Sunday, 5 August 2012

Women's Will Beats Asquith's Won't

On 12 November 1911 I wrote a blog about Constance Maud’s 1911 suffragette novel No Surrender, republished by Persephone Press. I picked out the events described in Chapter IX, where three women accost cabinet ministers during a village church service. I suggested that this episode might be related to a real incident in Lympne, Kent on 5 September 1909, when Prime Minister Asquith was accosted by Elsie Howey, Vera Wentworth, and Jessie Kenney. I wondered “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…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.”

I’ve now discovered that there was another minister-accosting-at-church-incident involving Asquith prior to the Lympne attack, and from the details it seems that this is a more likely inspiration for the incident in the novel. It took place in Clovelly, Devon in 1909, before the 29 June 1909 deputation, when the same three women – Elsie Howey, Vera Wentworth, and Jessie Kenney – followed Asquith to the village church. Jessie Kenney recalled that Asquith’s wife passed him a note to warn him of the suffragettes’ presence – as does one of the women in Maud’s novel. When he had read the note, Asquith left the church by a side door: in the novel one MP leaves by the main door, the other through a window. The next morning Asquith’s house party woke to find the garden decorated with WSPU slogans, including a plea that he receive the deputation on 29 June. (He did not receive the deputation, Government office windows were broken in protest, and one and hundred and eight women were arrested.) In the novel the garden is festooned with “winding ribbons bearing the inscriptions, ‘Votes for Women’, – ‘Dare to be free’, – ‘No Surrender’.”  

Asquith was not harmed in Clovelly, but by the time the novel came out in November 1911 the Lympne assault had taken place. In fact, he came increasingly under personal attack as the campaign proceeded. His daughter Violet’s correspondence contains several references to incidents like the “melee with Suffragettes” at Charing Cross in 1912 when she “had the pleasure of giving one an ugly wrist-twist!”. 

Enormous lengths were gone to in order to protect the Prime Minister and other Liberal MPs. They were given police escorts, streets were cordoned off around premises at which they were speaking, venues were searched before meetings began, and women were banned from attending. The politicians’ temerity brought down ridicule on their heads, and not only from the suffragettes. A Punch cartoon of 5 February 1913 shows Asquith cowering behind a floral display at a ball to avoid a suffragist, and a 1913 comic postcard of “A Grand Members Concert” at the House of Commons notes that “Mr Asquith will (before singing) WAIT & SEE if there are any Suffragettes about”. Home Secretary Mr McKenna is also noted as appearing “By kind permission of the Suffragettes”.

Women’s Will Beats Asquith’s Won’t was a slogan used on bannerettes carried during the WSPU demonstration on 18 November 1910 protesting at Asquith’s refusal of facilities for a Conciliation Bill – known as Black Friday because of the police’s brutal treatment of the women. Two women later died from their injuries.

For more information from Persephone Books about No Surrender -