Suffragette Sally (1911) by Gertrude Colmore

Book Review by Sylvia D: Gertrude Colmore (1855-1926) finished writing Suffragette Sally in February 1911 at the height of the women’s militant suffrage campaign. She covers the two years preceding the book’s publication and, through the experiences of three women from very different backgrounds, attempts to explain the way the women’s actions were misrepresented and distorted by anti-suffragists and the press and to justify the use of militant tactics. Suffragette Sally was republished in 1984 with the more appropriate title of The Suffragette: a Story of Three Women and the edition I have been reading, edited by Alison Lee, dates from 2008. This edition would make an excellent textbook as it is full of footnotes explaining individual events and whom a particular character is based on and is enhanced by a number of contemporary extracts from diaries, newspapers, pamphlets, memoirs, Votes for Women and The Anti-Suffrage Review. Its tone is very didactic, as are Colmore’s other novels which she used to further her campaigns for social, political and particularly animal rights. Colmore herself was a member of the Women’s Freedom League and Suffragette Sally is complemented by her hagiographic account of the life of Emily Wilding Davison.

The Sally of the title is Sally Simmonds, a maid and children’s nurse with the Bilkes family who, as well as being at the constant beck and call of Mrs Bilkes, also has to put up with the unwanted advances of the despicable head of the household. She is drawn to the suffrage cause when she casually drops into a suffrage meeting on her day off and is inspired by the words of Lady Hill (the second of the three women) which seemed to Sally,

‘A song of freedom …, a song which told that women, however poor, however put upon, had a right to have a say in the things which mattered most to them; that it was unjust that a human being, whether rich or poor, married or not married, should go without the rights that were given to human beings, just because she was a woman;’ – (p50).

Sally becomes entirely devoted to the militant campaign, loses her job, is arrested, goes on hunger strike and finally pays for her commitment with her life.

The woman who inspired her, Lady Geraldine Hill, is loosely based on the militant suffragist, Constance Lytton. Married into an aristocratic family, she goes against her husband’s wishes and espouses militancy because she comes to recognise that she can’t allow others to suffer on her behalf and family loyalties to stand in her way. As she says to her husband,

‘What is my position? What is it, after all? Lower politically than the meanest man’s on the Duke’s estate. Yet I am to be held back by it from doing anything towards attaining the position of a citizen! Like Aunt Margaret this afternoon, who took it for granted that in the drama which women are playing, I could never be anything but a walking-on lady – because I am her niece and your wife’ – (p 103).

The third woman, middle-class Edith Carstairs, moves very cautiously from being a suffragist to espousing the militant movement but in the final analysis finds she is unable to face imprisonment and forced feeding. Edith’s involvement is tempered by her romantic attachment to an up and coming, seemingly supportive, Liberal MP, Cyril Race, who betrays her when it comes to the vote on the 1910 Conciliation Bill which proposed a limited suffrage for women but was defeated, mainly through the intervention of Churchill. Reading group members may be entertained by the words of F E Smith who in the debate destroyed a suggestion that the House of Commons should recognise the intelligence of women from the fact that they wrote books with the words, ‘There is perhaps nothing which an educated man or woman can do which requires less intelligence than the writing of books’ (quoted in Roger Fulford, Votes for Women, p 226).

The lives of the three women intersect when Geraldine Hill goes to Littlehampton to manage her aunt’s Home of Rest for Women for a couple of weeks at the same time that Sally has been sent there to recuperate after nursing the three Bilkes children through the measles and Edith Carstairs is spending a week’s holiday there with her aunt and uncle. Here the novel’s didactic function is fully realised when Geraldine takes advantage of strolls on the beach to put the record straight and thereby educate the reader about the history of the suffrage movement.

Colmore effectively demonstrates the way involvement in the movement affected the women’s relationships with their families and friends. Geraldine’s husband is initially opposed to her taking militant action because he knows it will cause outrage amongst his relations but after Geraldine goes to prison and he becomes aware of her and other women’s dedication to the campaign, he resolves to stand by her even if it upsets his family. Sally, on the other hand, loses her young man, Joe, because he is not prepared to wait for her. Edith, betrayed by Cyril Race, also has to face the scorn and ostracism of her very conservative family. Colmore tries to express the cross-class nature of the campaign through her interweaving of the experiences of the three women but she is not entirely convincing as Sally is made to be deferential and in awe of Geraldine right to the end. She does though make much of Geraldine’s discovery of the different way upper and lower class women are treated in prison. She resolves to test the system by getting arrested whilst dressed as a working woman in order to ‘prove to the public that a working woman of precisely the same physique as the daughter-in-law of a duke received entirely different treatment from that accorded to the owner of a titled name’ – (p 252).

Colmore gives very graphic descriptions of the violence used against women at meetings, demonstrations and in prison. Her account of the attempted deputation to Prime Minister, Asquith, following his prevarication on the Conciliation Bill is particuarly vivid;

‘Women doctors were there in the thick of the tumult, well-known writers, hospital nurses. Woman (sic) who had been told they must not have the vote because they could not fight showed they could fight that day; there was nothing to be done but fight, since all around was warfare; since well-dressed men and youths amused themselves by striking women; since a man appealed to for help, turned on the girl who appealed to him and hit her again and again’ –
(pp 277-278).

Colmore frequently uses the imagery of the sea when writing about the women’s suffrage campaign. On the beach at Littlehampton Geraldine compares the women’s movement to the tide coming in with the anti-suffragists as rocks against which the waves must break. The women are individual waves but ‘the tide comes in. And individual women have been and will be broken: but woman will reach her destined place’ – (p 74). Rachel Cullen, another of the suffragettes who under goes forced feeding and eventually dies as a result of the way she is treated uses a similar analogy, ‘I like to think of the whole movement as a sea, and each wave of it a separate striving woman’ – (p 170).

The suffrage campaign was often compared to a religious crusade and Colmore, who was a member of the Theosophical Society, frequently uses language suffused with spiritual imagery. Edith out walking, sees a local sign-post take on the form of a cross and she remembered that although the message of the cross is peace and goodwill, other words came to mind, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword’ – (pp 109-110). (This is a quote from Matthew 10.) The imagery of a cross reappears in the chapter ‘The Valley of Vision’ where Geraldine is in prison, unrecognised because of her disguise. Lying on the floor and in considerable pain, she looks at the window,

‘In that window were three panes of clear glass, and on them, as the light fell, there came shadows of the moulding that looked like three crosses. They brought to Geraldine’s mind the familiar scene of Calvary, and she thought, “What did they stand for?” “One for the Lord Christ who died for sinners, and one for the sinner who was kind, and one for the sinner who had yet not learnt to be kind”’ – (pp 258-259).

Each of the chapters, which are very short, is prefaced by a literary quotation and the final chapter, entitled ‘Our God is Marching On’, consists solely of a verse from Jullia Ward Howe’s The Battle Hymn of the Republic, followed by an Author’s Note which begins, ‘This is a story which cannot be finished now’ – (P 290).

One thought on “Suffragette Sally (1911) by Gertrude Colmore

  1. Gosh, there was obviously a lot more suffragette lit than I had realised. Great review – thanks!

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