The social-realist strain probably reached its apotheosis with the political novel, and there can be few more political novels than Maud's dialogue-driven 1911 tale of mill girl Jenny Clegg and middle-class Mary O'Neil, drawn together under the suffragette banner.
It's political in terms of setting out its demands for votes for women, but also in its portrayal of relations between men and women, husbands and wives.
Jenny helps her mother hide money from her father; her sister's brutal husband, Sam, has sent their two children to live in Australia without telling her. Mary's views are ridiculed by suitors. Maud is hardly subtle about women's powerlessness but she has a message to get across: that women, from whatever class, can find solidarity only among themselves. Even working-class men won't back women's fight for justice because they want their jobs.
Maud's didacticism may deter today's audiences, but there's no doubt that her portrayal of life for suffragettes in prison is a real tour de force. Her description of Mary's torture ("her whole being was drowned in an overwhelming sea of pain") as she is force-fed while on hunger strike is shocking, as is the cruelty of the wardens and the two doctors ("'Bad as killing a pig,' replied Dr Sawyer. 'Squealing and kicking up such a shindy – requires a dozen to hold her'."). What Maud wants to celebrate is women's strength and ability not just to endure but to change things. It's not an easy read but it is a worthwhile one.Reuse content