I loved the film. I died for the costumes. I was delighted with the actors, the cinematography, the sound, the script. Janelle Monae killed it playing an engineer in NASA’s obligatory high heels, though she did not convince me as a mother or wife. Taraji P Henson was stupendous as Katherine Goble, then Johnson, and nearly convinced me as a mathematician. Octavia Spencer just glowed, especially when she stole so righteously from the library. I also liked the book that sparked the film, now posting on Vulpes Libris. You might too.
Suffragette fiction was written to persuade, as well as entertain. It is essentially polemic, and I’ve had a tough time persuading students to read it as literature rather than ranting politics from an age long gone. Let me hone my persuasion techniques on you, using another Really Like This Book podcast script catch-up, by enthusing about Constance Maud’s suffragette novel, published in 1911 (now reprinted by Persephone), called No Surrender. 1911 was a critical time for the suffrage campaign in Britain, the campaign to give women the vote, because it was about to turn violent. Because of this, popular opinion began to turn against the campaign as a whole, but also began to take the campaign a lot more seriously. Yet there is simply no knowing how the campaign would have ended, because in 1914 the First World War interrupted, most of the suffrage campaigners immediately redirected their energies to the war effort. In 1918 some women (property owners over age 30) were finally given the vote, in the first post-war government.
Women, and some men, had been asking for the vote to be given to British women for well over forty years when this novel was published, but the British government’s response was to debate it in Parliament, agree that it might in principle be a good thing, and then do nothing. Decades of frustration with ineffectual though ladylike and civilised methods brought about a split in the suffragette movement, bringing forth its most well-known group, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) run by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel, made famous by their militancy. They used what were at the time outrageous and publicly shocking methods to draw attention to the campaign, including chaining themselves to railings outside prominent places, and breaking windows of public buildings. This atmosphere fills No Surrender, which is a novel about two suffragettes and their struggle to not only persuade the public to support their cause, but to convince their family and friends that they should be taken seriously.
Very few suffragette novels are in print, so it’s a genre that isn’t much known outside specialised university courses. The recent film by Sarah Gavron and Abi Morgan, Suffragette (2015), has done a lot to encourage public interest in that period. Novels from the period give a more realistic perspective of the political and practical restrictions that women had then that we simply cannot know now. One of the best suffragette novels is The Convert from 1907 (now reprinted by Victorian Secrets), by Elizabeth Robins, which was originally a stage play. It’s powerful, but undeniably stagey: almost every scene reads as if it was meant to be declaimed to an onstage audience. No Surrender is, in contrast, a cracking good novel, as well as being a fascinating portrait of life as an outlawed campaigner in a little-known part of British social and political history.
The novel starts in a Lancashire cotton-spinning mill town, with scenes of injustice against the workers, especially against women workers. Jenny Clegg is outraged that her married sister has no say in her children being sent to Australia by her bullying husband, or that their mother’s savings can be taken by their hard-drinking father. Violence in marriage is normal, and women forced to work to keep themselves and their children have no rights over their own income. It’s unusual in fiction of this period to show the sufferings of the working-classes so emphatically in their own voices: much suffragette fiction focused on the upper classes, since this was where political power was found. Constance Maud’s novel shows that the working-classes are newly relevant because of the increasing political power of the Labour Party in British politics, that relied on the (male) working-class vote: a situation that simply hadn’t existed ten years earlier. But Jenny Clegg chooses not to go out with her Labour Party suitor: she’s going to a suffragette meeting instead.
In the next scene (the book is divided into scenes, rather than chapters, so don’t expect a traditional storyline of connected episodes), we have women of the upper classes discussing politics at tea. Young upper-class women are expected to marry, so to have an independent interest outside the home is considered eccentric and dangerous for their marriage prospects. They are also not expected to have opinions of their own. All this will seem very familiar to anyone who has read a Victorian or Edwardian novel, but the difference here is that Maud shows the modern world creeping up on Edwardian society and Edwardian politics in the form of not only working-class demands, but also suffragette demands. Suffragette politics have infiltrated the drawing room, and some quite nice girls are actually talking about the rights and wrongs of the representation of women in Parliament, in mixed company. It’s at this point in the novel that it becomes pretty clear that this is a novel of propaganda. The characters are set to debate the issues with each other, we see extremes of opinion, caricatured points of view, and we can see disaster looming for the young woman who might accept marriage with a man who doesn’t share her political views. We also have a representative from the dreadfully illogical Anti-Suffrage League, which did exist but under a different name. Differences of opinion over whether women should have the vote or not did not follow normal class and sex divisions, but were more likely to splinter along lines of legal privilege and economic power. British society was changing radically, even before the First World War.
