Monday, September 13, 2010

{review} the pankhursts

Martin Pugh The Pankhursts (2001)

The Pankhursts

It has just taken me two years to finish The Pankhursts, which is something of a record for me. My slowness was not due to the book's quality, by any means: it is a very fine book and it is an important re-dressing of the more 'mythic' aspects of the Pankhursts which tended to dominate earlier hagiographic biographies. As Pugh writes of the Pankhursts in the 1930s, "...Emmeline's death had raised the stakes by transforming votes for women into history, thereby making the interested parties keenly aware of the need to defend their reputations and their ideas."

Emmeline Pankhurst (source)

This book is pretty hard-core - a political history with a social bent, rather than my favourite (lazier) type of social history with a bit of politics. I would recommend this as a 'heavy', get your teeth into the topic, type of read. (I was also troubled by the extremely small print of this Penguin edition, but that's just me.) I found the first two-thirds hard going - lots of acronyms and politics and unfamiliar places; the final third - their post-suffragette afterlife - was easier (more social) - although I suspect for the author it was quite tricky to construct a meaningful narrative once he was forced to quadfurcate his focus. The results are very rewarding. 

Christabel Pankhurst (source)

It is difficult to balance multiple equally interesting but increasingly diversified protagonists, of course. Sylvia, for instance, could have a book to herself - she was such an interesting and divisive character. It was Adela who interested me the most, probably because she emigrated to Australia (indeed, she was exiled here by her family). None of the Pankhursts emerge from Pugh's accounting as anything nearly as white-washed as popular history would suggest: one thinks, e.g., of the frequency with which their personal and professional finances became confused. On a personal level, indeed, one begins to wonder how they persuaded anyone to support them, given their ability to fall out, often spectacularly, with those who did not agree totally with them. Moreover, the speed with which they dropped the suffragette movement after (some) women achieved the vote is quite peculiar. They also remained quite critical of what the women who could vote had achieved with this independence (this is still a relevant issue given the recent electoral turn-out in the UK where, unlike Australia, voting is not compulsory). All of the Pankhursts made a number of odd choices in their later lives - this part of the book was particularly interesting and I would have liked more time spent on each women individually. But that's other books, I'm sure. 

What the Pankhursts excelled at was creating their own myths, and Pugh really has a lot to get stuck into here, and teases this out very well:
...the Weekly Dispatch invited [Christabel] to write five articles in April. The first of these promised much: 'Confessions of Christabel: Why I Never Married: First of a Candid Series'. However, she revealed little in the article except a growing tendency to pretentiousness. Claiming to have followed an instinct to keep herself free for her life's work, she declared: 'For its sake I have had to remove not only all ideas of marriage, but many other things less important, such as social pleasures and various intellectual and artistic interests.' She was consciously helping to create the myth of a great political leader's sacrifice for the cause. Christabel did, however, come closer to admitting she had never been strongly tempted by marriage when she wrote: 'I am afraid that such a sum-total of human perfection as I should have required in a husband has seldom, if ever, existed.'
Another example - on Christabel's sudden embracing of Adventism: "Adventism offered means of restoring her sense of purpose and personal worth. In some ways it resembled the suffrage cause with its air of moral superiority, its sense of inevitability and its faith in a great leader."

Why read this book? No one should take their right to vote for granted.

Rating: 7/10.

If you liked this...: I'm wondering about fictional representations of the women, but so far I can only think of Christabel in The Ape Who Guards the Balance by Elizabeth Peters (one of her 'Amelia Peabody' series):
She was younger than I had expected -- in her early twenties, as I later learned -- and not unattractive. Firm lips and a direct gaze gave distinction to her rounded face and dark hair. As we shook hands, with the conventional murmurs of greeting, I wondered how Ramses had got acquainted with her -- and when. She had been smiling and rolling her eyes at him in a manner that suggested this was not their first meeting. Ramses has an unfortunate habit of being attractive to women, especially strong-minded women.
... Miss Christabel gave me a look of freezing disapproval. "He is Mrs. Markham's brother, and a sturdy defender of the cause. If you had deigned to attend our earlier meetings, Mrs. Emerson, you would be aware of these facts."
She did not give me time to reply that I had not been invited to attend their earlier meetings, but marched off with her nose in the air. I had heard the young lady praised for her wit and sense of humor. The latter appeared to be in abeyance at the moment.
 The Ape Who Guards the Balance: An Amelia Peabody Novel of Suspense (Amelia Peabody Mysteries) 

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