Rebel without a cause: Lissa Evans, Old Baggage

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage. Black Swan paperback, 2018

Old Baggage is a prequel to Lissa Evans’ earlier novel Crooked Heart, posted about here in March. Mattie Simpkin is struggling to find purpose after the partial achievement of the goal of the radical suffragist movement, specifically the WSPU, to which she’d belonged earlier in her life. It’s 1928, not a random choice for the historical setting; it was the year of the Equal Franchise Act, which gave all women over the age of 21 the right to vote, whether they owned property or not.

Evans Old Baggage coverDesperate for a project into which to pour her indomitable energy and sense of outrage at the patriarchy (she’d been a vigorous exponent of direct action and civil disobedience, and still carries a wooden club in her handbag), she persuades young, largely working-class girls to join her eccentric ‘Amazons’ club on Saturday mornings in the park. Her bossy regime involves instilling in the girls the virtues of debating and recreation, such as healthy outdoor activities – including unladylike javelin-throwing. Asked about the point and propriety of this, she retorts with a typically cadenced and fiery aphorism worthy of her idol, the 17C author and priest Thomas Fuller:

“As a protest; as a means of defence; as an exercise in coordination. Weapons are not only for those who begin disputes, they are for those who wish to end them.”

She fails to realise that for most of these girls attendance probably means forgoing their one ‘lie-in’ of the week; on all the other days they rise early from bed to go to their menial, gruelling jobs, or to help out, like leading light Ida, with the never-ending ‘women’s work’ in the domestic sphere which is their destiny. The younger ones are missing out on less high-minded pursuits: boys, the cinema, fairgrounds.

The third aspect of this eccentric club’s aims, Mattie explains, is training. When a girl asks training for what, she replies, with similarly grandiose eloquence:

“For your lives as twentieth-century women, to enable you to take your places as equals in society, in Parliament and in the professions.”

Force-feeding poster WPSU 1910

Force-feeding poster for the WSPU by Alfred Pearce nom de plume “A Patriot” – http://www.historyextra.com/article/social-history/10-facts-about-suffragettes, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70437901

What’s interesting and unusual about this novel is that the author confronts the essential dilemma of her middle-class protagonist in ways that expose the problem for women like her in bringing her laudable social and political ideals – Mattie always makes her girls feel valued – into line with the reality of the privileges and ease of her class, in contrast with the deprivation and squalor endured by most working people at that time – Mattie’s struggle isn’t anything like as tough as theirs.

She’s what is sometimes disparagingly called here in the UK a champagne socialist. Evans is excellent at portraying Mattie’s genuine and resolute ambition to encourage young working-class women to fulfil their potential against all the odds stacked against them. But she’s an idealist who misguidedly believes that good intentions and (invoking her beloved literary-philosophical guru Thomas Fuller again) ‘invincible determination’ are all that’s needed to ‘accomplish almost anything,’ which in her case means equality for all. She lacks insight into herself, her protégées and her motives, and empathy with those closest to her.

It’s revealing that Mattie reveres Fuller, the biographer, historian and divine. Like him she adores linguistic elegance and exuberance: epigrams, words as weapons. She must also have been aware that he’s an unlikely hero for a left-leaning rebel like her; he supported the Royalist cause during and after the English Civil War, using his wit and literary brilliance to oppose the revolutionaries.

Evans is thus covertly signifying the basis of Mattie’s problem: she’s a single-issue campaigner who believed that women’s suffrage would eradicate every frustration they endured under the patriarchy.

The most cogent aspect of this highly entertaining novel is Mattie’s learning a painful lesson: that for equality for women to be achieved would involve a seismic change in society. It’s a critique of those middle-class suffragists and radicals like her who failed to recognise this. Former bourgeois suffragist icons like the Pankhursts are accurately portrayed in these pages as abandoning their cause to become ultra-nationalists during WWI – the kinds of flawed idealists that Mattie very nearly becomes.

But she does undergo an epiphany as a consequence of her pig-headed self-righteousness. Women she betrays or lets down teach her that any cause is bigger than her own ego, and that not all women have the leisure or wealth to support a pet project that will simply provide cosmetic improvement to the illness, humiliation and degradation endured by the working classes – and particularly women – in the early 20C. She learns a salutary lesson in humility, the importance of loyalty to her friends, and in not letting sentiment and impetuosity cloud her judgement.

One crucial aspect of the anti-climax felt by radical activists once the purpose of their cause has apparently been achieved is revealed in Old Baggage with the sad fates of some of Mattie’s former fellow-suffragists, now, like her, rebels without a cause. Ten years on they’ve mostly become middle-aged and lost. Some are sad alcoholics; several have become seduced by the rise of fascism – a sinister presence throughout the novel, seen especially in the macho militaristic struttings of a Mussolini-loving ‘Empire League’ that one of these former suffragists promotes with the support of her Mosley-esque politician husband to rival the proto-hippy free spirits of the Amazons; some will bow to the inevitable and marry – for middle-class women there was no other socially acceptable destiny.

In an echo of that ambivalently feminist 1893 novel by George Gissing, The Odd Women, Etta, one of these superannuated suffragists explains, aware that she’s potentially selling out the sisterhood, why she’s considering this matrimonial escape: she’d hate giving up her work as a health visitor helping working women and their families who lived in poverty and disease, but would like babies of her own. Besides, she adds, she was lucky to find a man at all; most women don’t. At a recent school reunion she attended, nineteen out of the thirty girls in her class were ‘spinsters’:

“…apparently, the newspapers are calling us ‘the surplus women’. “Like a drawer full of forks,” my friend Minnie said, “when all the knives have been stolen.”

