Reviewed by Julie Barham
There are some books which are so good that I struggle to find words to suggest how much I appreciate them, and this is one of them. A novel with a big agenda in some ways, yet carefully controlled as the story of a few women who are struggling in a world where part of their lives’ work has been achieved, yet in many ways not much has changed. It is essentially the tale of what happened to those brave women who took on the establishment when there was every danger of them being ignored, only to find their fight had perhaps not essentially changed attitudes and real oppression. It is the story of women who lost much in a war, but have been prevented from fighting and winning their own battles. Evans chooses to base her novel on one woman and those around her, but it is the story of a movement which had inspired her life, and left many women bereft of purpose in a world where their battle seems to be won, but much has not improved. It is undoubtedly a clever idea, to remember the damaging battle for the vote, the First World War, and the brave new post war world in which the women now find themselves through the eyes of a strong but frustrated woman.
Mattie Simpson is first seen as the victim of a robbery. She is more upset by the loss of her weapon than anything else, including her bag, as it symbolized all the battles she had fought during the suffrage campaign. She lives some of the time in her memories of when she and her friends, allies, made a difference, took real action to fight for what they believed in, even to the extent of ruining their health and of the real fear of forcible feeding in prison (readers of a delicate disposition should look away). The camaraderie of common ideals has been reduced to fighting minor skirmishes with neighbours and others shocked by her lifestyle. Her faithful companion, Florrie or “The Flea” is a sort of health visitor, made angry by the suffering of the mothers and babies she sees. Significantly as she is without property herself she cannot use the vote hard won in the campaign she actually managed in the mundane tasks of administration. She has a secret sadness, but eventually cannot continue picking up the pieces of others’ lives. One of the former suffragettes has married and found her hope in a form of fascism; another war is approaching and some see their hope in values familiar to those familiar with the rise of the right. Another has become an alcoholic, trying to grasp reality but struggling to survive. Not that this is a miserable book in any sense; there are times it can be funny and the main protagonist is often wilfully awkward. Evans uses her true ear for dialogue to convey so many people here, the strong willed, the sad, the ambitious, the caring.
In some ways this is the story of an obsession, which causes grief. It is a novel about the loss of a sense of purpose, as well as brothers in battles which did not improve the lives of most people. However, there is a sense of hope, of change, of improvement from which the next generation will benefit. This book is based in London, but the Heath becomes almost a character as it is the place of so much of the action. It is a book rooted in a place, yet with characters who go beyond the here and now. I truly enjoyed this novel, I hope it finds the readership it richly deserves.
Julie blogs at Northern Reader
Lissa Evans, Old Baggage (Doubleday, 2018). 978-0857523624,320pp., hardback.
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