Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage – simply marvellous.

81EuV1jfugL._AC_UY218_Mattie Simpkin is a brilliant character. There’s been so much written on the fight for female emancipation, both in fiction and elsewhere, but Evans’ novel, set in 1928, is a moving and often very funny account of what a woman like Mattie, an ardent suffragette and unflagging campaigner for equality, does next. ‘Mattie wore her purple, green and white sash for lectures, but not her hunger-strike medals. ‘I have no wish to look like the veteran of an historic war,’ she said.’

The battle is assumed to be over, by the newspapers at least – ‘Thus far and no further. You have gained an equal vote and must now be forever content’ – so what place does a woman like Mattie now have in society? Mattie’s sense of frustration at what had followed, ‘It was as if the sun had risen after an age-long night only to illuminate a landscape littered with traps’, and her despair at the state of young girls’ education in 1928 leads her to create a group to encourage healthy pursuits and education, The Amazons, and is in part created to counter The Empire Youth League, a nascent right wing youth group set up by a former colleague, Jacko. The right is beginning to manoeuvre on the side lines and we feel justifiably keen that Mattie succeeds in her new plans.

Mattie is magnificent, but the quiet heart of the novel belongs to The Flea, Mattie’s companion and a lifelong socialist whose job as a health visitor takes her into the homes of those women to whom the 1928 Act will ultimately make little real difference. Her sense of purpose is no less strong than Mattie’s, but she goes about her work steadily and without fanfare. We see her as part of a cohort of former suffragettes who have not lost their desire for change but who are working with focus to maintain public awareness of the need for change, and who are not afraid to mock the establishment. I laughed aloud at their conversation after The Flea and her friends had attended a staid and rather portentous lecture entitled ‘The Future of Civilisation’ by an eminent Professor Adams.

‘I’m certainly a little disappointed that the Future of Civilisation promises to be quite so dull.’
Alice gave a hiccup of a laugh. ‘Yes, a flying motor-car or two might have been welcome.’
‘Also a speaker who didn’t repeatedly swallow the end of his sentences,’ announced Ethelwynne, pursing her lips in imitation of the lecturer’s. ‘My talk will be divided into two parts – firstly, the likely form of universal government and, secondly, the mimble mimble mimble mimble.’

Their ability to puncture the pompous delivery was brilliant, and the novel is full of these delightfully dry touches of humour. Later, at the very solemn occasion of Pankhurst’s funeral, Mattie observes that ‘St John’s Smith Square currently contained more convicted criminals than an East End beer-hall.’ Evans’ former suffragettes are very human, very likeable, and they are very conscious that they are still viewed as oddities or irritations by some in society. Not all have come through the struggle well. Evans deftly captures individual tragedies in a few lines whilst speaking volumes. Aileen, now dependent on spirits to get through the day, is a notable character and her story acts as a foil to some of the more light-hearted moments. It’s also a reminder that this is a world which had recently come through the horrors of war, and is, the reader knows, poised to re-enter this state again soon.

I’m late to the party with this one, but I could talk about this novel all day – I loved it so much. It’s funny, it’s poignant, it’s brilliantly written. It’s already been bought for several birthday presents here, and I’d urge everyone else to read it (I know it’s a firm favourite for many bloggers already).

9 thoughts on “Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage – simply marvellous.

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