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.

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.

Forget-me-not

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.

The death of fiction (and the birth of history).

As I write this, I’m waiting for the courier to arrive from Penguin Books, armed with the typeset proofs of ‘In the Family Way’. I’m absolutely terrified. I haven’t read the script since submitting it just after Christmas. What did I say? What if I can’t bear it? What if…? On the other hand, this is one of the most exciting moments in a book’s life: seeing it for the first time in a different form, all ready to leave me and live an independent life. That well-worn analogy between books and children is apt in so many ways. I feel proud and fearful at the same time, and a mixture of careful detachment and complete, ineluctable involvement. I hope the courier comes soon. I’ve gone all squirmy.

Five months have passed since my last post. It’s the fiction wot did it: I tried my hand, and thoroughly enjoyed the sense of liberation it gave me, but the pull of reality was too strong to resist. I had work to do on the script of ‘In the Family Way’: going through the copy-edits, selecting and captioning the illustrations, checking and re-checking permissions, facts, infelicities and blunders; and as soon as all that was done I found myself not turning back to my novel, which managed strangely to be turgid and excitable all at the same time, but looking for a new history to write.

Actually, it’s not so much looking as listening. There is usually a small voice in the back of one’s mind, once a book is finished, calling the next one to attention. That sounds pseudy. What I mean is that something will lodge – often unnoticed at the time – in my brain during my research, a little nugget of tangential interest, and sit there quietly until the task in hand is finished and everything else is cleared away. Only then do I notice it: the insistent suggestion of a new book, a new enthusiasm to keep me engaged for the next two years and send me straight back to my research completely invigorated.

That’s what’s happening now. The cycle is turning again: idea, research, write, publish. Idea, research, write, publish. This will be the tenth revolution. I can’t say yet what the subject will be: superstitiously I need a dotted line to sign on first. But watch this space – although if you’ve been doing that for the past 5 months, I owe you a pint.

Advice for a fictional virgin

In my previous post I mentioned that I was going to have a go at fiction – in fact I’ve been banging on about it for ages – and now, dear reader, I’ve done it. One of my lifetime’s ambitions is coming to fruition: I’m writing a novel. It’s quite probably arrant rubbish. As a fictional virgin (if you see what I mean) I feel I have no way of knowing. But it’s so much fun. I started a couple of weeks ago with the intention of writing a few pages now and then, just to keep the wheels turning until I need to prepare the illegitimacy book for the copy-editor. I’ve done a word-count this morning: 16,000. Four chapters.

The most difficult part of the whole process, I find, is keeping track of time. As a historian, I am well used to doing that; real-life chronology lends an unassailable structure.  As a novelist (if only!) the chronology is in my own head, where times and dates have a habit of suddenly changing when I’m not looking. Numbers have always swum around my mind like fish; maybe that’s why my characters can’t seem to remember what day it is. Consistency is a real challenge. I can cross-check things quite easily now, while the book is relatively short; how shall I do it when I’m halfway through or nearly done? I’m such a novice.

The problem would not arise, I suppose, had I planned out all the action in advance. The fear of accomplishing this is partly what stopped me attempting a novel before: how could I conceive of the finished object before I had written a word – yet how could I begin without knowing what was going to happen, and how it was going to end? This has been the greatest revelation of all: that in writing fiction, you don’t need to know what happens. Stuff doesn’t happen; it evolves. And it can only evolve if you start writing. So if you, like me, feel you lack the courage to try, give it a go. Don’t have high expectations; try not to judge yourself; just do it.