Monday, February 17, 2014

Let's Talk Suffragettes, With Ian Porter

As an historian/writer/researcher with a particular interest in women's history in the 19th and early 20th centuries, my first novel was set in the Whitechapel of 1888. I had been inspired to write the novel by my increasing frustration at all the poorly researched books and TV programmes about the identity of a serial killer. l wanted to tell the story of the women of the slums and the terrible choices that some of them had to make which led them into the path of a maniac. A social history novel.
Sylvia Pankhurst
I wanted the inspiration for my second novel to come out of a positive rather than a negative. And what could be more inspiring than the gaining of the vote for women. I was drawn to the idea of setting a novel in the world of Suffragettes. But when I thought about it I was shocked to appreciate that I knew very little about the Suffragettes. And I'm an historian! It is a subject that has received remarkably little coverage in the media, history books, novels or TV drama. I asked around and it appeared that the average person in the street knew even less - Mrs Pankhurst won the vote for women (sic); women won the vote at the end of the Great War (sic); a Suffragette committed suicide by throwing herself under the king's horse (sic); women chained themselves to railings, and not much else.

I decided I needed to research the subject thoroughly. I did this and quickly found that Suffragette history is full of distortions. Note the number of sics above. Consequently I was particularly keen to relay the true story of the Suffragettes.

I had no preconceived ideas as to what precisely I would write about. I would allow the research to lead me. A year later, with the research notes piled up, I realised that the work of Sylvia Pankhurst had most inspired me. In particular her years in the East End politicising working class women and galvanising working class men into joining the struggle. And it was clear that to do the subject justice, no one novel (I'm not one for writing huge 1000 page doorstop tomes) could cover the whole Suffragette era, so I decided my novel would start in April 1912, when the increase in Suffragette violence was turning public opinion against them. And Sylvia Pankhurst headed down to the East End to support a Votes for Women bye-election candidate, and to distance herself from what she believed were her mother and sister's failing tactics. And the war years would be a whole different novel, so my book would concentrate on the turbulent, dramatic years of 1912 to 1914.

It is clear from the novel that Sylvia is quite a heroine of mine, for which I make no apology.

And coming as I do from Lewisham in South London, I was also very interested in the role that fellow Lewishamite, May Billinghurst played in the struggle. She was known as the 'Cripple Suffragette' ('cripple' being a perfectly acceptable word up until the Great War) because she was wheelchair-bound. She was an amazing woman, travelling on her own by train up to London and wheeling herself miles to bye-elections, protest marches, WSPU shops and coordinating a Suffragette pillar box sabotage campaign.

And I was brought up in Greenwich, a stone's throw from where Emily Davison was born, and having an interest in horse-racing I've always been interested in the most militant of the militants.

With a desire to tell the true story of the Suffragettes, and with so may interesting real-life women in my research notes, I decided that I would as often as possible use real people as characters in the novel, and where possible use their actual words in dialogue. Consequently, Sylvia Pankhurst, May Billinghurst, Emily Davison, Emmeline & Christabel Pankhurst, Mary Richardson, Nora Smyth, Melvinia Walker and the six women who finally succeeded in speaking to Prime Minister Asquith, are all characters in the novel.

But the main character, Ruby, is from my imagination. At many events she is either an addition to or replacement of real life women. For example at the two-woman assault on the Derby, she joins Emily and Mary at Epsom, and through her eyes the reader sees the terrible events of that day. You also see through her the horrors of force-feeding in prison.

The second main character, Nash, is an East End man and through him you see how men, as well as women, were important in the fight for equality. Working class men, like "convicts, lunatics and women" had no vote. He was one of the main characters in my first novel and I thought it would be interesting to have a character reappear 23 years later in a completely different story and environment, well out of his comfort zone. He's also a much needed protector of women at their meetings. We see how, even when the intellectual argument was being won, how women had to be wary of male mysogyny.

My first novel has been very well received but some readers have commented that the story took a while to get going. I took this literally 'on board' by starting this second novel on the Titanic just as it's about to sink. Not only does this get the story off to a fast start, but few things in history (except of course the war that was to follow 2 years later) better encapsulates the stubbornness, slapdashery and lack of human understanding of the British middle class male circa 1912. There are 1500 dead at the end of chapter one to support this. It's here, in a lifeboat, that a Suffragette is effectively born. 


Ian is an historian, writer, public speaker and walks guide. He spent his formative years living in St Johns, Lewisham, Catford and pretty much every other place in South East London (the full list sounds like a railway announcement) to which his restless parents moved. He obtained a degree in history at the University of Birmingham, where he was awarded the Chancellor's Prize, before becoming a ski journalist, during which time he wrote most of the original edition of the skiers' bible, Where to Ski. More recently he has written a novel, Whitechapel, set in the East End slums of 1888. This received very good reviews and has also proved popular with readers. he has also contributed to the non-fiction book, Jack the Ripper: the Suspects and writes articles and gives lectures on various elements of old East End life from the start of the industrial revolution through to the era of 'Call the Midwife'.

Having spent several years researching his second novel, which is set in the world of Suffragettes, he has become an expert on the militant fight for the vote for women, and regularly lectures on the subject. he has helped the National Portrait Gallery on a project involving Sylvia Pankhurst and regularly gives guided Suffragette tours through London's Westminster and Bow.
Ian's heroes/heroines are Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, May Billinghurst and all the brave women and men who fought for the vote for women, and also the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts and everyone with a plaque in Postman's Park.
Ian lives in mid Kent with another of his heroines, his wife (and novel editor) Jenny.

His site is here


This is the story of two Titanic survivors; a young crewwoman, Ruby, and an East End man, Nashey. The story begins in spectacular, if shocking fashion, aboard the Titanic as it’s sinking. An important scene, which Ruby later realises was the genesis of her becoming a Suffragette, takes place in a lifeboat. Ruby and Nashey are left traumatised and horrified – not just by the disaster itself, but by the failures of the ship’s officers. Ruby is also profoundly affected by the misplaced trust in, and subservience to, these men.
Readers are then taken to New York, and on to Halifax, Nova Scotia, before the novel unfolds in Suffragette London, 1912-1914. Much of the story takes place within the militant struggle for Votes for Women, into which both main characters become drawn through different avenues. Ruby gets involved in Mrs Pankhurst’s WSPU, which sees her imprisoned, hunger-striking and being force-fed. Nashey is initially interested in social change rather than the vote – but a different Pankhurst working down in the East End impresses upon him that the former will follow the latter.

Through the five p’s – publicity stunts, protests, political speeches, prison torture and police tactics – we see the lengths to which the women and government went to ensure they would prevail. A main character then questions the direction the movement is taking. But out of this apparent Suffragette autumn comes a women’s spring…

Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring is, predictably, a fast-paced page turner, but characterisation and interpersonal relationships are important themes, brought in through cracking dialogue. This gripping work of historical fiction will appeal primarily to women and has been inspired by a number of sources, including Sylvia Pankhurst and her books on the Suffragette movement, Hilary Mantel and Arthur Morrison.

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