Last night I was a guest at the launch party for Lissa Evans’ magnificent new book, Old Baggage. In this, the 100th anniversary year of the first women getting the vote in the UK, she has written the perfect book for the times: the story of a suffragette ten years later. That’s her signing books above, and below a picture of the beautiful cover. It was a delight to meet up with Lissa and many other lovely people at the party.
The book is truly something else.
The tagline is ‘What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?’ Mattie Simpkin was already known to us from Lissa’s Crooked Heart: this is a prequel, starting in 1928, telling her story in detail, and including fascinating details of the suffragettes’ earlier struggles. Mattie is well-educated, well-off, still very political. She owns her own house on the edge of Hampstead Heath, once a refuge for suffragettes under threat from the law, and lives there with an old friend known as the Flea. She has ideas, and energy, and a desire to do good in the world. Unlike her old companions from the political days, she never says ‘the best is past, the past is best’ or wishes she were back there – it is the women who married and had children who say that. She is eccentric and unconventional, and she lives on the page like someone you knew in a former life: she must be one of the most real and convincing characters I have ever read about, she is unforgettable, and fabulous.
Mattie starts a girls’ group to meet on the Heath each week, the Amazons: they will do activities, and learn things, and work together as a team. One young woman in particular, Ida, takes Mattie’s attention: she comes from a very deprived background but has huge potential. Then there is Inez, the daughter of a now-dead suffragette friend. And there is another group of young people also operating locally: very much in the fascist mould, with marching and drill and discipline – everything Mattie doesn’t believe in.
No-one could predict the twists and turns the plot takes, and how the different issues and relationships are played out: completely original and unlike any book I have ever read. And at the end, after you have laughed and wept at the story, you find out how Mattie ends up with Noel, the little boy who features in Crooked Heart.
This is truly an exceptional book, and I sincerely hope it will win some awards.
I can remember when I first read Lissa’s Finest Hour and a Half I thought ‘I’ve never really known what kind of book I want to read, that’s why I read them all, but now I’ve found the kind of book I want to read.’ And all her books have been like that.
I am a huge fan of the writer Ford Madox Ford (much featured on the blog), because he had a human understanding that leaves me in awe, and Lissa’s books are like that too, only, thank goodness, on the whole not as miserable. When I read these writers, I think ‘Yes, that’s what people are like, not how they are in other books.' As Virginia Woolf said, books for grown-ups.
There is an extraordinary scene with an old friend who has become an alcoholic, one of the most authentic descriptions I have read of dealing with that.
And I could see how much I would’ve loved the Girls’ Club – I would have been pretending to be cool and rolling my eyes, but actually would have loved it SO MUCH, I just really wanted to join. My later-alcoholic friend would’ve been saying ‘we so can’t do that, let’s go somewhere where there’s boys’. And I would’ve pretended that’s how I felt too – ‘Right, lame’ – but would have been a secret conformer… How can a book make you know what hypothetical conversation you would have had 40 years ago?
There are wonderful lines throughout the book:
Bessie worked on the manicure counter at Bourne and Hollingsworth and had won the recent Amazons’ wood-chopping competition without breaking a nail.
Miss Simpkin… had a face as readable as a penny newspaper, enthusiasm and exasperation, encouragement and the odd gust of rage chasing across her features.
Her only thought had been that Mary was welcome to him, more fool her and her tatty green boa, but now she felt a sudden yearning for a plush seat and a bag of toffees and an arm around her in the dark.
[At Mrs Pankhurst’s funeral, attended by her old companions] St John’s Smith Square currently contained more convicted criminals than an East End beer-hall.
His face had the flour-and-water plainness of a child in a Breugel painting.
[Mattie] sat in the drawing room in a state of ghastly impotence, unable, in her usual manner, to stride away from introspection; stewing in it, in fact, like a dumpling in mutton soup. [This sentence is followed by a surpassingly wonderful passage about her thoughts: I would love to quote it in full, but it would be a spoiler. But it is a tour de force.]I cannot recommend this book too highly. It is wonderful.