Vriagoes and PersephonesI have quite a comforting pile of Persphones to read on my shelf – I do love their reassuring grey bulk and the knowledge that they’ve come from dear friends as birthday and Christmas presents, usually representing a lovely trip to the Persephone Shop in London. So much more than just a book. Here’s The One About The Suffragettes, substantial with over 400 pages but oh-so-readable!

Edith Ayrton Zangwill – “The Call”

(21 January 2019 – from Ali)

We follow the fortunes of Ursula, who starts off as a scientist, not keen on the social whirl her fluffy mother wants her to engage with, shut up in her top-floor lab and attending lectures as a guest at male-only events. Throughout the course of the book, the choices women must make are drummed into us, as she variously has to chose between love and science, science and the suffrage movement, then love and the suffrage movement. Can she have all three? Um, not really.

Her radicalisation is skillfully done, from being handed a magazine on a boating trip and making a connection with a beautiful suffragette to witnessing a demonstration and gradually, gradually getting caught up in it all – there are some fairly dark moments when she’s imprisoned, although thankfully forcible feeding is left to the imagination or prior knowledge of the reader. I also loved the way the book both doesn’t ignore the domestic aspects of women’s lives pre- and during the First World War, with details of the daily round, including an arresting opening where we’re taken up through the levels of a house with its carpets and rooms, but also portrays different lives women can choose, after having their lives chosen for them. Ursula’s professor’s downtrodden wife is bored and hysterical with only the housework and her lost babies to think about, but comes into her own running a wartime canteen (apparently the author addresses what happened to such workers after the war in another book) and Ursula’s gentle and genteel mother has a core of steel that she displays not only in managing her second husband, but in the war effort.

In contrast, Professor Smee’s sister-in-law is a traditional housewife with a brood and remains that way, but she tells some home truths and cuts through the unnecessary talk:

‘Menfolk is born silly but that’s why we women ‘as got to stand up for each other. Ain’t that what suffrage mostly means?’

‘Yes, that is what suffrage mostly means,’ Ursula agreed slowly. (p. 294)

There’s yet another reminder of “Miss Plum and Miss Penny“, when in a sub-plot that has the effect of bringing Ursula to the magistrate’s court and a new awakening to the way women’s lives of other classes work, she saves a woman from drowning herself and has to take charge of and responsibility for her herself. A bit odd to find this theme in two books within a couple of months!

There are also points of huge relevance to today. Where we have raised the idea of the suffragette’s violent means to an end in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, here the original objections to their means are put into the mouths of other characters, and the words used to push back on this, that they have used all fair and legal means, that they’re not doing anything legally wrong, that the violence comes from their oppressors are familiar, too. During the War, two maiden ladies manage to coordinate the supply of sandbags better than the War Office can, and this uncomfortably echoes the massive effort of home sewers to make masks and scrubs for NHS staff during the current crisis.

An excellent read in its own right as well as an important record of both the general campaign and in fact many aspects of the author’s and her stepmother’s lives, this became unputdownable and its heroine never let me down. Do not be put off by its grey bulk!

This was Book 16 in my 20 Books Of Summer project.