The year of the suffragette: women on the verge of a societal breakdown. Week in Books

 

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Suffragettes are currently having a moment. Another moment, in fact. There is Up the Women on BBC2 and Sophia on page 21 for anyone interested in revisionist social history, but one woman in particular will command all our attentions because this is the year that Meryl Streep resuscitates Emmeline Pankhurst on celluloid. If Streep pulled off the dazzling feat of theatrical illusion that made us look back on Thatcherism with dewy-eyed fondness, then I expect the modern-day beatification of Ms Pankhurst Senior to be imminent.

It is a life well worthy of dramatisation, I found, on reading her autobiography Suffragette: My Own Story, first published in the summer of 1914 and re-issued this month. Despite its crisp, understated descriptions of police brutality, daring protest and prison horror (“we met with some pretty rough horseplay”), it encapsulates the prolonged pain, and passion, of the suffrage movement in a single life. Her fight began, aged 14, when she accompanied her parents to her first campaign meeting in Manchester, and it ended, in a cruel twist of fate, on 14 June 1928, a few weeks before the vote was awarded to women in Britain on 2 July.

It’s a riveting read, partly for its emotional understatement, mostly for its total conviction and non-conforming intelligence. Either way, it is so much more than a “tie-in”, which is why it’s a pain to see the marketing department’s paw-prints all over the cover and flap, shouting out the fact that this is NOW THE SUBJECT OF A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE no less than four times. You’d think it was the book of the film. Well, I suppose it’s something that Streep in period bonnet isn’t staring out from the cover.

It does make you wonder what kind of Pankhurst we’ll get on film. Just as certain creative liberties may have been taken in showing us the life of dear old Margaret, I wonder how nuanced a picture we’ll get of Emmeline. Like most charismatic figureheads of controversial movements – and the militant wing of the suffrage movement she founded, the WSPU, sparked fissures among even the most progressive campaigners. Pankhurst was a complex character whose militant showmanship led to as many fans as opponents.

“I am what you call a hooligan,” she told the Americans on one of her tours, referring to her political law-breaking. She petitioned Asquith personally and he, in some ways, lived in dread of her. She heckled the young Winston Churchill mercilessly and narrowly evaded death during her many prison sentences and hunger strikes. Yet she was criticised for her wealth and privilege and for advocating “guerrilla warfare”.

Her fierce, flamboyant politics led to some estrangement, including from her once-loyal campaigners, the Pethwick-Lawrences. The story around this is dismissed in a single page by Pankhurst in her autobiography but others have lingered longer on it, such as in the wonderful graphic novel, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, by Mary and Bryan Talbot and Kate Charlesworth, told from the fictional point of view of a “below stairs” radical heroine. Then again, a memoir can never tell the full story, and maybe the film can give depth and dimension,  maybe not to the complex figure of Pankhurst, but to the many other heroic women around her.

It’s Amazin’ what Amazon can do for a book with the right fans

It’s funny what shoots up Amazon’s bestseller list. There’s the predictable hullabaloo around Michel Houellebecq’s sixth novel, Submission,

whose storyline has created that blend of attention-seeking offence that gets people ordering books. Houellebecq’s fictional world of 2022 France in which the mainstream Left and Right political parties come together to back Mohammed Ben Abbes in a second-round presidential

run-off against Marine Le Pen, was bound to get many roused.

The book, just published in France, had a print run of 150,000, and has already climbed to the top of the country’s Amazon bestseller list.            Then there’s the “Zuckerberg effect”, which is a little more unexpected. Sales of Moises Naim’s The End of Power, about the growth of anti-political movements, surged after Facebook’s chief executive selected it as the first title in his new fortnightly online book group, A Year of Books, for 2015. It is now No 8 in Amazon.com’s ranking. A triumph for Zuckerberg, but also, hopefully, for little-known titles, and publishers, to come.

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