual rights as to make the world a more equitable and responsible place for us all. Every time I tell their story, as I whisk from Glasgow to Brighton, from the Broads to the Dales, I am inspired anew by their courage and cheerful pragmatism.

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Pilgrims at Headington, Oxford (Duke University)

Here am I bleating about life on the road – too much make-up, or a late plane, or a projector not working properly. How would I do, I wonder, if I had to walk for six weeks on mud tracks through an English summer to make my point, in boots swarming with blisters with people throwing rocks at me and constantly being told I was an hysterical air-head with no more right to a vote than a lunatic or a criminal?

Maybe I should try it, and see.

 

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Authors and Alchemy

It’s hard to concentrate. I always get a little overexcited at Christmas anyway, but this year there’s the book to think about, too. ‘Hearts and Minds: the Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote’ is out on 11 January. I’ve recently received the first finished copies from my publisher: I love the earthy, muted colours and the sense of dynamism on the cover. The book feels good to handle, and I’ve even got colour pictures. Never had those before!

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I relish this part of the writing and publishing process. Sure, the research phase is exciting and the writing satisfyingly intense.  But then comes the awful imposter-syndrome moment when the typescript goes off to be read by someone else for the first time (have I been deluding myself these past 2 years? Has my bluff finally been called?). The production phase is necessarily quite nit-picky and fiddly, and it’s nerve-wracking reading the proofs. All that’s behind me now. It’s done and I can hold that idea I had right at the beginning, turn the pages, feel its weight. A strange alchemy.

Now, just for a short week or two, everything is possible. None of the reviews has come out yet – except wonderful comments by people to whom we sent proof copies (Shirley Williams calls it ‘a brilliant, witty and moving account of this remarkable and rare bit of our history’). The events page on this blog is filling up with juicy engagements, from ‘Start the Week’ on BBC Radio 4 (8 January) to Literary Festivals all over the UK, public lectures at the LSE, Westminster, the National Archives and around the country; with deadlines for features in newspapers and magazines; all exciting, daunting, full of promise.

In three weeks reality will hit, and there will be nothing I can do to protect this lively offspring. That’s the worst bit of the process. I won’t worry, though (she says, determinedly) because I have complete confidence in the characters who people ‘Hearts and Minds’. My ‘pilgrims’ changed the world step by step; with courage, determination and an infectious sense of joy they marched together towards democracy – facing unimaginable opposition – in the name of peace, freedom and natural justice. All I have to remember during the next few weeks is that this book is not about me but about them.

It’s been a privilege to have travelled with these unsung heroines and heroes for the past couple of years. I hope you enjoy their company, too.

Shattering the Crystal Ceiling

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So what happened next?

That’s the question I’m most often asked when I give talks on Bluestockings, my book about the first women to get to university. Once they completed their studies and were awarded their degrees, what did they do with themselves? The original hardback cover (left) pictures excited ingenues about to enter academe; how would they look a few years later, walking in the opposite direction towards a male-dominated world of work? Did their families claim them back, having had their fun, to resume domestic duties? Was the workplace ready for them? Did they marry, in defiance of the bluestocking stereotype? Perhaps they changed the world? Or was the whole experiment of educating young women merely an elaborate exercise in breeding white elephants?

51uODRCD-DL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_Now that I have finished Hearts and Minds: Suffragists, Suffragettes and How Women Won the Vote (out next January,  https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1111210/hearts-and-minds/) I realise that similar questions arise in connection with enfranchising women. By the time the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in December 1919, a minority of women were equipped with academic qualifications and with a vote – but what could they do with them?

My next book will attempt to find some answers. I’ll be celebrating the centenary of women’s lawful entry into the traditional professions in 2020, following the work and home lives of a handful of pioneers in each of the elite, crystal-ceilinged arenas of architecture, the church, engineering, law, and medicine – together with ground-breakers in academia and the media. I’ll explore what motivated them, what mattered to them, what their peers and the public thought of them, and what is their legacy for the working women of today.

It’s early days, but I’m already uncovering some wonderful characters. Maude Royden (1876-1956), for example, one of the founders of the campaign for women’s ordination. She was the youngest of 8 Liverpudlian children, a keen suffragist, inspirational public speaker and the first female Assistant Preacher at the City Temple in London. Starkie_Enid1Enid Starkie (1897-1970) was a fantastically eccentric academic (right, ex. http://www.ndbooks.com), a specialist in French Literature who bewildered her students at Oxford by dressing as a matelot for tutorials. Debutante Victoria Drummond (1894-1978, below, ex. wikipedia.org) was so determined to become a marine engineer that she took the necessary exam 37 times before passing, and then went on to serve at sea as a Chief Engineer during World War Two. Victoria_Drummond_1941Barrister Helena Normanton (1882-1957) was the first woman to prosecute in a murder case; Irish architect Eileen Gray (1878-1976) inspired Le Corbusier… and so on.

These might be comparatively well-known names; I am always eager to write about the unsung heroines of history, however, so am hoping to focus on women who have eluded the limelight in the past. With that in mind, could you contact me if you think I should know about any alumnae in your family, your archival collections or field of expertise? If you’re in one of these professions, I’d love to hear about your favourite female role models of that era. I’m looking for strong (but not necessarily high-profile) characters and surprising achievements; inspirational women who qualified in the 1920s and who through their own efforts and determination helped to shape the family and working lives of us all.tashalaw

You can contact me on jane@jane-robinson.com, or via my agent Veronique Baxter, David Higham Associates, 7th Floor, Waverley House, 7-12 Noel Street, London W1F 8GQ.

