It was the appropriation, and perversion, of her idea that rankled most

Old BaggageOld Baggage
by Lissa Evans

This year marks 100 years since (some) women were able to vote for the first time in the UK, and 90 years since full voter equality was achieved here, and Lissa Tremain’s novel covers both these developments with gentle humour.

It is the start of 1928 and Mattie gives regular lectures about her suffragette past. She is widely admired for her history and her oratory but she can’t seem to get people interested in the ongoing struggle for equality. There is a popular assumption that the partial enfranchisement that women won in 1918 should be enough. It also begins to become clear that, while she is well-intentioned, she is blind to the reality of life for working-class women.

This is in stark contrast to her best friend and housemate The Flea, who works as a health visitor in some of London’s poorest neighbourhoods. The Flea smooths out Mattie’s problems before Mattie notices she has them, which has the unfortunate effect of meaning that Mattie rarely learns that she is getting it wrong.

“’Your memoir?’ The Flea was astonished. ‘I had no idea!’
‘Started long ago and never completed.’
‘But why ever not?’
Mattie hesitated. ‘I found the task…counterproductive.’ She could remember the precise moment that she had stopped writing…She had written about that accident…but now, she realized, now, she could recall it only from the single angle of her prose; in a moment of horrid clarity, she saw that each memory she had pinned to the page had become fixed and lifeless, the colours already fading. She was narrowing her past to a series of sepia vignettes.”

Mattie’s past is heroic. She was arrested multiple times for her part in suffragette demonstrations. She calls her house the Mousehole because in response to the Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 (when prisoners on hunger strike who had become seriously ill from malnutrition were temporarily released until their health was recovered enough for them to be sent back to jail) she opened it up to suffragettes as a recovery home.

Though they have their problems, I like that Mattie and The Flea are largely happy with their lives. They are middle-aged and single by choice (for different reasons). They are muddling along fine until Mattie has the bright idea to start a club for local girls. While this seems inspired, it brings with it many problems, not least of which is a rivalry with a former suffragette friend turned Fascist (and I’m not using that term generally – I mean actual card-carrying member of the British Fascist Party).

“As she stamped outside into the mildest of early spring days…it was the appropriation, and perversion, of her idea that rankled most. To take airy freedom and turn it into military drill, to sprint across the paradise of the Heath in the name of patriotism, to prohibit spontaneity and sneer at the notion of “fun”; these seemed as good a definition of fascism as any she had come across.”

Through the lens of a slightly bumbling comedic heroine, Evans explores a fascinating moment in history. While the wit is gentle, the topics being explored are dark – from the poverty and disease of the slums, to the First World War, to police brutality, to the more gradual sorrow of growing older and feeling irrelevant.

I really enjoyed this novel. I found it sad, funny, inspiring and hopeful.

Published June 2018 by Doubleday.

Source: An advance copy was kindly sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.