Saturday, 12 November 2011

Prose and Propaganda

Those marvellous chapettes at Persephone Books have done it again with the re-publication of Constance Maud’s 1911 suffragette novel No Surrender. It tells the story of a group of suffragettes, particularly Jenny Clegg, Lancashire mill girl, and aristocratic Mary O’Neill. It’s unashamedly a propaganda novel, but that’s not to say it isn’t a fascinating read. Maud has a wonderful ability to move between varied scenes: cotton mills, the gardens of a country house, a London dinner party, a prison cell. If you’re looking for an invaluable insight to what it was like to be a suffragette as well as an enjoyable read, this is it. Indeed, it is the book’s ability to tell it like it was that makes it so compelling. It is, as the blurb notes, “faithful to real events”.

But is it? Or should it, like any propaganda, be approached with caution? Are Maud’s “noble” and “unswerving” suffragettes as much products of the idealist’s imagination as is Mrs Humphrey Ward’s (president of the Anti-Suffrage League) rather unhinged militant, Gertrude Marvell, in Delia Blanchflower?

Take, for example, the events described in Chapter IX where Jenny, Hilda Smith and Nurse Dodds attempt to deliver a petition to three cabinet ministers during a service in a country church; the ministers are weekending at a nearby country house. It’s an amusing, farcical scene. The first minister to spy the women bolts out of the door. The next to spot them sneaks into the vestry and squeezes out through a tiny window: “Fear makes you grow thin,” comments Lady Thistlewaite wryly.

Only Mr Horace Boulder “remained courageously to face the music”. As he leaves at the end of the service, Jenny and Hilda take his arm and “walked beside him in friendly fashion”, with Nurse Dodds bringing up the rear. He blusters and tries to shake them off, and finally stuffs their petition in his pocket, escaping with nothing worse than embarrassment. However, the suffragettes have not done yet. When the house party wakes in the morning they discover the garden festooned with ribbons and banners bearing suffragette slogans.

There was a real incident when prime minister Asquith was accosted during a weekend, at Lympne Castle in Kent on 5 September 1909. The actual events were somewhat less benign than the fictional ones. Elsie Howey, Vera Wentworth and Jessie Kenney surrounded the prime minister as he left the church. According to a statement issued by the Home Office, Asquith was “struck repeatedly”. Later that day he was molested in the club house of a local golf club, and that evening while he was at dinner with his wife and other guests stones were thrown through the window.

It was, according to Batheaston supporter Mrs Blathwayt, “a regular raid on Mr Asquith, breaking a window and using personal violence”. She refers to a letter from Vera Howey in which Vera “hopes [Colonel Blathwayt] was not shocked at their punching Asquith’s head”. Vera later declared, however, that if Asquith continued to refuse deputations “they will pummel him again”. Indeed, so shocked was Mrs Blathwayt that she resigned from the WSPU, protesting at the use of personal violence and “an attack on one undefended man by three women”.

Now, I don’t know if Maud had this incident in mind when she wrote her novel. Perhaps there is another minister-accosting-at-church incident I don’t know about. (If anyone does, I’d love to hear about it.) The point is that what took place in reality at Lympne was much more violent than the gently amusing incident Maud presents in her story. Of course, she is writing fiction, and it is the role of fiction to express other and possibly deeper truths than mere “facts”. It does suggest, however, that whatever our sympathies we should always approach propaganda in art with caution, and we should always be wary of taking fiction as fact.

There’s a nice review of No Surrender at

For more information from Persephone Books about No Surrender -

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Not Just William

How peculiar to discover Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) included in The Independent Forgotten Author’s series in an article dated 23 May 2010. William Brown has hardly been forgotten if the over 8,000 results for books, CDs and DVDs that came up on Amazon today is anything to go by. Since their debut in 1919, the Just William stories have been translated into 28 languages and have spawned numerous radio and TV spin offs, the best of which to my mind are the BBC audiobooks read by the fabulous Martin Jarvis.

If anything has been forgotten about Richmal Crompton, it’s the fact that she actually wrote books for adults. Even Christopher Fowler, the author of Forgotten Authors No 54, only mentions this in passing: “Crompton wrote for adults too”. That’s all he has to say on the subject. But for Crompton it was a source of regret that her 41 novels and 9 short story collections were overshadowed by her children’s books. Yes, 41 novels. I had no idea either but now, thanks to Persephone Books, I have discovered and read a Richmal Crompton novel – and it was very good.

Family Roundabout (1948) is a family saga centring around the figures of two widowed matriarchs, Mrs Fowler and Mrs Willoughby, each with five children. Mrs Fowler is “down at heel gentry” and lives in a beautiful but shabby house; Mrs Willoughby is new, commercial money (the Willoughby wealth comes from a hideous paper mill which spoils the Fowlers’ view) and her house is expensive and ugly. Mrs Willoughby keeps a tight grip on her family, expecting and getting “implicit obedience”. Mrs Fowler is “the quiet, beneficent ruler of the household…tranquil and unchanging, in the background of [her children’s] lives”. While the patriarchs lived the families met at public functions but “did not visit each other”. Gradually, though, they have begun to mix: Judy Fowler and Cynthia Willoughby are school friends, Helen Fowler plays tennis with Max Willoughby at the Bellington Tennis Club. When Helen and Max marry the families are drawn closer together, and the novel follows the familys' mingled fortunes up to 1939.

