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HISTORY & BIOGRAPHY

15

was meeting Henry James in Rye, a friend to her cause. Wainright places Muriel’s support of a strike of overworked waitresses in the context of the ethos of the Women’s Freedom League as a feminist organization, working in a democratically run fashion for women’s emancipation beyond the vote. In contrast to the WSPU’s militancy, the WFL adopted a policy of civil disobedience. A prime example is Muriel chaining herself to the grille of the hated Ladies’ Gallery. This disruptive action would buy her some essential minutes to address her audience below, the first speech given by a woman in the House of Commons. Wainright conveys the cloying atmosphere of the Gallery, the incongruous image of Muriel carrying a book of Browning’s poetry and Helen Fox attempting to eat chocolates to divert suspicion, as they contemplate what Muriel is about to do.

While daring in her campaigning, Muriel was disheartened by the escalation in windowsmashing and she joined the NUWSS. This is where her story converges on those of the Pilgrims in Robinson’s book, as she travels to London with the South East contingent, eerily revisiting some of the old sites from her caravanning days. Wainright’s selection of Muriel’s speeches and essays show her to be not only an able artist but a considered writer, who argued for a “new order”, not “one founded on birth, nor on money, nor even on intellect, but on character”.

During the bitter January of 1914, Muriel left her new husband in London to help the families affected by the Dublin Lockout Strike, siding with its leaders, Jim Larkin and James Connolly. Muriel’s desire to help vulnerable children, by writing an appeal letter to the Daily Herald for food and clothing for the children of the striking families, subsequently prompted her to enrol as a teacher in Sylvia Pankhurst’s East End Montessori school at the Mother’s Arms. While teaching there, Muriel wrote to Connolly’s friend Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, whom she had met during the Dublin Lockout. Hanna’s husband Frank, in Wainright’s words, was “a good man, gentle and kind, who strived for fairness in the harsh world”. His murder by a British army officer (who was later declared insane) during the Easter Uprising prompted Muriel’s letter. When the authorities did not respond to Hanna’s appeal for an inquiry into his death, Muriel accompanied her to an interview with Asquith who, shirking an inquiry, offered financial compensation to silence her.

When he was killed, Frank was wearing the badge of the militant Irish Women’s Franchise League which he co-founded in 1908. A photograph of the badge appears in Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: Suffragette and Sinn Féiner by Margaret Ward. This large and wellsourced biography considers Hanna as an influential Irish feminist, mother, university graduate and pacifist who went on a tour of the United States, meeting Woodrow Wilson, and who stood for election in the last decade of her life. Ward gives the historical context for Hanna’s writings and prison accounts. Although she mentions the Women’s Freedom League’s publication the Vote, a curious omission is the WSPU journal Votes for Women, for which Hanna wrote.

While suffragettes’ descriptions of the effects of hunger and thirst-striking are naturally unsettling, Hanna’s accounts of her heightened senses, her smelling tea from afar

Endpapers from Rise Up, Women!

and her observation of a drop of water on her parched skin simply evaporating are particularly striking. Among her journalism is a remarkable essay in the Irish Citizen in 1913, offering a bracing rationale for militancy:

Desperate diseases need desperate remedies and if the vote is wrested from Government by methods of terrorism when five and forty years of sweet and quiet reason produced only seven talked-out or tricked-out bills, why, who can say it wasn’t worth a mutilated letter, a cut wire, a Premier’s racked nerves? It’s the kind of document that the Special Branch might have marked up for further attention. In another Irish Citizen article, Hanna assessed Elizabeth Robins’s human trafficking (“white slavery”) novel Where Are You Going To…? (1913), in which two middle-class sisters from a sheltered background are ensnared by a procuress. Only one escapes. While Hanna concluded that the topic’s subject was too “ghastly crude for firm artistic handling”, she concurred with numerous other reviewers that the novel was “a tract for its times”.

