Suffragettes in Fiction – a Booklist
A few years ago I posted a book list – with notes – of fiction associated with the Reformation in Britain. It proved very popular, so here is my latest list, Suffragettes in Fiction. Some of the books have been reviewed on this blog, and you can find them under the author’s name on the right of this page. I cannot promise that I have read each word of all of these books, and it will be an ongoing project for me to add titles that I will either remember or discover in future. If you have any titles that you think should be added, please use the Contact Me button above to let me know. I would like this to be a resource for the future!
There are lots of books which give the history of the Suffragette movement in Britain and elsewhere. Many of the women involved in the fight for the Vote for women – whether they advocated militant action or preferred persuasion – wrote their own accounts. These books are undoubtedly valuable to any study of the period and are relatively easy to look up and find. What can be more difficult is discovering novels which treat the subject fictionally. I believe fictional writing is an excellent way of getting a sense of what it really felt like to be in the thick of the experience, in this case for the women who chose to be active, but also their families, friends and supporters. This is because they are recounting actions they took, the prison sentences which may well have followed and the reactions of society to their activities which may be unexpected from non- fiction books.
Having said that, the first book I want to mention is “Prisons and Prisoners – Experiences of a Suffragette” by Lady Constance Lytton. It is recollections of a titled lady with good connections who actively supported the cause of Suffrage for women, and who was imprisoned four times despite her ill health and contacts. She actually chose to disguise herself on at least one occasion to see how working class women were treated. I read it in an old edition in a library, but it seems that more copies are available online at least. It reads like a novel!
One of Persephone’s three reprinted Suffragette novels is actually partly based on Lytton’s book – “No Surrender” by Constance Maud. First published in 1911, it is from one of the writers in the recently formed “Women Writers Suffrage League. The Preface in the Persephone edition calls it a passionate account which was originally reviewed by Emily Davidson. It also puts the alternate views of the time, and was mentioned in the BBC series “Novels That Shaped Our World”.
“William, an Englishman” by Cecily Hamilton was the first Persephone reprint. Originally published in 1918, it shows the low level organisation of the Suffragettes on a less involved level before showing the reality of War for innocent bystanders. The other Persephone book is “The Call” by Edith Ayrton Zangwill. Originally published in 1924, it tells the story of Ursula, who would be a remarkable woman at any time, but this book recounts how she is drawn into the activity of the Suffragettes and how it changes her life. Although a book of its time, it is a vivid read of how a woman at the time was forced to make choices in order to live how she wished.
Another member of the Women Writers Suffrage League was May Sinclair, whose 1917 book “The Tree of Heaven” was recently reprinted in the British Library Women Writers series. She fictionalised some of the Women’s Suffrage movements, and used her main character Dorothea to question the whole issue of feminism at the time, given the demands of the First World War. When Sinclair wrote this book she did not know how anything would turn out, and therefore it is a fascinating read.
An interesting novel that I acquired an unusual printed copy of is “The Convert” by Elizabeth Robins. It is a little difficult to track down information about, but promises a detailed look at the process of suffrage protest.
Looking towards more contemporary novels, I found “A Hundred Tiny Threads” by Judith Barrow (2017) which is a much more expansive book about characters in the early part of the twentieth century. It is memorable for how the main character is drawn in to be a speaker for the suffrage movement, and some of the women involved locally. There is a searing account of a young woman’s imprisonment, and the real danger that poor prison conditions posed. “The Falling Thread” by Adam O’Riordan (2021) promises a look at the lives of young women in Manchester in the first part of the twentieth century, including the element of suffrage movements.
For a touching, funny and well written look at what happened to the women who fought for the vote in later life, my favourite is “Old Baggage” by Lissa Evans (2018) which features the redoubtable Mattie, who looks back from 1928 to the battles fought and what her life is like now. It also comments on the less well resourced women unable to vote even after 1918 because they did not own property, and the well off women who were lured away by other ideologies. Its main question “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?” is a very suitable comment for the book as a whole.
In other media, the tv documentary “Suffragettes with Lucy Worsley” (2018) is worth seeing if you can find it – a nonfiction approach but with dramatisations of incidents that brings the records alive. The film “Suffragette” (2015) with Carey Mulligan in the lead role is a very effective fictional account of the true costs of action for women and features some brilliant settings.
So there is a start – I may find more and would love some suggestions of fictional Suffragette books.