It’s a wonderfully readable book, with a terrible sense of disappointment and disillusion running through it. “But then, have any of us got what we wanted from life?” muses Judy Fowler towards the end. For all that, there are flashes of humour and some witty social observation as the two families interact. In particular, writers come in for deliciously satirical treatment. Would-be author Oliver Willoughby characterising a wedding as a “senseless parade of fashion and snobbery to mark the mating of a couple of animals” congratulates himself on his “rather daring sentiment that he hoped to develop later into a piece of vers libre and send to one of the more advanced literary weeklies”. In the end he can’t cope with rejections and setbacks and gets stuck at the research stage of his historical novel. Successful novelist Arnold Palmer on the other hand is vain and self-obsessed, carelessly scattering favourable book reviews about the room before a party and formulaically writing the same book over and over again.

Crompton made enough money from the William stories to build herself a house in Bromley – there’s a blue plaque commemorating her on The Glebe, Oakley Road, Bromley Common. Really, though, according to Juliet Ackroyd in the preface to Family Roundabout, she regretted “that her ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ had ambushed recognition she would have welcomed for her serious fiction”. Having read the book, I couldn’t agree more and I’m on the lookout for more of her wonderful, witty novels. Thanks to Persephone for publishing Family Roundabout – who knows, perhaps there’ll be some more novels forthcoming soon?

Forgotten Authors No 54 – Richmal Crompton, The Independent, 23 May 2010

Persephone Books -

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Doctor Dances

When husband Gerard rang up for tickets on the day booking opened for Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham, they had all sold out! This was deeply disappointing – until the booking clerk said “hang on – as we were talking two returns came in; the stalls, seven rows from the front. Do you want them?” The stalls – seven rows from the front? Well, alright then.

So on Saturday (20 August) we took our seats in the stalls seven rows from the front for a fantastic production of a favourite play. I’d never been to this lovely theatre before. It was established in 1899 by actor manager and former surgeon in the Union Army (under his own name of Culverwell) during the American Civil War, Charles Wyndham. According to his Oxford DNB entry, he was regarded as the “ideal comedy actor” by Wilde and Shaw and “His stage persona was the model for John Worthing in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest”.

Wyndham clearly had stage presence; the same must be said of David Tennant and Catherine Tate. But this production of Much Ado did not rely merely on the presence of its two stars. The production was witty, original, exuberant, and the entire cast was faultless. It was set in the aftermath of the Falklands conflict, complete with 80s costumes and music – and the setting really worked. This isn’t always the case: if I see one more Mussolini/Richard III for example I think I will scream. But it’s marvellous to see Shakespeare given a modern touch without robbing the language of its power and beauty, or the story of its impact, and that’s exactly what this production achieved.

One thing did puzzle me and that was the inclusion of Leonata’s wife Innogen and the omission of his brother Antonio. Perhaps the idea was to give a more authoritative female voice to a play in which men have a great deal to say about controlling female sexuality. In the 1600 edition of the play Innogen is listed as Leonata’s wife and enters on stage in Act 1 Scene 1 and Act II Scene 2, but she never speaks and her role is never developed; she is not even present at her daughter Hero’s wedding. Subsequent editors, the first being one Theobold in 1733, have regarded her inclusion as an error and deleted her from the text. It is possible, however, argues Michael D Friedman, to imagine that she was intended as a non-speaking part whose role was to embody the virtues of the ideal Elizabethan wife: “chastity, obedience and silence”.

Nevertheless it was, like so much in the production, an interesting innovation. The scenes where Benedick and Beatrice overhear their friends describing their love for one another are made for theatrical flights of fancy. But no spoilers: I will not reveal the setting and choreography in this version, only say that the stage business was hilarious, wild, sheer joy. Tennant and Tate as Benedick and Beatrice were perfect. Their awareness of the audience really drew you in; I shall carry with me for a long time the image of Tennant standing at the front of the stage holding us in the palm of his hand.

As we left the theatre, Gerard remarked that their performances were “real eye-openers.” “Well,” said I, “if they are good enough for Doctor Who they are good enough for Shakespeare. And David Tennant can really dance!”

For information about the play, which sadly is sold out, see the Wyndham Theatre Website -

Michael D Friedman, “Hush’d on Purpose to Grace Harmony”: Wives and Silence in “Much Ado About Nothing”, Theatre Journal, Vol 42, No. 3, Women and/in Drama (Oct., 1990); pp. 350-363

Allison Gaw, Is Shakespeare’s Much Ado a Revised Earlier Play?, PMLA, Vol. 50, No.3 (Sep., 1935), pp. 715-738

Michael Read, ‘Wyndham, Sir Charles (1837–1919)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Coleridge and the Female Muse

I’ve recently finished reading Richard Holme’s splendid two volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and topped it off with Adam Sisman’s equally splendid Wordsworth and Coleridge: A Friendship.

Coleridge’s was not a happy life, what with the failure of his marriage and the opium addiction that caused him such terrible physical and mental suffering. Much as I admire what I know of his work, I’m left with a mix of sympathy and irritation for the man. There’s no doubt that the problems within his marriage caused him much suffering, but I can’t help thinking that this was in large part because his wife Sara did not nurture his creativity. She does not seem to have been his intellectual or creative equal – Dorothy Wordsworth (not an objective witness) called her “the lightest weakest silliest woman” who lacked “sensibility”. Clearly a most unsuitable wife for a poet. She was not his muse, and she was too busy looking after his children, cooking, cleaning, and washing to act as his amanuensis.

So it was that while her husband was swanning around London, the Lakes and Germany, swooning over Sara Hutchinson, and making unfavourable comparisons of her intellect with Dorothy Wordsworth's, she was left to cope on her own. She frequently had to borrow money when he was away, especially as he often delayed his return beyond the expected date. Nor were her troubles merely financial: while Coleridge was in Germany their son died and she was forced to get through the burden of her grief unsupported. And when he was at home he spent days in a stupor of opium and drink, lay in bed until noon, and threw the house into confusion with demands for meals at odd and inconvenient times. Meanwhile the debts piled up.