Social purity became such a hot campaign issue for the WSPU under Christabel’s strident leadership that Simon Webb’s The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s forgotten terrorists (2013) describes Christabel’s exposé of venereal disease, The Great Scourge and How To End It (1913) as an “outlandish”, even hysterical work of fiction. In Christabel Pankhurst: A biography, June Purvis offers a reassessment of Christabel’s work. Professor Purvis particularly takes issue with David Mitchell’s claim in Queen Christabel, the last full-length biography of Christabel, written forty years ago, that she was “abnormal”, as the favourite

Pankhurst child who had an unhealthy controlling relationship with her mother Emmeline. She is widely blamed for the WSPU’s turning away from working-class women and from socialism (a perspective strongly represented in Webb’s book) while her sister Sylvia is revered as staying true to their father Dr Richard Pankhurst’s ideal of public duty. Christabel’s Second Adventist preaching is considered an aberration. Her father had said: “If ever you go back into religion you will not be worth the upbringing”. As Purvis points out, while there have been some positive appraisals of Christabel, the bias towards Sylvia has infiltrated suffragette history, prompted by Sylvia’s memoir, The Suffragette Movement (1931), which was also the basis of a BBC drama about the militant suffragettes, Shoulder to Shoulder (1974).

As is to be expected, there is a certain amount of overlap with Purvis’s earlier volume, Emmeline Pankhurst: A biography (2002), including the account of Mary Leigh and Charlotte Marsh throwing slates from a roof in Birmingham in 1909. Purvis generously implies that they were “taking care not to hit the Prime Minister or his chauffeur”. I would query how much control one has over an irregularly shaped missile, thrown at a distance. She also writes that Edith Garrud, trainer of Mrs Pankhurst’s Bodyguard group, was the first woman jujitsu instructor in Britain. Actually, she was pipped to the post by George Bernard Shaw’s friend Emily Diana Watts, who also specialized in exercises inspired by Greek sculpture.

Purvis makes a strong case for revising opinion of Sylvia’s The Suffragette Movement in the light of archival documents, to show how Sylvia’s descriptions of Christabel as an absent, self-absorbed sister do not ring true. For instance, Purvis goes back to the sisters’ early childhood, looking at Sylvia’s comment that Christabel was lazy at school. Her examination of school reports from 1893 shows that Christabel’s frequent non-attendance at school (possibly due to illness or helping her mother) was likely to blame for her poor marks. Purvis also argues that it is likely that a visit to a lock hospital (specializing in sexually transmitted diseases) with her mother made a deep impression on Christabel and influenced her purity campaign. Her severance from the Independent Labour Party is explained by her need to “put an end to the rule of one sex by the other”, while her conversion to Christianity is addressed as a gradual and considered process of introspection.

Christabel is shown as a caring friend, acting as Annie Kenney’s protector at the Free Trade Hall in 1905 when angry stewards lunged at the women for asking a sneering Sir Edward Grey whether the Liberals would grant votes to women. The book tackles the misconception that, after her flight to Paris in 1912, she spent her time shopping while her sister and mother went on hunger strike. Purvis’s book does not excuse Christabel’s less appealing actions but invites readers to understand the reasons behind her behaviour. Yet despite Purvis’s persuasive arguments, I cannot shake off the impression created by the novelist Gladys Schütze who wearily turned up at Christabel’s Paris flat with WSPU documents wrapped in her hair. She recalled being treated like a piece of “luggage” by the haughty Miss Pankhurst, too distracted (possibly overworked, if we apply Purvis’s more understanding perspective) to offer her a cup of tea after her long journey. Like Atkinson’s book, Purvis’s biography is also a drama. Her presentation of Christabel’s life as a sibling rivalry within a celebrity family drama, whose protagonists’ voices call to each other across the archives, makes this work of academic significance a compelling read, too.

Despite their different approaches, it is the personal element that these five books have in common. Purvis’s tone may be academic, but her protagonists’ personalities resonate through their letters. While giving an overview of the suffrage movement, Diane Atkinson’s book is nevertheless a diorama of biographies of suffrage “actors”. Michelle Sheehy Skeffington tells the reader about the legacy of her grandmother through the artefacts she left behind and the traits that she passed on. Both Jane Robinson and Robert Wainright often reconstruct scenes, based closely on contemporary reports and reminiscences. The value of the biographical approach to history is not only to convey the facts but also to compel us to appreciate, to have a feel for, the sacrifices campaigners made and the personal difficulties they were forced to surmount and to bring them to life. Robinson, for instance, shows Emma Sproson missing her young baby, many miles away, as she contemplates the scratchings on her cell wall made by former suffrage prisoners. In a foreword to Margaret Ward’s book, Michelle Sheehy Skeffington relates that, being left-handed, she grew up appreciating a story of her grandmother’s arrest for windowsmashing at Dublin Castle. When a police officer grabbed her right hand, she, also being lefthanded, promptly threw another stone.

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