This week, the Suffragettes seem to be all over the press – on TV, in the papers, even a sitcom last night on BBC 4. For me it feels a little strange, because I have been immersed in this history, in these stories, while writing The Invisible Riot, and fueled by an urgent sense of wanting the stories to be more widely known. Now suddenly Clare Balding is on TV asking earnest researchers whether they would describe the women as terrorists – this despite the fact that the violence was directed almost entirely at the protestors, and their own activities almost exclusively concerned with damage to property – so it’s in the air. About time.
From Clare Balding to Norman Wisdom and Michael Fassbender, who are perhaps unlikely inspirations for a novel about Suffragette militancy, but we take inspiration where we can get it. Norman Wisdom in a dress, if not entirely responsible, was certainly influential in my decision to write The Invisible Riot, (as was Steve McQueen’s astonishing film, Hunger, with a tour de force performance by Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands – more of which another time). I was watching Norman Wisdom capering about in one of his interchangeable comedies, when he popped up in one scene dragged up as a simpering Edwardian lady chaining herself to railings for the women’s suffrage cause. I thought – This is the kind of thing most people think of when they think about the Suffragettes (if they think about them at all). Quaint ladies in ridiculous clothing chaining themselves to railings. That somehow achieving voting rights for women was just like waiting in a queue for tickets for a gig or to be the first to buy the latest iPad; simply a matter of stamina in the face of a little inconvenience.
Because of course women voting is so unquestionable, so intrinsic to how we in the West like to see ourselves – as above all democratic - that the idea that it was anything much more than a matter of saying ‘Please may we have the vote?’ and then attaching yourself to the front of a library or a lawcourt for a day or two politely waiting for the answer is unimaginable.
I began to wonder why there seemed a great blankness in most people’s knowledge (including my own, and I was really interested in this stuff!) about how these people got what they wanted in the end, and what they withstood – and committed – in order to do so. The answer, when I looked for it, was flabbergasting, involving arson, starvation, savage beatings and sexual assault from police and the general public, vandalism committed by the women, and violence perpetrated on them. It’s a mighty tapestry of astonishing colour, that those staid black and white photos can in no way capture. You have to hook on to the stories.