By contrast, Coleridge’s friend William Wordsworth had all the support an artist could need with his coterie of female admirers. In Dorothy his sister, Mary his wife, and Sara Hutchinson his sister-in-law he had a circle devoted to his care and comfort. Coleridge noted that he lived “wholly among Devotees – having every the minutest Thing, almost his very Eating & Drinking, done for him by his Sister, or Wife”. But what they offered went beyond mere domestic comfort: it was the continual affirmation of the greatness of his talent and the importance of his life’s work. That work may have been hard at times, but it would have been a great deal harder if there had been no one but himself to believe in it.

It’s not an appealing model of creativity, the male artist supported by female labour, both practical and emotional. The old trap of woman as muse, as artist’s model, as servant and secretary, promoter and defender of the male endeavour has blighted too much female creativity to win much sympathy from me. I’m sure that Coleridge would have been happier and more productive if his home had been run entirely to suit his own chaotic habits (wouldn’t we all?); if his wife hadn’t expected him to bring in some money; if she’d written furious letters to anyone who dared criticise his work, as Dorothy did for William. But it is also true that it is hard sometimes for artists to find the strength within themselves to carry on, and the saddest aspects of Coleridge’s situation are the sense of his isolation and the corresponding loss of creative confidence. He and his wife Sara were victims of the very same distorting gender expectations that were so beneficial to Wordsworth. I think some of the saddest lines ever written are these of Coleridge’s:

“I have altogether abandoned it [poetry] being convinced that I never had the essentials of poetic Genius, & that I mistook a strong desire for original power.”

Whatever brought him to such a pass, it was a tragic defeat.

Monday, 16 May 2011

The Buddha and Books Part 1

I’ve just finished reading The Lacquer Lady by F Tennyson Jesse (first published in 1929). The novel is set in Mandalay in the 1880s and charts the fall of the Burmese royal dynasty and the annexation of Lower Burma by England. Jesse visited Burma in the 1920s, where she learned about the downfall of the kingdom and something of the people involved in those events. The book is beautifully written, and a profound study of passion and politics. There’s much in it that’s ripe for discussion, but one of the things that struck a particular chord with me was the way in which the Buddha and his followers are described.

In Jesse’s book the Burmese in general, and the Burmese royal family in particular, are characterized as children: “a nursery of vicious children…playing with toy soldiers, but with real lives, had become so vicious that the grown-ups had to step in and take charge”. The grown-ups are, of course, the British with their “bloodless conquest”. The Buddhists’ “religion of pessimism and humility” is juxtaposed with the “muscular” Christianity of the British missionaries. Buddhism is “a selfish creed. The good Samaritan might have passed on with a reflection on the transitoriness of human happiness had he been a follower of Gautama”. Their kindness is passive, not active and in fact leads to cruelty: injured animals are left to die in agony because “Buddhism forbade the merciful taking of their tortured lives”. On the other hand, it has “high ideals”. The Buddhists are not idolaters: they do not worship the Buddha and the images of him are only “to help the devout mind to concentrate on the idea of the Buddha, the just man made perfect.” But while the Buddha is “the just man made perfect” he is in Nirvana “wrapped away from the cries of suffering mortals”.

The depiction of the Buddha in British fiction is a subject that has interested me for many years, and in particular in what I call “early encounter” fiction, that is Victorian/Edwardian. Though there are earlier references (for example in Marco Polo or Daniel Defoe’s work), widespread interest in the Buddha coincided with the British occupation of India. It was the builders of Empire, the traders, explorers, soldiers and administrators, who brought back the first tales of the East; and the writers and artists who followed in their wake who translated these new experiences into art.

Indeed, the Buddha found his way into best-selling fiction. Mark M Hennelly has suggested that in The Moonstone Wilkie Collins uses the stolen gem to make a connection with The Diamond Sutra and oppose “Indian and Hindu transcendental values” against “the more materialistic and rational Victorian temper”. Mary Braddon, another sensation novelist, in her three-volume Vixen introduced the incomparable Miss Skipwith who is writing a book about the Buddha. This is “a tremendous manuscript on blue foolscap, a work whose outward semblance would have been enough to frighten and deter any publisher in his right mind”.

Grant Allen’s 1899 novel Hilda Wade: A Woman With Tenacity Of Purpose tells the tale of a group of British tourists in the Himalayas. Their Buddhist guide – villainous, sullen, furtive, scowling, shifty, cruel, sensuous and a half-caste into the bargain – leads them into Tibet to betray them to “Buddhist inquisitors”. Since “No Eulopean” is allowed into Tibet, these “Tibetan fanatics” sentence them to death. Luckily Miss Wade has studied Buddhism and despite some misgiving about idolatry her companions save themselves by following her lead and joining in the lamas’ “half magical ceremonies”: knocking their heads ostentatiously in the dust, “doing poojah, before the ever-smiling Buddha” and, since they don’t know any mantras, making up their own: “Hokey - pokey –winky - wum”. Having thus persuaded the Tibetan monks that they are Buddhists, their lives are spared.

From what I’ve read so far it seems there is reason to think that the earliest references to Buddhism in British literature betray, at best, fascination with the exotic and, at worse, hostility. There may have been a shift to a more sympathetic portrayal by the end of the nineteenth century, marked by works like The Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold – which I’ll be looking at in Books and the Buddha Part 2.


