This is not an announcement of the startling unearthing of the Women’s Suffrage and Butchery League from the ruins of history; but thoughts on the 100th anniversary this week of the death of Emily Wilding Davison under the hooves of the Kings’ horse at the Derby (in case you hadn’t noticed…).
The horse is the story. Political movements – like the worlds of literature – prefer a straightforward story; one that begins at the Starters’ line, runs straight ahead for a while, and crosses a clearly defined Finish. (Nelson Mandela is released from prison, followed by the first free elections.) Although in Emily W.D.’s case the horse didn’t finish the race, what carried on running was the story, straight ahead over the finishing line, to Emily’s death four days later, through the resultant publicity and on to her martyrdom. It has carried on running through to this anniversary, its saddle broad enough for us all to jump onto.
While writing The Invisible Riot, I came across the idea that, (especially in post-Colonial and post-Imperial literature), writers have a responsibility to resist the notion of ‘one story’, as that story is invariably a narrowing, an appropriating of a myriad of perspectives into one inarguable reality. In these days of blogging and Facebook and Twitter, we are becoming expert at constructing our own versions of a world narrative. Yet our literature has, for the most part, not caught up with this. (For more, see David Shields’ fascinating book, Reality Hunger).
I have aimed not simply to ride the horse, but to put the reader into the experience as fully and viscerally as possible – one minute in front of the horse, the next under the hooves, then as the jockey hearing the starters’ pistol – while still cleaving to the momentum of the story. The Suffragette movement didn’t run in a clear line. It was a mad chaotic shitfight, the full diversity of which only adds to the sense of what it must have been like to be there.
The First World War broke out at the peak of the militant protests, leading to the release of all Suffragette prisoners and the suspension of the formal campaign. It was only in 1928 that the cause – and the story – finally walked over the finishing line.