Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Obiter Dicta and Other Pronouncements: Augustine Birrell and the Suffragettes

I recently came into possession of a minor literary curiosity, a copy of the first volume of The Collected Essays and Addresses of the Rt Hon Augustine Birrell 1880-1920 published by J M Dent in 1922. The book was dedicated to the author’s friend “GSC” at Christmas 1922. A hand-written note in the book states that “GSC” was Goonie Churchill. She was Winston Churchill’s sister-in-law Gwendoline, who was known in the Churchill family as Goonie. She married Winston Churchill’s younger brother Jack in 1908. (Though the note dates the dedication to Christmas 1929.)    

Why should this book be of the slightest interest to me? The reason is that Augustine Birrell (1850–1933) was a minister in the Liberal government that so determinedly resisted women’s demand for the vote during the militant suffrage campaign of 1903 to 1914. Birrell was the Liberal MP for Bristol North between 1906 and 1918, and from 1907 to 1913 he was Chief Secretary for Ireland. He was in addition a great book collector, a self-confessed “book-hunter from boyhood”. His own library contained over 10,000 books. He was also an author himself, producing volumes of essays and literary criticism including two volumes entitled Obiter Dicta (1884 and 1887), as well as an autobiography (Things Past Redress, published posthumously in 1937). Birrell also had a distinguished career in law, and between 1896 and 1899 was a professor of law at University College London.  

A copy of The Collected Essays and Addresses, Volume 1, signed by the author.
As a Liberal minister, Birrell was a prime target of suffragette militancy. In Bristol, his talks were frequently interrupted by women’s suffrage campaigners, including a well-known incident in the Colston Hall on 1 May 1909. During the afternoon suffragettes Elsie Howey and Vera Holme managed to get into the Hall and hide in the organ, from where they interrupted his speech with cries of “Votes for Women” until they were found by stewards and thrown out. Votes for Women, the newspaper of the Women’s Social and Political Union, published a parody of the event by Vera Holme, which ended on an optimistic note: “It may be that Mr Birrell/Won’t speak in that Hall again,/And it may be never in Bristol,/Until the vote we gain.”  

Augustine Birrell, MP for Bristol North 1906-1918
It was really too much to hope for. Birrell continued to speak in Bristol, and suffragettes continued to heckle him. In July 1909 suffragettes leafletted a garden party meeting at Cook’s Folly, a castellated  house in Bristol overlooking the Avon Gorge. In October that year Ellen Pitman broke through police barriers around St James’s Parish Hall and ran towards the minister’s car. It was rumoured that she had intended to throw corrosive at Birrell, which was vehemently denied by the Bristol WSPU organiser Lillian Dove Willcox. In December women clung to lamp posts outside one of his meetings and shouted suffrage slogans. Three women also went to the house where he was staying and shouted at him through a megaphone.

In June 1913 there were more protests at Colston Hall, and two women were violently ejected, while from the gallery a male supporter scattered memorial leaflets of Emily Wilding Davison, who died after running in front of the King’s horse at the 4 June Derby. In November 1913 Birrell’s visit to the city was marked by chemical attacks on letter boxes in the city centre, as well as the destruction of Begbrook Mansion and a boathouse in Eastville Park by arsonists. At a meeting in north Bristol a man threw a dead kitten at Birrell crying “torture that instead of women”.  In March 1914 a letter addressed to Birrell was left at a timber yard in Ashton Gate which was destroyed by fire.