Hilda Wade: A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose by Grant Allen (London, G P Putnam, 1899) (available on Project Gutenberg)

Vixen by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (London, 1879, John and Robert Maxwell) (available on Project Gutenberg)

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (first published 1868) (London, Penguin Classics, 1981)

Detecting Collins’ Diamond: From Serpentstone to Moonstone by Mark M Hennelly Jr, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol 39, No 1 (Jun 1984) pp 25-47

The Lacquer Lady by F Tennyson Jesse (first published 1929) (London, Virago, 1979)

Monday, 2 May 2011

Old Excesses

In April 2011 literary agent Carole Blake tweeted a link to a blog by US agent Josh Gertler about authors waiting to hear from publishers. The piece was on the deliciously named “Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room” blog – to read it see (Carole Blake’s tweet was on 21 April – a very long time ago in Twitterland.)

Josh Gertler’s piece (“No News”) was a lively – and ultimately reassuring – treatment of the agony of waiting to hear from publishers and agents. The waiting is, as Mr Gertler says, “excruciating”. Of course, whether you’re a writer or not waiting is never fun, as anyone who’s ever sat an exam or applied for a job knows. In publishing, though, there’s an extra dimension of awfulness in that you don’t know when you’re going to hear – it could be a week, three months, six months, even longer – and in some (thankfully rare) cases it’s never. All unavoidable of course: no one’s to blame, though I know from some other comments I’ve read that there are people who do seem to think that the Publishing Industry is in cahoots against them. It’s a situation that at its worst can cause ill feeling on both sides. However, as Mr Gertler points out, no news really is no news.

In fact, it seems that the long wait is a tradition stretching back to publishing’s early days if the case of poet John Clare is anything to go by. According to the splendid biography of Clare by Jonathan Bate, Clare’s second collection of poetry was advertised in November 1820, but did not appear until September 1821. Understandably, Clare found the waiting difficult. In his case it wasn’t helped by a friend who helpfully told him that his London publishers, John Taylor and James Hessey, “had been sitting on a set of proofs for a month, without bothering to send them to Clare”.

Another helpful friend told John Taylor in August 1820 that the poet was so upset by the delay he had taken up drinking again. Taylor was hurt. He had a heavy workload and his own health problems, on top of which Clare’s work was a struggle to edit because of his poor handwriting, spelling and grammar. The publisher wrote to the poet: “I had thought you felt more Regard for me than to plunge into old Excesses and lay the Sin at my Door.” Then, Bate tells us, “Clare, in turn, was upset at the accusation that he had been complaining about Taylor. He would sooner the volumes were delayed till the Christmas after next than have anyone other than Taylor himself do the editing”.

Clearly, it was a difficult situation for both Clare and Taylor, exacerbated by the facts that the economy was in recession, and the bottom had dropped out of the poetry market. That sounds familiar too. Perhaps, despite the huge differences between publishing then and now, the basics haven’t changed all that much. Authors still get anxious over delays and publishers and agents still get exasperated at their lack of commercial sense. At least we can comfort ourselves with the thought that we are part of a great literary heritage - while being careful of course not to blame agents and publishers for driving us to drink!

Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room –the blog has lots of other interesting and entertaining articles for authors -

John Clare: A Biography, by Jonathan Bate, is published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and in the UK by Picador – and it’s a fantastic read.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Did Wordsworth like gingerbread?

I’ve just spent a few days in the Lake District, staying only a few doors away from the Wordsworth House in Cockermouth, where Richard, William, Dorothy, John and Christopher Wordsworth were born. In 1937 the house was due to be demolished to make way for a bus station, but luckily it was rescued from the clutches of the bus company when the Wordsworth Memorial Fund bought it and gave it to the National Trust. The NT have done a good job of recreating a 1770s style house, complete with costumed servants. In 2009 it was rescued from yet another peril when Cockermouth was hit by floods, when its dedicated staff moved the house’s contents to safety on the upper floors and afterwards cleaned up the debris and floodwater (a horrible mucky job judging by the photographs).

I also went to Grasmere and visited the Wordsworth graves; my thoughts were with John particularly who died in a shipwreck only three days out from Portsmouth en route to India and China. The tragic story is well-told in Alethea Hayter’s The Wreck of the Abergavenny. While in Grasmere I bought some of its world-famous gingerbread. At the same time I carried away with me a leaflet about the shop and its sweet product which led me to wonder: did William Wordsworth like gingerbread?

The leaflet doesn’t say as much, which is hardly surprising because he was dead before Sarah Nelson’s gingerbread recipe was invented. Even so, it doesn’t miss an opportunity to associate the poet with the bread. We are told that Sarah Nelson worked in a house overlooking Ullswater “the lake beside which WILLIAM WORDSWORTH wrote his famous poem ‘Daffodils’”. Like the poet she was “inspired”; he wrote about daffs, she invented a cake. Sarah’s business was associated with him from the start, her earliest customers being Victorian pilgrims to Wordsworth's grave, which is only yards away from her shop. The current manager’s great great grandparents “entertained the Wordsworths for tea”, though they could not of course have given William Sarah Nelson’s gingerbread with his cuppa. Still, “Like the great Romantic poems, Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread has stood the test of time”.

So did William like gingerbread? Well, yes, it seems he did. His sister Dorothy mentions in her Grasmere journal going out to buy gingerbread and I’m allowing myself to speculate that she wouldn’t have bought anything William didn’t like. I haven’t been able to find the reference in her journal myself, so can’t tell you what type of gingerbread he liked to tuck into: there was more than one variety available in Grasmere. Nor can I tell you if he ever offered it to Coleridge when he called into Dove Cottage after a tramp from his house, Greta Hall, in Keswick. If he had perhaps Coleridge would have recorded somewhere in his journals, “Goes well with opium”.

