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- Published: 11 Nov 2004
- DOI: 10.4324/9780415357449
- Set ISBN: 9780415357449
Women's Suffrage Literature is a new Major Work from Routledge and Edition Synapse. It makes available in facsimile key texts which represent the wealth of creative writing that emerged around the issue of women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century. The collection includes five significant novels, a wide range of drama and representative short stories. Selected in order to illustrate the diversity of concerns and positions with the campaign for women's suffrage, the texts also reflect the different literary models adopted. They cover a range of key moments within and after the campaign for the vote, revealing changes in perspective and tactics between 1907 and 1924. The selected texts problematize categories such as pro- and anti-suffrage writing, reveal the complex relationship between definitions of a 'feminist' and a 'suffrage' text and raise questions about critical approaches to such politicized writings.
The collection is organized so as to provide some historical coverage of this key period; to allow comparative analysis of different genres; and to demonstrate the variety of concerns and discourses which defined this campaign. It has been edited by a team of academics with long experience of researching and teaching in the field of women's suffrage.
When Virginia Woolf invited Elizabeth Robins to a performance of Ibsen’s The Master Builder in the latter’s later years, Robins apparently demurred, protesting, ‘I’m Hilda. I’m the person it was written for’. This account offers a glimpse into the crowded and compartmentalised life of the actress, novelist and feminist campaigner. Identifying herself with the quintessential Ibsen heroine might seem excessive but it was quite justified. In the 1890s Robins epitomised the Ibsenite New Woman in the public imagination, with a succession of hit roles from Hedda to Hilda behind her. Her admirers included Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, George Meredith, Oscar Wilde, Henry James and William Archer; G. B. Shaw was so impressed by one performance that he concurred with her self-identification, proclaiming, ‘Miss Robins was Hilda’. But her reply to Woolf laid claim not only to the role of Hilda with its associated public glory but also to the material history of its production, in which she played a crucial part. Although it is still largely unacknowledged, Robins herself procured The Master Builder in instalments as they were being published in Noray, co-translated and produced it. For in Ibsen she had found an objective embodiment of her convictions which had become deep-rooted even before her London success and which were still intact forty-five years after she retired from the stage. Rather than being merely a populariser or a vehicle for Ibsen, Robins lived her life as a manifestation of Ibsenite ideas, long before being aware of his work, and nowhere more so than in her suffrage years. It is therefore noteworthy that this eminent actress, the New Woman par excellence, the freethinking American Abroad, was an opponent of women’s suffrage until shortly before writing the pro-suffrage novel, The Convert (1907). In November 1905, Robins was asked to enter a debate on Women’s Suffrage as an anti-suffragist. By thinking the debate through, she slowly became convinced of the justice of the cause. Votes for Women, the play which became the novel The Convert, was conceived when Gertrude Kingston asked Robins to write a piece that would demonstrate that the Vote was a right for everyone. Though by this time Robins had become sympathetic to the cause, she was also doubtful about the efficacy of their methods. As she wrote to Mrs Fawcett, ‘the women who work on “constitutionalist” lines cannot always reach and stir the larger public’. Robins sought to direct the aims of the suffrage campaign away from those of the constitutionalist National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies led by Mrs Fawcett, in favour of persuading the ‘women of influence to understand what is at stake’.
Widely advertised to activists in the women’s suffrage press, Suffragette Sally was one of Gertrude Colmore’s most successful novels. The educational and aesthetic qualities of this ‘novel with a purpose’ were praised in the review published in the Women’s Freedom League newspaper, The Vote, where Louisa Thompson Price concluded that, ‘We feel that a debt of gratitude is due to the author for the valuable literary contribution that she has made to the cause of woman’s suffrage’. Published by Stanley Paul in 1911, the novel made an important cultural intervention in the debates on political strategy following the frustrations of the government’s treatment of the Conciliation Bill.
The striking sights of women’s suffrage activism, their spectacular actions, banners and symbols, made an immediate impression on public consciousness. On both sides of the campaign, posters, cartoons and postcards deployed thought-provoking images accompanied by captions which re-created the dialogue between the characters depicted. Many women joining the campaign were alert to new ways of expressing the arguments for the vote, whether to convert others or explain to anxious or hostile relatives. The plays performed during the British women’s suffrage movement are usually more complex than the explicitly propagandist posters which hailed the spectator to take up only one available position. In the unfolding of plot and character through dialogue, various arguments for women’s suffrage could be set out for an audience already in agreement but in need of training in the arts of persuasion. Thus How the Vote Was Won and Mr Peppercorn’s Awakening transform the most unlikely males (or females such as the Daily Mail-reading Aunt in Our Happy Home) into supporters. The acerbic ending to How the Vote Was Won presents a difficult lesson: that the vote will only be achieved by legislative change by a majority of the members of an exclusively male parliament. Implicitly, the play reminds its audience, the end will be brought about by diverse motives, including self-interest.
It is a curious fact that any investigation of suffrage fiction will lead to the observation that the novels written in the thick of the campaign are mostly predicated on romantic narratives. Romantic interest and feminist campaign might seem like oil and water, yet in most pro-suffrage fiction the structure of romance is used as the constant with which the variables of feminist narratives are interwoven; and in anti-suffrage fiction, the protagonist’s political engagement is usually a temporary deviation that only serves to reinforce the romantic outcome.
Pseudonymously authored by ‘A Looker-on’, The Home-Breakers was published in 1913, at the height of militancy and in the intense atmosphere of hunger-striking, forcible feeding and the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. By addressing these events, including the death of Emily Wilding Davison after the Derby in June 1913, the novel represents an immediate intervention into the politics of the moment. Its position in relation to the suffrage cause is, however, rather more ambiguous than its title suggests. While the novel locates itself with a concern over the condition of England at the present time, and warns against the dangerous effects of militancy, it also presents a powerful analysis of the militant mind which, through the depth of its interiority, almost inevitably draws the reader into a certain sympathy with women who devote themselves to the cause.
Written when she was nearly fifty, Edith Ayrton Zangwill’s novel draws upon feminist experiences which span the development of the New Woman, the struggle for the Vote, and the changes brought about by women’s role in the First World War. Feminism over this period inevitably took a number of very different trajectories and the diverse nature of its concerns are reflected both in fie broad scope of the novel’s perspective and in the hybridity of its form. Energetic in its stance, yet nuanced in its political explorations, The Call deploys its retrospective relationship to the women’s suffrage campaign to powerful effect in reassessing and reconfiguring the meaning and significance of the fight for women’s rights. In contrast to other novels in this collection, therefore, it offers an evaluation of the women’s suffrage struggle in a broader historical context.