The women dogged Birrell’s steps outside Bristol as well. In Southampton in 1907 three hundred stewards were brought in to keep women protesters out of a meeting at the Skating Rink. Nevertheless, women did manage to get in and interrupt his speech. In May 1909 Birrell was in Liverpool to accept his honorary degree from Liverpool University when the ceremony was interrupted by suffragette Mary Phillips, who had spent the previous twenty four hours hiding under the platform in order to make her protest. In November 1910 Birrell took to his bed after being injured during a suffragette deputation in London, although Christabel Pankhurst, leader of the WSPU, repudiated the charge that he had been deliberately attacked by women protesters.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Birrell. Neither he nor any other politician could have enjoyed being the butt of suffragette militancy. But many of the incidents came during particularly difficult years for him.  Having lost his first wife after less than a year of happy marriage, he had married Eleanor Mary Bertha in 1888. She was a help to him in his political career, and was President of Bristol North Women’s Liberal Association. In 1911 she was diagnosed with a brain tumour which led to her insanity, and finally to her death in 1915. Birrell tendered his resignation as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1912, but Prime Minister Asquith refused to accept it. While coping with his wife’s illness, he was compelled to continue his work in Ireland. Not surprisingly, his personal tragedy affected his work, and in 1916 he was blamed for the Easter Uprising in Dublin. In 1918 he lost his seat for Bristol North and left politics for ever.

He continued book collecting and writing, and his work was well regarded in certain literary circles. The Times obituary (21 November 1933) opined that “his style has a winning and informal quality which has charmed thousands of readers into a sense of being in the presence of a cheerful, cultured, but unpedantic man”. 

Has this charm endured? Sadly, not in this reader’s opinion. I found myself very uncharmed by the contents of the first volume of The Collected Essays and Addresses. With essays on John Milton, Alexander Pope, Samuel Richardson, William Cowper and others it’s practically a study in the traditional male canon. The only woman writer to get a mention is Hannah More – “one of the most detestable writers that ever held a pen”, incapable of “one original thought, one happy phrase”. So much for the feminine element.

The hand-written note from The Collected Essays and Addresses, Volume 1
Still, in an attempt to give Birrell the benefit of the doubt I decided to check a few of his other books to see if perhaps Volume 1 is unusual in this respect. I did a quick search on Project Gutenberg and looked at:-

In the Name of the Bodleian and Other Essays – one essay on a woman writer – Hannah More again.

Obiter Dicta: Second Series - not a single woman writer, but does contain the observation “Why all the English poets, with a barely decent number of exceptions, have been Cambridge men, has always struck me…‘as extremely curious.’ ”

Res Judicatae: Papers and Essays – no essays on any women writers.    

And on the Internet Archive:-

The Collected Essays and Addresses of the Rt Hon Augustine Birrell 1880-1920, Volume III – no essays on any women writers.

At which point this woman writer had had enough.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Characters in Historical Fiction: The 2016 Triskele Litfest Panel on Historical Fiction

I'm pleased to welcome Jane Davis to the blog today with some highlights from the Historical Fiction panel at this year's Triskele Litfest. In this extract, the panellists discuss creating characters in historical fiction...

At this year’s Triskele Litfest, author Jane Davis chaired a fascinating discussion on historical fiction. The panellists were Jane Dixon-Smith (The Better of Two Men, third-century Syria); Orna Ross (Her Secret Rose, the first in a trilogy about the poet WB Yeats); Radhika Swarup (Where the River Parts, the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947); and Alison Morton (Aurelia, a Roman-themed alternative history thriller). The panellists revealed why they had chosen to write about their particular eras, and discussed issues around defining historical fiction, language and setting.

In this extract from Jane’s transcript of the debate they talk about characterisation:-

Chair: I want to ask how you go about blending real-life characters with fictional characters. I’m told that the key advantage of including fictional characters in a novel that includes real-life figures is the ability to bump them off without altering history. Would you agree, or do they serve another purpose? Orna, can I ask you first because I know you’ve done this in Her Secret Rose.

Orna: Actually, Rosie’s an invented character but she’s based on a real person. I tried to tell the story in lots of different ways but because it’s W B Yeats for God’s sake! I was in awe of W B Yeats, was intimidated until I got Rosie’s voice. I based her on the letters of a woman who was imprisoned with Maud Gonne for her revolutionary activities, and her irreverent thoughts, the way that she spoke, allowed me to say what I liked.

Radhika: My main characters are all invented and I think they are so key because it allows you to paint such big key events in Indian and Pakistan history from an intimacy. There’s no other way to take that canvas and reduce it.

