I’d heard lots of good things about Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart but hadn’t got around to reading it by the time Old Baggage turned up. Given that it’s a prequel I thought I’d give it a miss but Ali’s review persuaded me it could happily stand alone for which I’m very grateful. Evans’ new novel tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten, picking it up in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie.
Mattie lives with Florrie, affectionately known as The Flea, in the house she bought with her inheritance. Mattie and Florrie were comrades in the fight for women’s suffrage, undergoing forced feeding in Holloway, abuse from the public and brutality from the police. At the beginning of 1928, Mattie can vote but Florrie cannot. A privileged member of the upper classes, Mattie is forthright, free with her opinions and utterly determined she’s right while Florrie is tactful and quiet, a hard-working health visitor who understands poverty and deprivation at first hand. A dramatic event on Hampstead Heath brings Ida into their lives. Poor, bright and sassy with it, Ida finds herself dragooned into Mattie’s new endeavour: a club for young girls which will educate them in preparation for voting while teaching them practical skills and physical fitness, a counterpoint to a fellow veteran campaigner’s Empire Youth League which reeks of fascism. Agreeing to a competition on the Heath, Mattie is determined that the Amazons will trounce the League but an error of judgement leads to lasting repercussions.
Evans’ novel is an absolute treat. Her story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice with wit, humour and compassion. Set in 1928, the novel never loses sight of the fact that while some women were given the vote in 1918, the vast majority were not, nor that when they are the battle will still be far from won. Evans is a sharp, witty writer with a keen eye for characterisation. There are many very funny moments throughout her novel – most provided by Mattie, undoubtedly the star turn and at back of the queue when tact was assigned – but these are balanced with poignant moments the sweetest of which was Florrie’s congratulatory card, opened on the day of the 1929 general election, the first in which she’s able to vote. The end sets up readers who’ve not yet read Crooked Heart nicely for Mattie’s new project. I loved it. For those of us struggling with the current political climate, Old Baggage is a happy reminder that things can get better.
Sometimes what you need – particularly at this time of the year when the weather’s dire, Christmas jollifications are over and the bills are rolling in – is a rollicking good read. Nothing fancy in the writing department, no phrases to savour and linger over – just a good old-fashioned piece of storytelling with a bit of suspense and some nifty plotting which is what Lucy Ribchester’s The Hourglass Factory delivers with the added interest of a suffragette trapeze artist.
It opens with a moment of high drama as Ebony Diamond launches herself into the Albert Hall just as Prime Minster Asquith begins his speech, unfurling the distinctive women’s suffrage banner behind her. Surely worthy of grabbing every headline worldwide given the new Reuters machines spewing out stories as soon as their reporters can type them but she’s pipped to the post by an even more dramatic event. The story’s picked up six months later in November 1912 when Frankie – trouser-clad, cigarette-smoking girl reporter – is sent off to take a portrait of Ebony for the London Evening Gazette, tracking her down to Olivier Smythe’s, a Mayfair corsetier, where she finds her quarry in no mood to have her picture taken. When a woman is found murdered later that day wearing a tightly-laced corset, it seems that Ebony’s efforts for women’s suffrage have been brought to an abrupt end. Then another body is discovered, also corset-laced. Soon Frankie’s caught up in mystery which seems to uncover more questions than answers – as all the best mysteries do – aided and abetted by young Liam and Milly, a snake-charming dancer with a noble pedigree.
The Hourglass Factory romps along, picking up corset fetishists, an ex-courtesan, men in tiger suits, mad aristos and a policeman with a heart of gold along the way. Clues are spilled – there’s an ingenious bit of plotting with playing cards and gunpowder – and the plot thickens nicely, all coming together in a suitably frenetic, white-knuckle finale. It’s all a great deal of fun but there’s much to enlighten if you’re interested in the women’s suffrage movement, all neatly stitched into the story with an historical note at the end. Altogether, a very enjoyable piece of escapism and cheers to Simon & Schuster for publishing it in paperback original format, nicely affordable despite the Christmas hole in readers’ pockets.
It always comes as a shock to me whenever I read anything about women’s suffrage to remember that universal suffrage was not enacted until 1928 – only women over thirty who fulfilled a property requirement were granted the vote in 1918 which narrowed the field down considerably. My mother made sure I knew that votes for women were hard-won and that I should always use mine, and I do even if it’s to spoil it which I’ve only resorted to once. The thing is, if you don’t vote you can’t really complain about the things our politicians get up to.