Greta Hall was originally built as an astronomical observatory and converted into a three storey house by its owner Mr Jackson, who lived in the back of the house and let the front rooms to Coleridge and family. From his study windows Coleridge could see “Mountains & Lakes & Woods & Vales” across which “mists, & Clouds, & Sunshine make endless combinations, as if heaven & Earth were forever talking to each other”. (Quoted in Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions.) It was really Greta Hall that I wanted to see, although the house is not open to visitors (no costumed servants here). According to Richard Holmes:-

“To this day its white façade can be seen shining out of Keswick from almost every peak of the encircling fells – most impressively perhaps from Cat Bells across Derwent Water – a sort of landlocked lighthouse, upon which the lonely fell-walker can always get an accurate compass fix in his wanderings.”

Fell-walking might have been lonely in Coleridge’s day; I don’t suppose that is so much the case now in so busy a district as the Lakes. But the white façade of the house with its curiously curved wings can be seen from Cat Bells, and a wonderful sight it is on a brilliant sunny day with the blue beneath and above filled with shredding clouds and the sense that, just for a moment, you are gazing through a poet’s eyes.

You can make your own Grasmere-style gingerbread by following BBC Good Food’s recipe at

And Jamie Oliver has a go with his modestly-named “Ultimate Gingerbread” at

There’s a nice 2005 article (with two gingerbread recipes) at the Baking For Britain blog – see

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Quintessential British Novels

Emma Taylor of has drawn my attention to a blog on their website (16 March 2011) listing 50 Quintessential British Novels. I know nothing about accredited on line colleges, but I did enjoy reading the list which includes many of my own favourites, and one book that I had never heard of but now plan to read – Flatland by Edwin A Abbott. I particularly enjoyed the breezy outlines – Darcy’s “legions of screaming fangirls” in Pride and Prejudice especially springs to mind. If you want to compare it to your own list of Quintessential British Novels the blog is at

With thanks to Emma for taking an interest in my literary ramblings!

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Refusing to be counted

Yesterday (2 April 2011) was the anniversary of the women’s boycott of the 1911 Census and I marked the event by joining historians Jill Liddington and Tara Morton on their “Artists and Evaders” walk around Kensington. As a suffrage demonstration, the refusal of many militant and non-militant suffrage campaigners to fill in their Census forms was far from being the most spectacular or successful of the protests made by disenfranchised women. According to the Registrar in a letter to The Times on 1 April 1911, if the suffragists hoped that the Census would be seriously affected they would be proved wrong. Even if 100,000 women were “bold enough to defy the law”, he said, in an overall population which “will no doubt be found to exceed 40 millions” (in fact he overestimated by half a million) their absence would make little difference. In the event, many evasion attempts simply did not work: women were counted anyway.

Even so, Christabel Pankhurst hailed the demonstration as a success, and in one way at least it was: it gained publicity for the cause. “Until women count as people for the purpose of representation…as well as for purposes of taxation, we shall refuse to be numbered”, said Mrs Pankhurst. It was this message that the Census protest managed to convey to the public in newspaper articles, speeches, posters and gatherings such as that held in Trafalgar Square on Census night. As Jill Liddington and Tara Morton explained during our walk though Kensington’s magnolia-scented streets, the Census evasion had its origins in Kensington, since it was the brain child of artist and women’s suffrage supporter Laurence Housman who lived with his sister Clemence at 1 Pembroke Gardens, Edwardes Square.

Laurence Housman was a founder member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and with his sister Clemence Housman a co-founder in 1909 of the Suffrage Atelier. This was a group of artists whose aim was to use their work to support the campaign for the women’s vote. The Atelier was based in the studio at the bottom of the Housman’s garden, where they produced banners, postcards, cartoons, and posters. Kensington was home to a number of artists and suffragists, many of whom produced art for the cause either independently or within the Atelier. They included jeweller Ernestine Mills who designed badges for the Women’s Social and Political Union; artist Olive Hockin whose studio equipment included hammers, paraffin, stones, and wire cutters for use in militant attacks; and Louise Joplin Rowe who let the Atelier use her studio at 7 Pembroke Gardens for exhibitions. Writer May Sinclair was Olive Hockin’s neighbour in Edwardes Square Studios, and novelist Evelyn Sharp, who was the Kensington WSPU Branch Secretary, lived in a flat in Duke’s Lane.

We had a lovely day: the weather was kind and never have the streets and squares of London looked so lovely. We stood on the corner of Phillimore Gardens and Kensington High Street with the Kensington contingent of the great suffragette procession on 21 June 1908. We wore white dresses and sashes in the colours and in front of us fluttered the banner designed by Laurence Housman and embroidered under Clemence’s direction: From Prison to Citizenship. In Pembroke Gardens we listened to the “ker chunk ker chunk” of the Atelier’s printing press as it churned out caricatures of the Liberal politicians responsible for the imprisonment and torture of unenfranchised women. Rather than stay at home and be counted on the night of 2 April, we knocked at the door of Number 1 and spent the night with other evaders while Laurence gallantly slept in the studio (though we were disappointed that only three other women joined us). And we sat on the floor of the studio labouring from dawn to dusk with Clemence, embroidering those beautiful banners behind which so many women marched in order to win for us our right to vote.

Read Sonia Lambert’s article about the Census boycott in The Guardian, 1 April 2011 -

Visit the 1911 Census site -

See some of the beautiful suffrage banners and designs from the Women’s Library collection on line at VADS: the online resource for the visual arts -

See Laurence Housman’s From Prison to Citizenship banner -

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Hollow Crown

As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well-grac’d actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious;
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on Richard.

