I was confounded when I first read about No Surrender on the Persephone Books website. “A suffragette novel” it said. As if that was something remarkable!
And remarkable it was. For all the woman writers, all the books about women’s’ lives I have read I couldn’t think of anything I had read about the suffragette movement.
Clearly I had a great deal to learn.
And I have learned a great deal from No Surrender, a novel from the very heart of the movement that strove to give women votes and voices.
The first thing I learned was that it cut across all classes.
I met Jenny, a mill hand whose dark family circumstances illuminated horrible inequalities.
Her mother worked in the mill and her father spent the pittance she earned on drink and on gambling. Her money was his by right. Her sister was beaten by a brutal husband who took her children away from her. She had no right to divorce her husband and no right to even a say in what happened to her children.
It was easy to see why Jenny was drawn to the suffragette movement. Because it wasn’t just about giving women votes. It was about giving them rights at work, and a say in what happened in their families.
That drew Mary too. She was a mill-owner’s daughter, she had a privileged life, but she saw the injustices that so many women faced, and she wanted to do something about it.
Jenny’s and Mary’s paths crossed, and both were drawn deeper into the suffragette cause.
I watched as they did everything they could to forward that cause. They went to meetings and rallies. They made banners. They ambushed MPs and public figures. They drafted women who had votes in other countries to support them.
I heard the stories of so many women. And I saw them winning hearts and minds with passionate and reasoned arguments.
They won mine. I was caught up, and I was swept away.
But the suffragettes had many opponents. Some who were happy with what they had and saw no need for change. Some who were fearful of change. And some who were wary of the responsibilities that would come with rights.
I understood, but I wanted to shake them.
And the establishment moved against the suffragettes. They would be imprisoned for trivial, trivial things. And when they protested, when they were driven to hunger strikes they would be brutally force-fed. It was appalling and it was heart-breaking.
But they fought on …
I have to say at this point that No Surrender in not a great novel. The prose is dull, the characterisation is simplistic and one or two elements just don’t work.
But it illuminates an era and it makes the case for women’s suffrage quite magnificently.
That’s why I’ve been struggling to write about it. because No Surrender is all about that era and that case, and nothing I can write can convey that as the author can. She does it brilliantly.
I was moved by the suffragettes’ stories. I was impressed by their conviction and their courage. I was infuriated by their opponents.
I was educated. And I thought about what they had achieved, about how long it had taken for many of their aims to be achieved, about so many inequalities that still exist. So much to think about.
For all of these reasons, No Surrender should be required reading.