Invisible Ink: No 108 - Constance Maud
Sunday 29 January 2012
Although her life is virtually untraceable now, Constance Maud (1857-1929) lived to tell the story closest to her heart.
She wrote a number of children's books and became a member of the Women Writers' Suffrage League, campaigning for women's votes at a time when the idea was still treated with sniggering condescension.
The movement reached its height in 1913, when Emily Davison threw herself under the King's horse at the Derby, although whether this was an act of political militancy has long been questioned, as she had purchased a return train ticket and had planned to attend a suffragette dance later that night. (The sympathetic jockey, haunted by the sight of Davison's face, later gassed himself.) Women's suffrage arrived in stages at the end of the First World War, but seven years earlier, in 1911, Constance Maud delivered No Surrender, arguably the first novel to deal with the issue.
It's a fair-minded account of a working-class girl and an aristocrat who are drawn together by the cause. The heroine, Jenny, has a drunkard for a father, and her brother-in-law has sold his children to relatives in Australia without their mother's knowledge. At the time, wives and children were the property of the man of the house. Maud makes it clear that not only were men entitled to their wives' earnings, but they were also legally allowed to "train" their human possessions by dishing out physical punishment. Jenny's growing political awareness sets her family against her, but the author also shows that some women did not wish to lose their position as the household matriarch.
The book's historical detail has the accuracy of experience and is still shocking: the protest marches, the enforced sisterhood created by women being crowded into tiny cells, the hunger strikes – which were grotesquely lampooned in magazines as novel ways for women to lose weight – and the force-feeding. No Surrender is primarily a political novel, exploring socialist ideas and tracing the history of the early trade union movement. It's easy to fault as a novel, but its place in history is assured.
Maud was never arrested for militancy herself, but she befriended many who were. When the book was published, it was still uncertain whether women would be granted the vote, as women were under-represented in parliament – as indeed, they still are. Persephone has now made the book available once more.
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