Friday, October 21, 2016

Book Review - No Surrender by Constance Maud

Published in 1911, at the height of the Women's Suffrage movement in Britain, No Surrender masterfully straddles the line between journalism and historical fiction.  Throughout the novel, there are factually accurate and stirring portrayals of suffragette protests and incidents, as well as their arguments in favor of giving women the vote.  The actions are carried out by fictional characters, but a close reading will give evidence that they are not-too-thinly-veiled representations of real people, such as Lady Constance Lytton and the Pankhursts.

These suffragettes were tenacious and dedicated to their cause.  Some of their protest verged on the humorous - having themselves delivered, as parcels, to the Prime Minister's front door with their petitions, and a large group of women pretending to be a fire brigade with a call to meeting instead of a call to fire.  Women's Suffrage supporters would ambush politicians after worship services or during dinner parties.  They would hand out pamphlets and spread their message through street corner oratory.  Some suffragettes would take more aggressive actions to draw attention to their cause, such as throwing rocks at windows of anti-suffrage supporters.  As the works became more violent, the police took a more active role in containing and detaining the suffragettes.

It was the courtroom and imprisonment scenes that affected me most.  The suffragettes were protesting for political equality.  However, precisely because they had no vote, they were not treated as political prisoners by the judicial system.  Suffragettes were condemned to the same class of prisoner as thieves and drunkards.  They were afforded almost no comforts, housed in squalid quarters, and if they dared to protest (as most did, for the injustices were plentiful inside as well as out of prison) the women were put in the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement.  Many women protested this punishment the only way they could, by refusing food.  To keep these prisoners alive, prison staff would force-feed them.  The brutal, horrific details of these forced feedings were not spared in No Surrender, and the actions themselves are akin to rape.  To think that women would willingly submit to such torture is proof of how stridently they believed in their cause.

Lovely Persephone Books edition with suffragette-colored endpapers!

What became clear through reading No Surrender was how strong the British class divides were, and how those divides played into the levels of sympathy and empathy afforded to the suffragettes by others.  The novel spends time with the aristocracy, the upper class, and the working class - exploring their lifestyles, prejudices, and how each group responds to the idea of Women's Suffrage.  No matter the social class, women had practically no power or authority.  A woman had no agency over her own children; one character's husband sends their children to live in Australia, without any notification or consent of his wife, and she can do nothing about it.  Many lower-class women and girls worked for long hours in excruciating conditions, and few cares were given about their welfare by the employers.  The meager wages they earned were not their own, but belonged to their husband/father.  For the women of the upper classes this was of little concern because they did not need to earn a living, but for working-class females it meant that they were prisoners in their lives and homes.  One of the great strengths of No Surrender is its focus on lower-class women and their struggles as part of the greater social movement in which Women's Suffrage found stead.

As a work of historical interest, the significance of No Surrender is self-evident.  However, it struggles as a work of literature.  The dialogue, especially of lower-class, Northern Brits, is stilted and full of stereotypical turns of phrase; it is distinctly different from the speech of the upper-class folk.  I suppose that this distinction serves to further illustrate class divides, although that point is somewhat invalidated by the characters of Jenny Clegg and Joe Hopton, working-class Northerners who have unusually exceptional speech.  There is little semblance of a plot at all in the novel.  In fact, the book isn't divided into chapters, but instead into "Scenes".  Each scene illustrates different episodes and points of relevance in the Women's Suffrage movement, and they function better when thought of as linked short stories rather than component parts to a whole.  There are also issues with the relationship between between Jenny Clegg and the two men whom propose marriage to her at different times.  Both relationships seem terribly contrived and inauthentic - perhaps the author's ploy to draw in more feminine readers who desire some romance in their novels.

No Surrender is an honest and searing account of what it meant (and took!) to be a British suffragette in the early twentieth century, no matter the social class.  Although the characters are fictional, the events are factual and historically faithful.  In terms of plot and dialogue the novel suffers.  It is not a great work of fiction, but it is a great work.

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