Richard II, Act V, Scene II

Thus the Duke of York describes Bolingbroke’s triumphant entry into London with the deposed King Richard riding in his train. This is a playful inversion of the drama for me for, as far as I am concerned, the play is dominated by Richard, not Bolingbroke. It’s Richard my gaze is fixed on when he’s on the stage; when he leaves it my interest takes a little dip. Of course, I soon ascend from the dip: this is my favourite Shakespeare play. It’s fair to say, though, that for this play-goer if Richard isn’t up to the job the rest might as well not bother.

I’ve seen Fiona Shaw’s Richard, Kevin Spacey’s Richard, and a couple of other unfortunately unmemorable Richards. Now I’ve seen John Heffernan take on the role in a production by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (SATTF) in Bristol (8 March 2011) and have no hesitation in entering him into a trinity of sublime Richards with Shaw and Spacey. Heffernan played Richard like a king and like a man. Here was the anointed sovereign who thought himself guarded by angels, God’s representative on earth, something higher than mortals who “was not born to sue, but to command”. Here too was the defeated and deserted man, a mere mortal after all: “I live with bread like you, feel want,/Taste grief, need friends”. There was a wonderful clarity to Heffernan’s portrayal. You saw Richard in all his moods: cruel and capricious, haughty and humbled, raving against his fate and philosophising bleakly about the human condition.

SATTF have reinstated Shakespeare’s spelling and pronunciation of "Bullingbrooke" for the eighteenth century “Bolingbroke”. This gives, according to the programme, the twin sounds of “bull” and a running stream. These are, no doubt, metaphors one can make much of in relation to the usurping Duke of Lancaster. I, however, hear the word “bully” (“They well deserve to have/That know the strong’st and surest way to get”). He is marvellously played by Matthew Thomas, particularly after his success when he begins to realise that kingship might not be all it’s cracked up to be. He can no more get his quarrelling nobles to make up than Richard could; nor trust their oaths of loyalty any further than could the ousted king; his son is cavorting in the London brothels; and to top it all his carefully constructed façade of the legality of his reign is destroyed by Richard’s murder.

Seeds are, of course, sown for the wonderful plays that follow, but for me Richard II stands alone as one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful and profound works. I’ve never thought of it as a history play: it’s a poet’s play. The marvellous cast of SATTF brought out the poetry in every truly-spoken line, and with it the play’s psychological and spiritual depths. This fantastic production runs until 19 March 2011.

Richard II at Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (includes links to reviews).

The Guardian Review

The British Theatre Guide

The Stage

Monday, 7 March 2011

Elms and Bees

I had another wonderful evening in Chepstow’s Drill Hall on Saturday (5 March 2011) at a Poetry on the Border event. This time I went to see Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke: a tremendous double bill. William Ayot, who organises PotB, introduced them as two “great” poets, reflecting on the fact that “great” is a word he often uses of poets, but is particularly applicable to these two. He’s right of course.

Duffy offered us a range of poems, many of which touched on things we are losing, precious things that are slipping away. Elm trees, decimated by disease, and now the survival of the remaining few threatened by government spending cuts which decrees no more research into its cause. Old pub names full of meaning - local, historical, agricultural - replaced by rootless, manufactured nonsenses. Bees, gone with disastrous consequences for every growing thing. County names: this last a protest against Royal Mail’s instruction that we no longer need to include the county in addresses. But I want to speak to the Lincolnshire Poacher, protests Duffy, in a wonderful evoking and naming of place.

She speaks of personal loss too, such as that of her mother. She imagines getting to know her mother from the time of her death, going back in time and calling up memories that are more like meetings. Another verse records her mother’s last word, a request for water, and recalls how as a child she called for water in the night, and how as a mother herself she took water to her own children when they called out for thirst in the night.

Gillian Clarke too used a backward-looking vision in a poem about her mother’s childhood, looking at how the child still exists inside the old person. Her mother was one of ten, five boys and five girls. The poem was inspired by a letter received from a woman who as an only child played with her mother; it enabled the poet to approach her mother's childhood. These beautiful verses of Duffy’s and Clarke’s made me think of my own mother and what her life has been, now she is wandering and weeping in the darkness of dementia.

Clarke’s latest obsession, she told us, is ice – cold - snow. She described the River Ely beneath her Cardiff flat, frozen and refrozen until it looked like a zebra. As a child she loved a polar bear skin on the floor of the house she lived in, and her poem imagines a time in which we had not melted the ice cap or shot the bear. The evening ended with her poem about a swan in winter. She had watched a pair of swans nesting in a lake formed by a curve of the river for years. This year the male came back but the female did not. He is waiting for her still. I left the Drill Hall with tears blurring my eyes for this and the many other beautiful, heart-touching verses I’d heard that evening.

For this is what the power of words is. Real, true poetry said out loud. Stories told and insights shared. This is when words and meaning become music so that like music you play them over in your head, driving home through the drizzle. Ideas and words, words and ideas, singing.

William Ayot announced at the end of the evening a plan – a dream – to establish a Centre for the Oral Tradition in Chepstow, a place for poetry, storytelling, oratory. It’s a fantastic dream and one that I for one hope is realised. If you do too send money! Contact William Ayot – he’s got a website and he’s on Facebook. Let’s not allow our great traditions of poem and storytelling to slip away with the elms and the bees.

For information on future events at Poetry on the Border -

Carol Ann Duffy -

Gillian Clarke -

William Ayot -

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Saki in Singapore

The obvious choice of reading for a trip to Singapore must be Rudyard Kipling, one of the writers associated with Raffles Hotel which is named after Britain’s colonial administrator par excellence and founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. I hadn’t got any Kipling with me, but I had got some Saki (Hector Hugh Munro). This seemed to me a decent substitute as both authors are associated with British colonialism. They were contemporaries; both were born in British colonies - Munro in Burma and Kipling in India; both endured unhappy English childhoods away from their parents; both returned to the land of their birth when they were adults; and both wrote original and exotic short stories – though only one of them was brilliant, and that was Kipling.

