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 -