What makes this all work is the story-telling, and the rapid escalation of events from just talking about injustice to actually doing something about it. Jenny is the focus, so we follow her on her journey from her mill-town to a London march and demonstration, then to the police courts, and finally into prison. Before she is taken in for sentencing she persuades one of her policemen guards that the suffragette cause is a good one. In contrast, the magistrate, and the prison staff, aren’t human beings with minds to change: they’re not much more than caricatures. The prison episode reveals the details of how different women came to join the suffrage campaign, and how they cope living in prison conditions for the criminal classes, which was the category many suffragettes were imprisoned under. Once Jenny is released, she’s lost her mill job from being away in prison too long, but she magically gets a job with the suffragette organisation, since she’s shown how good she is as an organiser and persuader.
She now works with women from other classes, and there is a romantic confusion when her former Labour Party suitor, who does not approve of the vote for women, is outraged that Jenny is accepting attention from a male suffragette supporter from the upper classes. She plans a demonstration in church when she learns that three Cabinet ministers are visiting locally, which we might feel is going a bit far, but Maud makes the episode acceptable by dressing it up as farce, also as a commentary on the politicians’ moral fibre. Two of the cabinet ministers run out of church rather than risk any public embarrassment, and the wife of the third makes a scene by escaping in in a panic in the middle of the service. The suffragettes don’t do anything but sit in church like good girls, wearing dresses in the suffragette colours of white, green and purple. Such symbolism shows what cowards the politicians are, and what hysteria has been whipped up by the mere sight of the colours.
Jenny’s next trick is to crash a dinner party, for the same set of government ministers, by taking a job as a parlour maid, aided by the suffragette-supporting daughter of the house, who we’ve already met in the upper-class scenes. The footmen help her out with her polite presentation of a petition and debate with the dinner guests in between courses: like the policeman, they are working-class men with the imagination to be sympathetic to the suffrage campaign. Since they had jobs, and a reasonable income for their period and class, they probably had the vote themselves, although 40% of men in Britain at this time were not eligible to vote. But Jenny’s list of campaigning successes needs something seriously dramatic to bring us back to earth. Jenny’s brother tells her that their friend Maggie has been arrested for infanticide and attempted suicide, after her abandonment by an unscrupulous man. We are in definite melodrama territory now, and several loose ends of the plot get tidied up nicely here, but the message is unrelenting: if women had the vote, almost all the awful things that happen to women would be avoided. The novel ends with the most dramatic scene of all. One of the most fervent upper-class suffragettes goes on hunger strike, and is force-fed in prison. Maud modelled this episode on Lady Constance Lytton’s experiences a year before, who was excused force-feeding and released early from prison on medical grounds, due to her rank, but when she was admitted to prison under a fake name, went through the whole process without anyone finding a reason to help her, leaving her permanently injured as a result (a play is currently touring the UK called ‘Lady Connie and the Suffragettes’). Injustice in society and injustice in the prison system are thus being publicised and shamed at the same time here.
No Surrender is very well written, and is not preachy, even though it doesn’t try to pretend not to be a propaganda novel. The political struggle underlying the story is somehow more interesting and fulfilling than the developing relationships between the characters, but I don’t count this as a disadvantage. It illustrates the history of the ordinary Briton, in scenes of normal Edwardian life, set in pretty exciting times that have only just been lost from living memory. If you’re British, like me, your grandparents and great-grandparents would have known people like these characters, and they would have known about the political debates because the issues that drive this story affected everyone in Britain, not just the elite and not just the privileged. No Surrender also a great political novel because it illustrates a political situation through dramatic action, and works through the arguments without stupefying the reader. It shows us, rather than tells us about, the changing balance of power in Britain at the time.