However, it was Saki’s stories I had with me: The Chronicles of Clovis (1911) and Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914). The tales are often cruel, and not only because they are set in a world insensitive to the suffering of other creatures where cub hunting and kitten drowning pass without comment. Dreadful things happen to possibly but not necessarily dreadful people: a gypsy child is eaten by a hyena, a woman is blinded, another is gored to death. They are wonderful exercises in table turning and hypocrisy exposing, often by the use of practical jokes played on the foolish or greedy. As is the way of practical jokes, the ruses are often nasty.

Saki is a dab hand at overthrowing expectations: although the stories are located in the most civilised settings imaginable – clubs and drawing rooms - there is an undertone of savagery. Many have magical or supernatural elements: politicians are replaced by angels, animals talk, Pan plays his pipes. At their best the stories are very funny. In Tobermory, Lady Blemley’s cat learns to talk, with embarrassing consequences for the household for he is not a discreet cat. His favourite promenade is “a narrow ornamental balustrade…in front of most of the bedroom windows…whence he could watch the pigeons - and heaven knew what else besides” .

Practical jokes – talking cats – angels: there’s the spirit of a child in Saki’s stories, but it’s not a charming one. The boy who points out the Emperor’s nakedness is an innocent, but the child in Saki is a mean little beast. You could imagine him pulling the legs off spiders. His stories are irreverent, witty, satirical; they are also nasty, spiteful, insensitive (see, for instance, the treatment of the Jewish couple in A Touch of Realism). No kindness tempers Saki’s vision; he is a compassionless recorder of human folly. Of course, writers don’t have to have bleeding hearts: too much sympathy and you end up with sentimental mush.

The western front was no place for sentimental mush and it was perhaps here that Saki’s literary ruthlessness came into its own in his exquisite description of birds on the battle ground. The prose is precise, the observation sharp, the refusal to privilege the merely human typical of a writer whose urbane settings are constantly threatened by wild beasts, pagan gods, inhuman forces. Yet the effect is deeply moving.

“At the corner of a stricken wood (which has had a name made for it in history, but shall be nameless here), at a moment when lyddite and shrapnel and machine-gun fire swept and raked and bespattered that devoted spot as though the artillery of an entire Division had suddenly concentrated on it, a wee hen-chaffinch flitted wistfully to and fro, amid splintered and falling branches that had never a green bough left on them. The wounded lying there, if any of them noticed the small bird, may well have wondered why anything having wings and no pressing reason for remaining should have chosen to stay in such a place. There was a battered orchard alongside the stricken wood, and the probable explanation of the bird’s presence was that it had a nest of young ones whom it was too scared to feed, too loyal to desert.”

(From The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany, Graeme Gibson.)

Munro welcomed the war, and had nothing good to say for pacifists. He enlisted although he did not have to (he was 43). He was shot dead by a sniper in 1916.

The Chronicles of Clovis (1911) and Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914) are available from Project Gutenberg

Read The Guardian blog on Saki

And Neil Clark in The Telegraph

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Eminent Victorian

For they stood in one of the famous wood and common lands of Southern England – great beeches towering overhead – glades opening to right and left – ferny paths over green turf-tracks, and avenues of immemorial age, the highways of a vanished life – old earth-works, overgrown – lanes deep-sunk in the chalk where the pack horses once made their way – gnarled thorns, bent with years, yet still white-mantled in the spring: a wild, enchanted no-man’s country, owned it seemed by rabbits and birds, solitary, lovely and barren – yet from its furthest edge, the high spectator, looking eastward, on a clear night, might see on the horizon the dim flare of London.

I think this is a lovely description. I particularly like the sense of history on the landscape, the “old earth-works, overgrown” and “avenues of immemorial age”. It evokes for me coming across the grassy remains of mine shafts or pits for washing ore in the lead lands near Charterhouse in the Mendips, or stumbling on the embankment of a long-gone tramway that once served the Somerset Coal Canal. There’s a fine, ghostly feeling about walking through “ferny paths” that once rang with industry, the clatter of trams, the cries of workers. You can go further back too, to other vanished lives: tramping along sections of the Fosseway near Radstock; standing on the edge of an iron-age hill fort at Cadbury Camp.

The description is from Mrs Humphry Ward’s novel The Testing of Diana Mallory (1908). John Sutherland thinks the novel marks a “distinct decline in the quality of her writing”, and it certainly isn’t the best novel in the world. But it’s far from being the worst, and I think it’s a shame that Mrs Ward is not more widely read. Her authorial name is enough to put off the modern reader: a woman who doesn’t even have her own identity but hides – or is hidden – behind her husband. And of course she made the huge mistake of backing the reactionaries in the struggle for women’s suffrage, being a firm “anti” even when other opponents of votes for women had begun to accept the inevitable.

Her views did, of course, permeate her novels. In Diana Mallory suffragist Isabel is a most unpleasant woman who would in other times “have been a religious bigot of the first water”. But I don’t think Mrs Ward can be too glibly dismissed as a bigot herself for creating such a monstrous feminist. In the same novel socialist Marion, challenging Diana’s opposition to votes for women (it would unsex us) utters the “very same ideas which Isabel Fotheringham made hateful, clothed in light, speaking from the rugged or noble faces of men and women who saw in them the salvation of their kind”. (Elaine Showalter includes a brief discussion of the tensions in Ward’s views – a woman who campaigned for education for women and the disabled and whose books show sympathy between and for women yet who opposed the female franchise – in A Literature of Their Own.)