 

(right: no joke… ex. tashalaw.wordpress.com)

 

Millicent Fawcett, Suffrage Heroine & Consummate Politician

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(Women’s Library)

It is wonderful news that there’s to be a statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett in London’s Parliament Square. Not only will it celebrate the life of a remarkable person, unjustly neglected in the past, but it’ll be a timely monument to the power of peaceful persuasion, solidarity across social, political and generational divides, and mutual support. Those are the things she and her colleagues – men and women together – stood for. Marched for. Died for, even. Maybe people will realise at last that there is a difference between militant suffragettes (the minority of activists) and non-militant suffragists like her, and appreciate that neither group could have won the vote without the other.  It’s particularly thrilling that she should be the first woman honoured in this way, given her lack of interest in personal celebrity. She played the long game with humility, good humour, acuity and – eventually – success.

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(Women’s Library)

Millicent Fawcett, nee Garrett (1847-1929), came from a fascinating and progressive family. She was brought up in Suffolk, the daughter of a pawnbroker turned maltster and ship-owner, and educated rather scantily at the ‘Academy for the Daughters of Gentlemen’ in Blackheath, London. She left at 15. Her sisters included Louisa, a member of the influential ‘Langham Place’ group of early feminists, and Elizabeth, who famously became the first woman Doctor to qualify in the UK.

At 18, Millicent married Henry Fawcett, an economist, academic and Liberal politician. He was blind and somewhat relied on his willing wife to act as an amanuensis. She continued to move in the radical circles inhabited by her family, and shared Henry’s interest in women’s rights. Her sister Elizabeth had presented the first massed petition for women’s suffrage to MP John Stuart Mill in 1866; their friend Emily Davies pioneered higher education for women and opened Girton College in 1869. Millicent herself supported the founders of Newnham College in Cambridge a few years later.

She became increasingly involved in the women’s suffrage campaign. Her talent for public speaking and administration shone through; she was a great tactician and diplomat, too, and in 1897 was appointed president of the newly-formed National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). People warmed to her. She was a terrific knitter and gleefully learned to ride a bicycle as soon as they came into fashion. She combined these unexpected enthusiasms with a clear-headed ability to prioritise issues, manage people and express herself engagingly and with authority. No less importantly, she had a healthy sense of fun and was an inveterate optimist. (Fun isn’t something traditionally associated with the suffrage campaign, more’s the pity; there’s plenty of it, however, if you know where to look.)

 FullSizeRender (1)        (Oldham Local Studies and Archives)

Millicent spent most of her career immersed in the practical and strategic complexities of winning the vote and changing the world. She realised the advantages of consolidation; of making progress by risking two steps forward then conceding a step back. Her most glorious achievement was her association with the Great Pilgrimage (see previous posts, and my book ‘Hearts and Minds’ when it comes out in January). After the six-week march was completed, she asked recalcitrant Prime Minister Asquith whether he would finally agree that women deserved to be called ‘people’, and so to be included in any future Representation of the People Act. Albeit reluctantly, he was forced to acquiesce. Women were people, too.

When I took part in the Women’s March last January, I thought of Millicent Fawcett as I walked through the streets of London with thousands of like-minded people. The atmosphere was so powerful, full of love, strength of spirit, shared intent. I can hardly wait to return next year to visit her statue and lay a posy of flowers in the suffragist colours – red, white and green – at her feet. I owe her that tribute, at least. We all do.

Marching through History

I’m sorry to have been away so long. I’ve been engrossed in writing and enslaved by a deadline I met just before Christmas. Just now I’ve been tackling the publicist’s author-information form for Hearts and Minds, my people’s history of the fight for the vote. At the heart of the book is the story of the Great Pilgrimage of 1913, when hundreds of women (and some men) took to the roads of Britain to march for six weeks in support of female emancipation. They were suffragists: the non-militant majority whose courage and adventurousness has been eclipsed by their more sensational sisters, the suffragettes.

 

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Caroline Watts’s ‘Bugler Girl’ design for the NUWSS (1908)

I’m getting this background publicity business done well in advance. An awkward job: it’s hard not to sound unbearably pompous when blaring your own trumpet and I’ll be glad when it’s done. Can anyone tell me how to be graceful while shamelessly bigging yourself up? Who does it well? I can do the reviews and the relevant experience bit, but ‘Tell us five interesting things about yourself’? I’ve left that one blank. I could mention being banned by the local library when I was seven for using a jam-tart as a bookmark – thus neatly combining my two favourite things in the world, food and words – and how that forced a love of book-collecting on me. Or that I’m heavily into Formula One, especially live races, despite being a middle-aged matron who’s a member of an Oxford SCR, sings in a very seemly chamber choir and drives a Volvo. Or that my cat Captain Oates types and sends emails. None of that’s going to cut it in the market-place, though. Best to let the book speak for itself. First-hand history is more fascinating than any glossy commentary.

 

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Oxford Journal Illustrated, July 1913

One of the questions on my publisher’s form intrigued me, however. ‘What do you feel most passionately about?’ it asked (or words to that effect). I immediately thought of what I’ll be doing this Saturday, 21 January. Along with millions of women and men around the world, I’ll be joining a march to mark the Presidential inauguration (https://www.womensmarchlondon.com). A similar event took place in Washington in 1913, organised by Alice Paul and campaigners for women’s suffrage in America to coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The march on Saturday is in support of tolerance, compassion, diversity, freedom of expression and the power of love. As well as for us, I’ll be taking part in memory of my pilgrims, who came together from different backgrounds and generations to capture the hearts and minds of the country and its Parliament. In doing so they discovered the tradition of people-power and peaceful protest (think of the Jarrow marchers) that has been a hallmark of our society ever since – thank goodness.

There’s a direct link between the summer of 1913 and this wintry Saturday in January and it makes me prouder than I can say that I’ll be a part of it.

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.