Jane D-S: My narrator was initially fictional until I realised that he could actually be a character who existed, so I changed his name to Zabdas, tweaked him a bit, and then carried on from there. In the books, he is actually meant to be Zenobia’s half-brother, but he wasn’t Zenobia’s half-brother as far as we know.

Chair: One of the interesting things about writing historical fiction is that, if the reader has knowledge of the era, they have the benefit of hindsight, while the characters in the book don’t. How do you use this to your advantage?

Radhika: A lot of my research comes from accounts from family members who are approaching their nineties, so I don’t know with what vividness they remember, but I also used archives and third party accounts. What I have is evidence from afterwards, whether Partition was justified or not, so while I will never have the immediacy of people who lived through Partition, I have the benefit of hindsight.

From left to right: Jane Davis, Orna Ross, Radhika Swarup, Jane Dixon-Smith and Alison Morton
Jane D-S: Not a lot of people know about Zenobia so I tend to find that people pick up the books look on-line to see if she was real and are surprised.

Alison: Historical fiction can often spark interest in history. Although mine is alternate history, I try to keep it very Roman in terms of culture and values, but I have had readers come back to me and say, ‘It’s actually made me go back and re-look at Rome.’
Orna: When you’re interested you do want other people to share your interest, but I wish I had thought about your question before I wrote these books because writing about someone who ‘s as loved and revered as W B Yeats is actually dangerous. I’ve had hate mail. I stepped into a nest of academics. They own Yeats and they definitely didn’t like my take on him.

Chair: I was criticised for a historical novel I wrote where I allowed a main character to leave her son without showing enough regret, the difficulty being that it was out of step with the modern mind-set. Today we expect a mother to put her child before partners, husbands, etc. I wonder how you perceive the temptation to superimpose contemporary values on historical characters.

Alison: One thing if you’re writing a pure historical novel is to read the letters and diaries of people, not the historical account, but what people actually did. I would always go to a source if I could find one about people and their lives.

Chair: Letters and diaries were your source material, Orna.

Orna: A lot of private writing that has only recently become public and a lot of writing that only came out of copyright. It’s just seventy years gone, so I was able to use it.

Radhika: But struggled when I came to the writing. My protagonist is, for her generation, an extremely feisty woman. She chooses for her lover, she chooses her husband, but she still has constraints placed on her by societal conventions. So she has to be courted, she has to be proposed to. In fact, she doesn’t have to be proposed to. Her father has to be approached by her suitor.

Jane D-S: Fortunately writing Roman history, it’s turned on its head from a female point of view. I had the advantage of Zenobia doing things we would want women to do today. She rode with the men, she did all of those things that appeals to readers these days. I didn’t have any trouble trying to pull the story into the modern. It already felt modern anyway.

Orna: When I went back to the writings of women in Ireland in the 1910s and1920s, I felt like I was meeting myself and my friends on the page. They had written and done exactly the kind of work that we were doing in the 1970s and 80s, then it had gone onto a shelf and no one had looked at it for fifty years. Our generation had to come along as if they had never existed. The feminists of our time have reclaimed their work and put it out there, but we have this idea that women’s advancement is up, up, up, that leads to today when we are supposedly equal. Actually, if you look back you’ll see it’s more up and down. I’m hoping digital will put an end to that.

Alison: Even when putting women in men’s roles, you still have to keep within the convention of your story. Like with Zenobia, there are some things she couldn’t do and some things she could do but didn’t want to do.

Or view it on YouTube. (The other videos can be found on the YouTube channel:

Find out more about the panellists:-

About Jane Davis

Jane Davis is the author of seven thought-provoking novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and comparisons to more seasoned authors such as Kate Atkinson and Maggie O’Farrell. An Unknown Woman has been named Self-Published Book of the Year 2016 by Writing Magazine and the DSJT Charitable Trust. Jane’s favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. Her historical novels include I Stopped Time and My Counterfeit Self. She can be also be hired as a tutor, mentor and professional speaker.

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