[Pansy needs to borrow some clothes, secretly, from her friend’s mother]
They had decided on a red coat and skirt. It was a lovely colour – not crimson and not scarlet and not deep pink. According to Atalanta it was rose-madder. It had covered buttons in two lots of three, and it fitted almost beautifully. Pansy had felt like a trespasser going into the cupboard, but inside the coat and skirt she had felt worse than a trespasser, bad – bad and humble and apologetic, and the other part of her had felt proud and excited and vain. When she had a new coat and skirt she would like one exactly like this, she had thought longingly, only with a shorter skirt of course. She had just had a new purple school coat and skirt and her new coat, and she didn’t see much hope of getting another for some time. She hadn’t known how she was going to bear not having it; she had felt quite frenzied with longing.
The hats were on a shelf…. They selected a kind of toque, covered with veiling and struck through with a couple of osprey feathers.
observations: The Clothes in Books filing system is absolutely hopeless in one area – I don’t keep proper records of who recommended books to me. I always think I will just remember. I am resolving to form a better system for this. In the meantime, I am glad I managed to remember that it was the marvellous Lydia Syson who first mentioned this one to me.
I want to give credit, because I loved the book so much. It was published in 1971, aimed squarely at ‘readers of 11 and over’ – and it is both the perfect YA book, and one of the best suffragette books I have ever read. There is a magic in the way Symons combines the two. (Checking online shows that everyone who does read it, loves and remembers it.)
Pansy and Atalanta – 13 and 14, fiercely supportive of the women’s right-to-vote movement – are spending the school holidays in London with Atalanta’s relaxed and Bohemian parents (a writer and an actress) – I’m guessing it’s 1913. They are determined to take some action for the cause.
Their first attempt is very exciting and successful, so they try another stunt – which involves their dressing up as much older women, the Miss S and Miss B of the title. Hilariously, everyone co-operates to invent detailed backstories for these women. This time they are in evening dress – the book is the most perfect CIB text, with its feminist politics combined with wonderful clothes descriptions, and consideration of the importance of clothes as disguise, as social indicator, as aesthetic choice. This particular demonstration has unexpected consequences…
The writing is charmingly relaxed and very funny – Atalanta shows off her French by mentioning a fait accompli to a shop assistant who says doubtfully that she doesn’t think they carry that fashion line. After watching Atalanta’s mother performing in a sad play, Pansy visits her in her dressing room and thinks how brave she is, before remembering that the story wasn’t true.
Part of the plot revolves round the suffragette prison brooch:
There was a purple, white and green arrow and some things that looked like silver bars and chains.-- this is what it would have looked like.
The book takes some familiar tropes – the two friends with different characters, the arrival at a Bohemian household, the disagreements over women’s rights and politics – but manages to do something very fresh and uncliched with the plot. It is outrageous that Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges is out of print – it should be seen for what it is, a timeless classic, and someone should re-publish it. Until then, you can find secondhand copies quite easily.
More suffragettes on the blog: in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, in Lucy Ribchester’s The Hourglass Factory, and at the beginning of Lissa Evans’ The Crooked Heart (and, we hope, in a work-in-progress…).
The flyer is from the UK National Archives, the group of suffragettes (American and British) is from the Library of Congress.