March 25, 2013

'Deeds not Words', but, well, words too.

Please welcome Ellie from Lit Nerd today for the Women's Lit Event.  Ellie is discussing suffragettes in literature.  Thanks, Ellie, great topic!

‘Deeds not Words’, but, well, words too.

So, suffragettes. Pretty famous group of women. Liked to tie themselves to railings, smash windows, storm Parliament and, in excessive cases, set fire to post boxes and run in front of horses (Emily W.D, I’m looking at you).

It’s fair to say that the suffragettes and I have a fairly troublesome relationship. The WSPU were the most contradictory and paradoxical group of women and they make my head spin until I feel dizzy but you cannot deny them their extraordinary power and presence. And they wrote some damn fine books (ironically so, considering their motto was ‘deeds not words’ – see what I mean?! These women drive me crazy).

There is not a huge amount of suffrage literature and it has mostly fallen under the radar which, for me, is a shame because I think reading a novel by a REAL LIFE suffragette is the best way to get a sense of the campaign. Persephone Books have published two wonderful suffrage novels: William - An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton and No Surrender by Constance Maud*. It is these two novels and a third, Suffragette Sally by Gertrude Colmore, that I think are the crème de la crème of suffrage literature.

Suffragette Sally is the story of Sally Simmonds, a ‘plucky’ (this is no exaggeration, she literally throws a sausage at her employer when he disrespects her favourite suffragette) working class housemaid who converts to the suffrage cause. Although class was really quite a big issue in the movement, this novel makes it a central concern by using a working-class girl as the main protagonist. Interesting Colmore fictionalises real people and events, most obviously Lady Constance Lytton who is pretty much my favourite suffragette (sorry, ladies, she’s just so much cooler than the rest of you). Lytton is unfairly underrepresented in my opinion as I think her protest is the bravest. She highlights the class inequality of British prisons by disguising herself as a working woman and getting herself rearrested (the first time she was arrested she was released just because she is a ‘Lady’) I’m not going to tell you what happens to her but let’s just say Lady C is really rather inspirational.

What I love most about this novel is the fact that Colmore does not know yet how the campaign will end. It is published in 1911 (the vote was not granted until (sort of) 1918) and though the ending is heartbreaking, Colmore is still so full of hope for the future of women.

No Surrender also deals with the issue of class in the form of mill worker Jenny Clegg. It also looks quite extensively at prisons, force feeding and the rights of women as wives. It is a very interesting and, I think, enjoyable novel but one that can be read much more as a social document rather than a work of fiction. Almost every other sentence is a suffragette cliché but then, isn’t most suffragette fiction? Still, this one is definitely worth a read.

I’m sure there will be many people who will disagree that William – An Englishman is a suffragette novel but I disagree with them so let’s all just agree to disagree. Cicely Hamilton is another interesting character in the women’s movement. She was an actress and playwright who dealt a lot with issues other than the vote, such as inequalities in marriage. William was written during the war and Hamilton uses the war to mock the WSPU (not the suffrage campaign, mind, just the WSPU) and highlight their slightly contradictory preoccupations. William and his wife Griselda (‘his exact counterpart in petticoats’) are both thoroughly enjoying the suffrage movement until they come face to face with war on their honeymoon in Belgium. Hamilton’s writing is sparse but so very intriguing. There are a couple of horrendously harrowing sections in this novel (one which involves a village of hostages) that will probably stay with me forever.

If, like I originally did, you have this image in your mind of a beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring and innocent suffrage movement, then I suggest you read William – An Englishman. Cicely Hamilton’s perspective is really quite eye-opening and will make you question what you know about the WSPU.

(Endpaper for No Surrender)

* I’m sure, if you are one of the many Persephone Perves, you will get to these eventually, if you’ve not already.


  1. I love the cover, and think the insides would be just as interesting.

  2. Love the recommendations-I'm not super familiar with the suffrage movements (more so in the US than the UK as I'm American) but I am intensely grateful for their work as I have voted in every election in which I was eligible.

    1. I have only ever voted in presidential and governor elections. I should probably pay more attention to the local level, though, since I am very much into education. I need to know what is up with the school board and superintendent.


Thank you for visiting! Leave a comment and share your thoughts with me!