This novel is full of sympathy for women’s fight for emancipation and equality at this period of history (a fight that’s still in progress) but it never descends into cosy nostalgia or rose-tinted sentimentality; there’s a tough edge to it, a strong sense of the harshness of the struggle, especially for women, and many of the female characters depicted suffer tragedy and terrible hardship. The betrayal the novel portrays of the suffragist cause by some of its erstwhile leaders and the parallel rise of fascism are timely warnings for our own era.

For further insight into this topic I recommend a set of materials at the British Library website under the heading ‘Votes for Women’, especially an article there written by historian Sarah Jackson: ‘”Women quite unknown”: working-class women in the suffrage movement.’ It provides a fascinating account of the Suffragist movement – especially women from the working classes, who were singled out for much more brutal treatment by the police and penal system, including vicious beatings, illegal incarceration and torture. The leaders of the various factions in the movement were largely upper class, treated with relative deference by the law, and suspicious of the broader egalitarian and libertarian aims of their less privileged sisters.

Lissa Evans has given stirring fictional voice to some of these unknown women – not ‘odd’ or ‘surplus’, but effective and heroic in ways that Mattie comes to recognise involved greater sacrifice and heroism than her own well-meaning but misguided, flamboyant posturing.

Noel, the little boy who becomes a key character in the sequel, Crooked Heart, set over a decade later during WWII, appears at the end of the novel as a means for Mattie to put right the mistakes she’s made and redeem herself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Rebel without a cause: Lissa Evans, Old Baggage

  1. I’ve seen this one getting a lot of love online, Simon, and it does indeed sound good. It’s hard not to be aware looking back of the class differences which were so rife at the time; and despite the suffragettes and their ilk making a world-changing difference, they were very much unaware of the realities their working-class sisters had to face.

    • It’s a cracking story, and Mattie is a complex, often irritating character – but she has a lot of heart. The class divide is the most interesting aspect of what’s otherwise a well-plotted narrative, with some cracking dialogue – as you’d expect from someone with the author’s background. I believe there’s a TV series planned, involving the executive producer of ‘Finest Hour’, the film version of another Evans novel set during WWII, with the focus again on the role of women in a male dominated world.

  2. This sounds entertaining, Simon, but I have a quibble about the timing… by setting the novel in 1928 there hasn’t been time for the effects of the new franchise to be felt. If Mattie is meant to be representative, she represents naïveté about how politics works.
    When I read You Daughters of Freedom by Clare Wright, which was about the Australian suffrage campaign and how its successful proponents went to England to help with the campaign there (https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/10/02/you-daughters-of-freedom-by-clare-wright/) and the bio of Mary Lee, a working-class Irish campaigner for women’s suffrage in South Australia, (https://anzlitlovers.com/2018/10/16/mary-lee-by-denise-george/), it became clear that whatever the social class of the suffragist, they had a clear understanding that nothing would improve for women unless all of them got the vote. They could not rely on nor wait for change to the major structural inequities that you refer to, if only men, who benefitted from discriminatory laws, could vote. And indeed, the case in Australia proved it: once all women had the vote in 1901, we then had some of the most progressive industrial and social legislation in the world which was of enormous benefit to working-class women (and men). But it didn’t all happen immediately in 1901.

    Moreover, the vote was a means to an end, not an end in itself. Here at least, the activists for the franchise were not single-issue campaigners at all, and they were not bereft of issues to resolve once the franchise was achieved (e.g. the right to keep custody of your own children after the death of your husband, and the widow’s pension, introduced here in 1909.) Many of them were lifelong campaigners for reform.

    The franchise is a fundamental human right that changes lives, but it’s not a magic wand and it demands engagement in politics at least at some level by people who want things to change. For this author to suggest otherwise with a mocking portrait of an activist with nothing meaningful to do, looks like buying into contemporary populist disenchantment with democracy. And look where that’s got us!

    • Thanks for the links, Lisa; I’m afraid I knew nothing about the suffrage campaign in Australia, so these posts were enlightening. I don’t think Evans is advocating ‘single-issue’ radicalism – we have enough of that at the moment here in the UK, most of it worryingly jingoistic; instead Mattie’s realisation that after the vote was won the real battle for emancipation and equality for women was just beginning. That’s why she started the Amazons club – ok, not exactly world-changing, but my quotation of her words to one of the girls about preparing them for their futures as equals in Parliament, professions, etc., is pertinent. She has her ex-suffragists feel let down by the defections and betrayals during WWI, mostly by the upper-class leaders of the movement. The essay at the BL that I linked to has some fascinating stuff on this, and the formation of women’s labour movements (especially in northern industrial cities) alongside the better-known metropolitan Suffragettes. The WSPU had its origins among the working classes of the East End; like some of the girls in Mattie’s Amazons, they’d sacrifice their one free day off to attend sessions or petition Parliament, walking all the way there and back. The boys of the fascist Empire League rival group would be dropped off by their parents in their cars, wearing expensive uniforms the girls could only dream of. So I’m sure Evans isn’t ‘buying into…populist disenchantment with democracy’; on the contrary, and if my post gave that impression it’s my fault, not hers. Her moving portrayal of teenage working-class Ida, whose hopes are raised by Mattie and her friend, then dashed when the two women fall out with each other and she’s forgotten about, and she’s left abandoned and pregnant (by a posh boy who dumps her) dramatises the sometimes heedless idealism of the privileged classes who engaged in the struggle for equality, but had little to lose if they lost impetus or enthusiasm for the cause. Evans’ sympathy clearly lies with these true heroines like Ida, the voiceless ones

      • Yeah, you’re right… and I sometimes forget just how pernicious the class system was (still is?) in the UK. We complain here about differences in social status and opportunities, but it’s nothing compared to the entrenched class consciousness that I’ve read about it in a lot of BritLit.

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