Invisible Ink: No 125 - Rachel Ferguson

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The Independent Culture

What a grand time it must have been to be a wealthy modern girl! Born in 1892 in Hampton Wick – a terribly proper neighbourhood – Rachel Ethelreda Ferguson was a Treasury clerk's daughter, educated privately in Kensington and finished in Florence, emerging with an independent mind and spirit. At 16, she became a campaigner for women's rights, about which she said: "I was as militant as authority allowed me to be. I wanted to go to prison but was refused on the score of age." She went on to become a leading member of the Women's Social and Political Union, a society that was often accused of existing to serve the middle and upper classes. However, working-class members found it difficult to retain their jobs once they were exposed as campaigners for universal suffrage, and the war needed waging on all fronts.

Ferguson wrote a play for the suffragettes and enrolled in the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art, at which point the First World War rudely interrupted her plans, and she joined the Women's Voluntary Reserve. After, she embarked on a career as a writer.

At this point you're probably getting the image of a worthy, if humourless, Edwardian lady looking for a soapbox, in which case nothing prepares you for her sparkling, energetic prose. She worked for Punch magazine as "Rachel" and was the author of some 16 volumes and several plays, including a memoir, We Were Amused. Her most interesting book was Alas, Poor Lady (1937, subsequently reprinted by Persephone Books), about the female victims of "parental incompetence" who were reduced to penury if they could not find a suitor. It's a novel filled with righteous anger at the preceding generation – not so much at the men who had waged war, but at the lazy, selfish matriarchy who had failed their daughters by making them fearful of spinsterhood, training them only for suitably face-saving marriages.

But there was a lighter side to Ferguson as well; she developed a unique and very modern style of her own that fairly bounces off the page in The Brontes Went to Woolworths, the tale of three bohemian sisters who live on their highly developed imaginations. The language is rich and charming: "A jury summons had commanded Mother on a buff slip, ending 'hereof fail not', for which I forgave it everything." Ferguson lived in Kensington all her life and died too early at 65.