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This is an important year, the centenary of the introduction of the first vote for women in Britain. The vote – the privilege of being able to vote, to step forward and have a voice – is something to be celebrated, especially in these times of politically shifting sands. So, when I first heard that Jon Walter’s new novel, Nevertheless She Persisted, was a ‘moving story of suffrage’, I was totally onboard. This subject is very important to me, to many women and men, of course.

Walter’s has said that he wrote the book after reading a biography of Sylvia Pankhurst and realising that there’s so much in the struggle for ‘female suffrage that still resonates today’. He also commented that when he started writing only one question mattered, ‘When is it right to break the rules?’ Hmm.

I’m going to preface what I say in the rest of this piece, which I acknowledge is quite different to the kind of reviews I usually write, by stating that this is a very competently written book with a sound plot. On one level, it’s an engaging tale of two sisters, Clara and Nancy, from a challenging working-class background, and the impact that the burgeoning women’s movement in London has on their lives. It’s very readable and Walter writes fluidly. That said, I wanted more. It left me wanting more.

I found it very one tone, that is, lacking in extreme high or low notes. And by that, I mean this was a movement on a huge scale, one that, at the time, was vilified by men, particularly those in power, by the press – and, yes, by other women. It had very vocal and able supporters – Virginia Woolf included, who wrote several fine essays that were published in the papers at the time. It was also a movement that was seeking the seemingly impossible, that women could have the right to vote, the right to have some control over their own lives, and this at a time when not even all men had that. And that’s something that the 1918 act achieved, the right to vote for all men – and a selection of women who met very specific criteria, some 8.5 million potentially. So, by those very facts this was a movement in which anyone involved had to be passionate about and committed to achieving their ends – Emmeline Pankhurst’s followers were almost religious in their zeal. And one also has to remember, if this were to happen now, the actions of violent civil disobedience committed by suffragettes would be considered domestic terrorism: that’s how serious it was. That passion, that zeal doesn’t come across in Walter’s book. Instead there’s a feeling almost of acceptance, even by the characters who are caught up in the movement. And terrible things happen to some of Walter’s characters. The Duchess apart, I didn’t get a sense of extreme desperation, frustration, violent passion, hate, of a belief in the cause so strong that the means truly justified the ends. When you read material contemporary to the time, speeches, letters, and so on, by prominent suffragettes, some of those emotions certainly seep through.

I know I’m being unusually opinionated because this is a subject extremely close to my heart and when Walter’s says it still resonates today, it’s so much more than that.

We live in times in which too many women and men still don’t have the right to vote and are fighting, in many parts of the world, for a voice. We live in western democracies in which our reproductive rights and freedom of speech are still often under threat. We live in countries in which the right to vote, which is an utter, hard-won privilege – I truly believe that – isn’t exercised by vast numbers of the population. And the right to vote – and I feel this, possibly more so because I am a woman – is all about choice. If you have choice, you have freedom and, ergo, hope. And if you have those things, anything, anything is possible.

So, coming back to Jon Walter’s book, for the above reasons, I wanted more. Many people will disagree with me, I’m sure. And yet, that’s another privilege that we have in our particular democracy, the right to express our opinion.

Isn’t that wonderful?

  

 

Jon Walter’s Nevertheless She Persisted | David Fickling Books| 6 September 2018 | hardback | £12.99

 

Acknowledgements: This review is published as part of the Nevertheless She Persisted book tour. Many thanks to wonderful Anne Cater for organising it and to the publisher for providing a review copy. All opinions are our own (as is evident). All rights reserved.

 

See British Pathé film, 1913, ‘St Leonards Outrage‘. A good example of the type of domestic civil disobedience perpetrated by suffragettes in Britain, this newsreel covers the burning of the home of a Sussex MP opposed to the women’s rights movement. There were many suffragettes in St Leonards on Sea, which is also the place I chose to move to from London recently.

 

Also of interest: ‘The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’;We should all be feminists’; ‘Beautiful words – The Language of Secrets‘; ‘RO Kwon’s The Incendiaries’; ‘Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng’s rising star’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir‘; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper – indie publisher Orenda does it again‘; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry‘; To Kill a Mockingbird (1962 trailer); ‘The beauty of Sara Taylor’s The Shore’.

 

This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do request permission. Thank you so much.