A week or two back Simon Stuck in a Book asked what was more important plot, character, or writing style? This book was very much on my mind at the time because, and Persephone are quite upfront about this, the style isn’t up to much, the plot isn’t up to much, and honestly the characterisation isn’t up to much but it’s still a brilliant read. When I started it, it was in the hope that it would be interesting as an historical document – a rare contemporary fictionalised insight into the suffragette movement, and not too hard to read. Expectations were far exceeded by the irresistible page turning quality of what I’m guessing must have been a labour of love for Constance Maud.
She was clearly very passionate about the cause and although Maud never went to prison herself she knew several people who did – with this book the devil is in the detail, it’s the descriptions of meetings, of court, and of prison which really ring true and which in turn are thoroughly gripping. The other thing that’s important, and which I didn’t really expect, is that the heroine of the piece is a mill girl – Jenny Clegg. I did at least know how important working women were in the suffragette movement – and it amazes me how these girls found the time, money, and energy to work as they did and contribute to a cause outside that of keeping body, soul, and home together – it’s a true testament to how vital the issues they faced were.
Jenny lives at home with her parents and a collection of brothers and sisters, her mother is a downtrodden drudge, her father a drunkard with a taste for gambling, but this is as nothing to her sister Liz’s husband Sam. Sam is not only violent (in the first chapter he turns up at the family home with a dog whip intent on fetching back his wife) he’s sold two of his children to an aunt and uncle in Australia without their mothers knowledge. The point that Maud makes is that not only are these men entitled to their wives earnings they are also legally allowed to beat them and mothers have no rights over the children they bear – they aren’t joint guardians, children are the property of the father. All this and more is pushing Jenny into the women’s movement and a clamour for the vote because she believes it’s the only way anything will change.
What the women want are better provisions for health and safety within the factories they work in, better provision for education, the right to work in jobs that pay a living wage, for fathers to maintain their children, for parity in divorce laws – in short to be properly represented for the contribution they make to society and to be protected by the law. The books other heroine is Mary O’Neil a member of the landed and mill owning classes with political connections. After a visit to Jenny’s mill she takes up an interest in the cause which sets her at odds with her family. The women in Mary’s class are far better protected and far more likely to be Anti’s – although as Maud points out a few times as strongly as these women objet to the idea of the vote and the erosion of their position as the angel in the house they aren’t prepared to go to prison or otherwise court opprobrium in the way their suffragette sisters are.
Belief in their cause and actions to further its aims lead both Jenny and Mary into prison and into hunger strikes in a system where class and connections make a difference. This book was written in 1911 when the militant movement was still relatively tame; the criminal acts the women are convicted of mainly consist of window smashing, the treatment they meet with disproportionately harsh. As Maud makes clear women weren’t treated as political prisoners but as common criminals, the hunger strikes are a protest against this and the establishments answer of force feeding leads to one of the novels most powerful scenes.
‘No Surrender’ should be a curiosity documenting a struggle long won but sadly 100 years later we still don’t have the kind of equality that Constance Maud dreamt of and worked for. This is a significant book both as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go – and why fairness is worth fighting for. Of all the Persephone books I’ve read and loved (I have just over 40, have read about 30, was only underwhelmed once) the only one that matches ‘No Surrender’ in terms of making a point is Dorothy B. Hughes ‘The Expendable Man’. ‘The Expendable Man’ is technically the better book but ‘No Surrender’ is written with a passion and conviction behind it that makes it far more than the sum of its parts. It may be riddled with faults but it’s utterly compelling, not to mention enjoyable, to read. I cannot recommend it highly enough.