Mrs Ward may have been old fashioned in her own time – Virginia Woolf thought so – but her books are still worth reading. Diana Mallory has a page-turning melodramatic mystery at its heart and if the paeans to “England” do not sit well with us these days, nor the earnest political discussions, there’s still much to enjoy. Indeed, I’m fascinated as much by these elements of the novel as the story and characters. It seems odd to me to read a Victorian or Edwardian novel while at the same time wanting to discount its “Victorianism” or “Edwardianism”; they are as much a part of the book as plot and setting. So, on to my next Mrs Humphry Ward – her anti-suffrage novel Delia Blanchflower! And I’m putting John Sutherland’s Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian on my reading list.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Treasured Possessions

“March 3rd 83

Dear Sir

Thanks for your note; the gout sticks to me so that I am still unable to make any appointment, but I will come on the very first opportunity. Yours faithfully.”

“March 20th .83

Dear Sir

I have just received your note as I am setting off for the country till Easter is over: I have sent it on to our works & will see on my return that the sketch is done and all estimates duly made. I am Dear Sir Yours Faithfully”

They’re not much for two of my most treasured possessions, are they? Two short notes, business-like, hurried, revealing little of the writer. The reason they are treasured is that they were written by William Morris. Morris is a great hero of mine; one of the chief deities of my personal pantheon; a genius. I love him for his art, his poetry, his politics, and his novels. The Well at the World’s End is one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read, and as a devotee of narrative verse I’m bowled over by epics like The Earthly Paradise and The Life and Death of Jason.

These inconsequential notes, written when Morris was 49, have been glued into two books in the eighth, four-volume edition of Morris’s poem The Earthly Paradise, published by Ellis and White in 1880. The note dated March 20 1883 is in Part II and the note dated 3 March 1883 is in Part I. They have both been awkwardly folded and badly trimmed; some of the lettering in the note of March 20 1883 has even been cut off.

Whoever did the glueing was a great lover of paste. At the front of Part I they also affixed a short newspaper biography of Morris, who “lives, with his wife and two daughters, in a pleasant house near the Thames at Hammersmith”. (Reassuringly, the author adds “The socialism of his later days has scarcely alienated any of his older friends”.) This is the address from which Morris wrote the notes I have – Kelmscott House, Upper Mall, Hammersmith, and now home to the William Morris Society. The biography is signed The Prompter and – more careless work from our gluer – the date of the cutting and the title of the publication have been removed by the scissors.

But how much is suggested by these little scraps of paper – how many stories could we make from them! Clearly Morris meant something to our scrappy scrap collector. Were the notes addressed to him? Why else would he be in possession of them? But then how did he know Morris? Was he a client? A friend? An importunate acquaintance? (Cue stalker novel.) A gay man in love? (Cue gay history novel.) Or was he obsessed by hatred for Morris? (Cue Victorian serial killer novel.)

Really, though, spinning tales about the letters doesn’t really add to their value for me (and these are all terrible ideas!). They are by William Morris, they are in my study, I can see the books when I’m sitting here writing and feel brushed by the spirit of that great, gouty artist who wrote two ordinary letters in March 1883.

NB Unfortunately I was unable to include images of either note; one was simply illegible when scanned and the other is too fragile to scan.

For more information about Morris see The William Morris Society -

Monday, 10 January 2011

Creating a monster

To Oxford last week to see the Bodleian Library’s exhibition Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family. The exhibition looks at the way in which Shelley’s posthumous image was created by the careful control of how documents about and by Shelley and his circle were published – in edited form, not at all, or with restricted access. Shelley’s son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, had no interest in literature and it was his wife Jane who was the main architect of the Shelley image. She even set up a shrine to Shelley in her house, which contained items such as his watch, a plate from which he ate, and a collection of locks of hair from Percy and Mary Shelley and their friends. These people were big on collecting hair: there is an entire necklace made from Mary Wollstonecraft’s tresses from which hang two lockets containing more hair.

Shelley’s reputation certainly needed protecting. There was and still is an unsavoury air to him, even if some of the scandals don’t bother us so much these days: atheism, illegitimacy and infidelity do not perhaps cause so much shock as they once did. It’s easy to rake up the dirt on him, and covering it up was quite a feat. Another generation might broadcast the particulars of his life in order to depict him as a pioneer of sexual or spiritual freedom. But no matter how you judge his behaviour – if indeed you think it relevant to judge it at all - the exhibition cannot fail to move.

It’s quite interesting to see the plate Shelley ate his raisins from, but nothing like so fascinating as his notebooks full of doodles and scribbles, or the much-crossed out and reworked drafts of Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, or Queen Mab. Shelley and his circle lived for and by their writing. The only reason we pore over their lives at all is because they were poets, novelists, essayists. So it’s the pages that matter, the product of the moving hand, the living mind, that connects us to their lives. The exhibition’s many treasures enables many such connections. There are pages from Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein showing some of her husband’s amendments: a disquieting object, given the lingering assumption that the book’s real author was Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley’s transcriptions of her dead husband’s poems bear witness to her editorial effort, and make you wonder if she got her own back with a few subtle changes to his work here and there.

For me the exhibition’s greatest treasures are contained in one page and three small notes. The page is from the manuscript of Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay On Poetry, and the three small notes are the last she wrote to Godwin while she was awaiting the birth of her daughter, Fanny. It’s exciting enough to see work in a writer’s own hand; when that writer is a hero of yours it’s incredibly moving.

The exhibition runs until 27 March 2011 and admission is free, but if you can’t get to Oxford you can view it on line at

Read Germaine Greer on the argument about who wrote Frankenstein in The Guardian, Monday 9 April 2007: Yes, Frankenstein really was written by Mary Shelley. It's obvious - because the book is so bad