Constance Maud’s 1911 suffragette
novel No Surrender 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 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? Mrs Humphrey Ward, president of the Women's Anti-Suffrage League, also wrote novels about the suffragettes. Are Maud’s “noble” and “unswerving” suffragettes as much products of the idealist’s imagination as Mrs Ward’s unhinged militant, Gertrude Marvell, in Delia Blanchflower?
Take, for example, the events described by Maud in Scene IX ‘In Middleham Church’, where Jenny, Hilda Smith and Nurse Dodds attempt to deliver a petition to three cabinet ministers during a service in a country church when 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 a side door before the end of the service. 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 her companion Hilda Smith 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.
|Advertising a deputation to Prime Minister Asquith|
The episode was inspired by
events in Clovelly, Devon in June 1909, when Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith
and his wife joined a house party at Clovelly Court. Suffragettes Elsie Howey,
Vera Wentworth, and Jessie Kenney followed him to Devon. On Sunday they went to
the service in the village church where Mr and Mrs Asquith were also in attendance.
Asquith’s wife passed him a note to warn him of the suffragettes’ presence – as
does Mrs Boulder in Maud’s novel. Asquith read the note and at the end of the
service left the church by a side door.
Elsie, Vera and Jessie caught up with Asquith on the path from the church to Clovelly Court, but he refused to speak to them. The next morning the three women hid in the grounds of Clovelly Court, and were ejected by police before they could get near the prime minister. They laid low for a while, then managed to accost Asquith while he was playing golf on the private links. They took him by the arm and asked him to receive the WSPU deputation to the House of Commons planned for 29 June 1909. They also demanded the release of suffragette prisoner Patricia Woodlock. They were quickly ushered away by police.
The women returned to Clovelly
Court in the dead of night. The next morning Asquith’s house party woke to find
the garden decorated with WSPU slogans, including a plea that he would receive the
deputation on 29 June and “Release Patricia Woodlock”. The suffragettes had
also scattered copies of the suffragette newspaper Votes for Women. In Maud's novel the garden of Middleham Abbey is festooned with “winding ribbons bearing the
inscriptions, ‘Votes for Women’, – ‘Dare to be free’, – ‘No Surrender’.”
As for Asquith, he did not receive the WSPU deputation on 29 June 1909, the suffragettes broke government office windows in protest, and one and hundred and eight women were arrested.
|A WSPU procession|
Asquith was not harmed in Clovelly, but when Elsie Howey, Vera Wentworth and Jessie Kenney caught up with him again later that year, their behaviour was more violent. In September 1909 Mr and Mrs Asquith were staying at Lympne Castle in Kent, which belonged to Mrs Asquith’s brother. The three women decided, as Jessie Kenny put it in Votes for Women, 10 September 1909, to “remind Mr Asquith, as we did at Clovelly (only more forcibly), that he would not have much peace until he did his duty to the women of this country”.
On Sunday 5 September they waited
for him outside the church – Vera Wentworth, incidentally, disguised as a nurse
– and when he came out chased him back to the Castle. The pursuit ended in a
struggle. According to a statement issued by the Home Office, Asquith was
“struck repeatedly” (The Times, 8 September 1909).
Later that day they followed him
to the golf course at nearby Littlestone-at-Sea where he was playing golf with
the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone. There was another struggle and exchange
of blows (the Home Office denied that the men had struck the women) as the two ministers
got into their car and drove off. That evening, the suffragettes threw stones
into the room where the Asquiths were dining.
The Lympne attack 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 declared in a later letter, 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”. (A
Nest of Suffragettes in Somerset, B M Willmott Dobbie, 1979, pp. 35-36.)
What took place at Lympne was
much more violent than Maud’s gently amusing rendition of the earlier incident
at Clovelly. As the suffragette campaign progressed Asquith (and other politicians)
came increasingly under personal attack. 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!” (Lantern Slides: The Diaries and Letters of Violet
Bonham-Carter 1904–1914, eds Mark Bonham Carter and Mark Pottle).
But on Lympne and similar incidents Maud remains silent. Of course, her point of view is wholeheartedly the suffragette one and it is more important to her to depict the violence done to the suffragettes rather than that done by them. This does suggest though, that whatever our sympathies, we should always approach propaganda in art with caution, and we should always be wary of taking fiction as fact.
No Surrender by Constance Maud (Persephone Books, 2011, First Published 1911) https://persephonebooks.co.uk/pages/constance-maud
(In 2011 I wrote about Constance
Maud’s 1911 suffragette novel No Surrender. Some months later, I wrote an addendum to that blog. This
blog is an amalgamation and update of those earlier pieces.)