With local and European elections just around the corner, this spring is a good time to revisit how many of us women, but also men, have enjoyed the right to vote for less than 100 years.
Ian Porter’s Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring is a reminder that until 1918, non-propertied men, like the main character Alexander Nash, weren’t allowed to vote, and that until 1928, neither was any woman.
Porter packs a lot into the 374 pages of his second novel, including a lot I had never thought about: the Titanic as a defining moment of class identity, the difficulties of the shipwreck survivors, particularly the ones from steerage, and the specific struggles of disabled people who lived in the early 20th century, like “the cripple suffragette” Rosa May Billinghurst.
Although I like to think I am a feminist, Suffragette Autumn was a humbling read, highlighting how little I know about the suffrage movement. The gap in public knowledge about right to vote demonstrations is one of the reasons why Porter decided to write this book. “Before starting to research Suffragettes, I was shocked by how little I knew of them. And I was supposed to be a women’s early 20th century historian! If I knew so little, it was reasonable to think that most people were similarly ignorant,” explains Porter.
Looking into the topic, Porter discovered that his usual go-to places, like the local library, didn’t offer a single book about suffragettes. “TV, the great driver of public interest, has avoided the subject for the past 40 years. I suspect it’s because the women come out of the story well, whereas the government come out of it badly, but it could be argued that the women were terrorists. And in the troubled world we live in today, TV doesn’t want to show terrorists in a favourable light”, is how Porter explains the lack of knowledge in the movement.
With Abi Morgan’s upcoming film Suffragettes, starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst as well as Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Whishaw, this might be about to change. At least, Porter hopes so: “I would imagine that with such a big star on board the film will receive a lot of publicity, so hopefully this will lead to plenty of interest from the public. Being a political issue, there is always both a right and left wing version of history, hopefully there will be plenty of debate and argument from women’s groups, historians, politicians, documentary-makers about women’s issues 100 years ago, how they relate to women’s issues of today and what we can learn from history, both regarding women’s issues and fights for a fairer society in general.”
The Pankhurst family, one of the driving forces behind the UK suffragist fight, appears in Suffragette Autumn, even though the storyline doesn’t centre on them. Ruby Martin, who survived the Titanic thanks to Nash, joined Sylvia Pankhurst's East End movement shortly after returning to England. She became an employee and was involved in high-profile publicity stunts such as the 18 April 2013 capture of London’s Monument and Emily Wilding Davison’s protest at the June 1913 Epsom Derby.
Historians still disagree what Davison aimed to do when she threw herself in front of the King’s horse, was injured and subsequently died. Porter was careful not to take side.
A horseracing fan himself, Porter based his writing for the scene on two 1913 films: “The old theory that it was sheer chance that she happened to collide with the king’s horse is less persuasive. One thing is for certain, she did not ‘throw herself under the horse’ or ‘commit suicide’ as some people have believed over the years.” Based on the clearest of the two films, Porter thinks there is a possibility that “Emily did target the king’s horse and tried to place her Votes for Women scarf in its bridle. Her scarf was found on the turf afterwards. And having been to Epsom I can see how the incident was possible.”
Although a book about women’s right to vote, Suffragette Autumn isn’t a gendered story. Each chapter shows how much the suffragist movement was supported by men as much as women. Nash, who joins as Sylvia Pankhurst’s bodyguard, was modelled on “Kosher Bill, a Jewish 6-foot tall, ex-boxer”, explains Porter in his author’s notes. Ruby repeatedly notices that men make up the majority of attendees at suffragist public speeches. “Look at any old photograph of a Suffragette giving a speech, and all you can see is a group of men surrounding the woman. Working class women were too busy working 14 hours a day in a factory or sweatshop, or bringing up large families, to be at political speeches.”, Porter explains.
Obviously, the author himself is a man. “I have always had an affinity with the viewpoint of women and my main interest whilst studying history at university was women’s history, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century. Perhaps it’s because I am particularly interested in inequality and unfairness, and of course much of this has been aimed at women throughout history. I would like to think that I have approached the book as a novelist, a historian and a socialist, rather than as a man. Purely on a practical writing side, my wife was my editor, so if anything didn’t ring true to her, she would put me straight.”
Like Nash, Ruby is inspired by many real-life suffragettes, a storytelling device which allows her to be in multiple interesting places. Porter actually apologises to some of the suffragettes he replaced for the purpose of the plot, particularly to the memory of Mrs Watkins, who met with Prime Minister Asquith in Ruby’s stead to convince him to grant women the right to vote.
Constance Lytton, a real-life member of the Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union never mets Ruby, yet her activism is felt through one of the most harrowing scenes of the book. Jailed for partaking in suffragist demonstrations, Ruby start a hunger and thirst strike and ends up being force-fed. The torture, which was repeatedly used against suffragettes, as well as its effects, were described by Lytton in her memoirs Prison and Prisoners and was the basis for much of what Ruby undergoes in jail.
In memory of every single one of these women, and men, who gave time, money or even their life “to the cause”, go and vote on 22 May.
A complimentary copy of Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring was kindly provided to me by Troubadour Publishing Ltd for the purpose of this review.
Exclusive email interview with Ian Porter on 1 March and 16 March 2014.