About a year ago, I read Constance Maud’s No Surrender (1911). I felt like I needed to have read at least one suffrage novel, and my friend Urmila admires this one (a Persephone book). It was slow going at first, but novels are always very slow going at first for me. And Persephone makes no special case for the writing, though it does praise what’s truly remarkable about this political novel: its accurate depiction of many of the events within the suffrage movement as they were unfolding.
So, with expectations low and determination high, I persisted in reading the book. And I wanted to write, however briefly, about it—it’s kind of wonderful—but I’ve hesitated because another friend, an expert in suffrage novels, tells me it’s utterly typical for the genre. So, then I got all tangled up in myself—worrying that suffrage scholars would find my enthusiasms inaccurate, misleading. This kind of worry is the way I know that, for all my love of writing short essayistic pieces, I’ve been affected by a life in over-cautious academe.
The novel follows two women’s involvement in the movement: a mill worker and a minor Irish aristocrat. Beyond the interest of learning about the sisterhood of women across age and class who worked together for the vote, there were three moments in the book that struck me as particularly moving and formally exciting: a story-telling scene in jail where imprisoned suffragettes take turns telling how they’ve come to the movement; a staged dinner-party scene in which the aristocrat hires the mill-worker to be a maid and disrupt the event—terrific theater, even on the page of a not-brilliantly-written book; and, best of all, the final scene of the novel in which the aristocrat watches one of the huge suffrage marches pass her window. Overcome, her friends think she’s about to faint, but no, she’s joining the movement.
What a sweet relief to have a novel end with a young woman committing herself to a cause. The Cause, in fact.