This is the best novel I’ve read about the Suffragettes who fought for votes for women before the First World War. It’s a compelling page turner which really nails their uncertainties, split loyalties, determination, sacrifices and suffering.
And Jeni Whittaker comes at it from an unusual position. Her great aunt, Gladys Mary Hazel, brought up the author’s father after his mother drowned. She was therefore, effectively, Whittaker’s paternal grandmother. It wasn’t, however, until she took her very ailing and elderly father to see the 2015 film Suffragette that he told her that his aunt had been very actively involved in the movement. Eventually that became her starting point for a “novelised biography” of the interesting Gladys some of whose papers she found in her father’s house.
It’s a first person narrative in which we learn about Gladys’s childhood in Ireland as one of seven, the move to England, teacher training and, eventually being drawn into “the cause” partly because of her social conscience but also because of her strong sense of injustice. Her activities inevitably alienate her parents as would her love affair with Michael if they’d known about it.
It’s carefully researched. The accounts of forcible feeding and its long term after-effects are graphic and shocking. But one of the many things I like about this novel is that every character and situation is presented in a balanced way. Some of the doctors with feeding tubes are distressed and traumatised by what they’re doing. Gladys has reservations about some suffragette activities. Her mother supports the cause but not the violence. Michael is attractive, loving and loveable but ultimately deceitful. Lots of decent, if sometimes misguided or misunderstood human beings, inhabit the pages. Nothing in this long, readable novel is black and white.
Many of the characters are real: Doctor Gertrude Austin, a wise woman and a mainstay to Gladys, for instance. The characterisation of complicated Emily Wilding Davison, who was probably mentally ill, is skilful and plausible. And of course the Pankhursts are floating about – inspiring their followers but sometimes a bit self interested and lordly and not always behaving well.
Everything here is gloriously multi-dimensional. And I learned a lot. The title, by the way, comes from a game devised by Gladys’s older brother back in Ireland. They had to carry out unpleasant tasks and undergo little ordeals without sound or protest. It was good training for a future Suffragette.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman.