The Matriarch by G B Stern

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Gladys B Stern, born in London in 1890, changed her middle name from Bertha to Bronwyn because it sounded more romantic, converted from Judaism to Catholicism, studied in Switzerland, was introduced to her future husband by Noel Coward, frightened off umpteen different secretaries, and liked to be addressed as Peter. I’m not entirely sure how you get “Peter” from “Gladys”, but, hey, in the inter-war years, Anything Went.  As for the actual book, it’s supposed to be a feminist novel written before its time (although that’s actually mainly because the men are all presented as being useless), and it’s also a Jewish novel in a way that I really don’t think you could write now.  So … yes, something a bit different.

It’s essentially a family saga, set mainly in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, and mainly in London.  The main theme is fairly universal – an older generation who want to control things, and younger generations who are either desperate for their elders’ approval, want to rebel and go their own way, or feel bound by guilt and duty to do as their elders want.  The matriarch of the title is Anastasia Rakonitz, who’s born in the Austrian Empire (the Hungarian part, but pre Ausgleich!) but spends most of her life in London, and the other main character is her granddaughter Toni.  There are absolute hordes of other characters, though.  It’s rather confusing trying to remember who’s who, and it’s quite frustrating that there are a lot of bit part characters whose stories are never fully developed, but the author explains that she created a huge array of characters because she wanted to give the sense of an extensive family network, stretching across many countries.

There isn’t actually that much history in it. It starts off in Anastasia’s grandmother’s girlhood, during the Napoleonic Wars, when we’re reminded of the crucial role, often overlooked, that Napoleon played in the granting of civil rights to religious minorities and the reduction of the power of the religious authorities.  The man might have done a lot of damage in other ways, but he deserves a lot of credit for that.  It soon leaps forward in time, but the events of 1848 don’t really get a look-in, the Ausgleich isn’t mentioned, and the Franco-Prussian War, although it’s the reason that Anastasia (having previously moved to Paris) ends up in London, is only mentioned in passing.  The Great War does play more of a part, but only in terms of who is and isn’t involved in the fighting: it seems to have strangely little impact on the Home Front.  So it doesn’t actually say that much about the period during which it’s set, but it says a lot about the 1920s, when it was written.

It’s been described as a feminist novel written before its time. Now, having grown up in the age of Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jackie Collins et al (don’t you just love an ’80s blockbuster?!), a family saga in which the female characters dominate seems quite normal to me 🙂 , but this book was published in 1924, when a lot of women in Britain still didn’t even have the vote.  Anastasia is the one pulling the strings.  Then, when the family loses its money following a bad investment in a fraudulent ruby mine, it’s her granddaughters who pick up the pieces.  However, the women only really dominate because the men are so utterly useless in times of trouble.  And, whilst Anastasia might be a strong female lead, it’s made clear that she’s only really interested in her sons and grandsons, not in the young women of the family.

Is that feminism?   It’s not equality.  I suppose it depends on what you class as feminism. Anastasia really isn’t very appealing: she’s controlling, demanding, self-obsessed and doesn’t treat other people well.  Is the idea that women have to be bossy and controlling in order to impose their authority?  She walks all over her daughters and daughters-in-law.  I don’t know that I’d call this a feminist novel, but then we are talking about nearly a century ago … ugh, how on earth can the 1920s be nearly a century ago?!

“Rags to riches” is another common theme in novels – riches to rags rather less so. Jewish novels set in Britain (or America) usually start with rags.  This one starts with riches.  By the time Anastasia and her family arrive in London, the family has a well-established diamond business stretching across Europe – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, Italy … and I feel as if I should be saying Belgium or the Netherlands, seeing as diamonds are involved, but they don’t really come into it!   They live a life of luxury in London.  Then the money goes, and Anastasia cannot adopt: it’s her granddaughters who take charge.  This was published five years before the Wall Street Crash, so it’s quite prescient in a way, but the author’s own family had lost their money thanks to an investment in jewels going wrong.

Nobody actually struggles that much. It’s hardly Helen Forrester: no-one’s living hand to mouth.  But there’s this idea of lost luxury, of faded grandeur.  We don’t sympathise with that, do we?  We sympathise with the middle income people reduced to poverty, but we don’t sympathise with the wealthy family reduced to circumstances that for most people class as normal.  Or even with middle income people who are struggling, but not that much.  That’s quite an interesting thought.  It’s very mean-spirited, really, especially as people can be quite sneery about it.   It can be quite problematic, as well – look at all the huffing and puffing over well-dressed Syrian refugees carrying fancy mobile phones, as if you can’t be a proper refugee unless you’ve got nothing but the clothes you stand up in.  But we clearly are meant to sympathise with the Rakonitzes, just as we’re meant to sympathise with all those characters in children’s books in the period who lose their private incomes because of dodgy solicitors or guardians.  And we should do, really.  I just don’t think we do.  Is that some sort of really nasty Schadenfreude?!

There are also struggles over health. Anastasia suffers from some sort of mental health problem – it’s not clear what, but it comes and goes – in later life.  And Toni is “delicate” – and it’s made clear that this is because her grandparents, Anastasia and her husband Paul, were first cousins.  Now there’s a subject you don’t hear mentioned much.  I’m feeling quite uncomfortable just writing about it – even though it’s something that comes up over and over again in history books, because of royal marriages, and because marriage between first cousins is/has been banned by civil or religious law in many places.  Is this a post-Nazi thing?  Does it come too close to sounding like eugenics, and is that why I’m feeling uncomfortable mentioning it? Would someone include a storyline like that in a book written now?   And how much of a divider is the Second World War, or, more specifically, how much of a divider are the Nazi atrocities, in terms of what authors might or might not include in books?

That’s particularly relevant because this is the saga of a Jewish family. I said “a Jewish novel”, but maybe it isn’t a Jewish novel.  Like Csardas, which I read a few months ago, religious practice doesn’t really come into it – there’s very little about religious festivals, or religious services, and no-one seems very bothered about things like eating kosher food – and many of the Jewish characters marry people who aren’t Jewish.  The idea of the multinational clan … the best-known example is the Rothschild family, but there are others too.  The Rakonitzes certainly aren’t in their league, but apparently they are based on the author’s own family, i.e. a real family.  Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, featuring a similar clan, is also based on his own family.   The Sassoons also spring to mind (I went to China last year and did a lot of reading up on Shanghai beforehand).  The Oppenheims.  The Goldsmiths.

I’m just feeling incredibly uncomfortable writing this, especially in the current climate, I got this book because it was going free on Kindle, and because I actually had the impression that it was set in Austria-Hungary and I always struggle to find books set there: I wasn’t expecting to be writing all this multinational financial dynasty stuff.  As I said, the Rakonitzes are hardly the Rothschilds, but still.

There shouldn’t be anything to feel uncomfortable about. Religious minorities do tend to dominate finance and business, having traditionally been excluded from the professions.  Look at some of the big name British banks.  Lloyds, founded by Quakers.  Barclays, founded by Quakers.  Look at the big High Street names: Methodist and Jewish founders abound.   But you get all these vicious conspiracy theories.  There are some very odd and clearly preposterous stories about the Rothschilds, and have been for a good 200 years.

Obviously it happens with other groups as well. It doesn’t happen so much now, but it certainly used to happen with Catholics, at least in Britain and America.  Freemasons.  Muslims, at the moment.  And the Rakonitzes, as I’ve said, don’t have that much financial influence: the multinational aspect of their family is more of a cultural thing than anything else, with children who don’t toe the line being packed off to stay with relatives abroad, and a lot of talk about everyone eating Central European food.  But still … it’s not the easiest of topics to write about.

Maybe it’s the idea of “The Other”. That expression’s come up a lot recently, following some of the ill-judged comments made by certain prominent politicians. And yet it’s all meant to be so positive in this book.  London is described as “Cosmopolis”.  OK, it was the name of a crap film with Robert Pattinson, but, other than that, I’ve never heard the term used before.  The author clearly means it as a compliment.  And she wants us to see the Rakonitzes as being glamorous and colourful and exciting, and she clearly means that in a very positive way … but it all kind of comes across as being “The Other”.

Two of the grandsons, Richard and Daniel, and especially Richard, can’t handle that. They don’t want to be colourful or different.  In 2018, I don’t think most people do.  There are always going to be some people who do, but I think most people are way past wanting to be seen as exotic or flamboyant or whatever because of their religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity or anything else: people just want to be seen as themselves.

But the 1920s were all about flamboyance. This book doesn’t tell us that much about the 1880s, 1890s or 1910s, when most of it’s set, but it tells us a hell of a lot about the 1920s!   It probably couldn’t have been written at any other time.  I really don’t think anyone would write anything like this now.  Not a criticism, just an observation 🙂 .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Smashing Hits! The 80s pop map of Britain and Ireland – BBC 4

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The music of the 1980s is the soundtrack to my life.  Well, to be strictly accurate, the music of the late 1980s and the early 1990s was the soundtrack to my formative years, but, however you put it, 1980s music is “my” music.  I’ve only got to hear the few first bars of a hit song from the second half of the 1980s and I am right back there: I can tell you exactly when it was from, and exactly what was going on both in my life and in the world in general at that time.  Take this morning.  I was in the gym (I go before work during Wimbledon), and on came Sweet Child O’ Mine.  I only needed to hear a few notes of it and I was back in 1989, listening to our form teacher read us the Riot Act over a load of graffiti having appeared in the locker area.  I don’t think the culprit was ever actually unmasked, but I do know that the lyrics to Sweet Child O’Mine were part of the offending artwork.

Life isn’t like that any more.  I haven’t got a clue what’s number one in the charts.  I assume people do still use the terms “the charts” and “the top 40” (and I remember when it was the “the top 30”), incidentally?  My sister and I used to find it hilarious that Mum and Dad referred to the charts as “the hit parade”, and that our late grandad, bless him, insisted on referring to a record player as a “gramophone”!    It’s rather depressing to think that I’m now just as out of touch as we thought they were back then.  Do millennials even know what a record player or a tape/cassette player is?  Do they ever go into a shop and buy a piece of physical media with music on it, or is it all downloads these days?  It’s a different world these days.  So it’s very nice that BBC 4 are allowing me to step back into my world for a little while, with this three-part series about the music of the 1980s.  Because it was the best music ever, right?!  Yep.  That’s what old people say.  It’s what Mum and Dad used to say, in the 1980s and 1990s, about the music of the 1950s and 1960s!

Do little kids still have playground versions of popular songs, by the way?  Like we used to have in the early 1980s?  “Relax, don’t do it.  Pick your nose and chew it.”  “Uptown Wally.  She’s been living in a Tesco trolley.  She had it off with the Action Man.  She left her knickers in an ice cream van.”  Maybe we were just weird at our primary school.  And that was actually rather rude for primary school kids to have been singing, come to think of it.  Er, moving swiftly on …

This is a different take on music history, because it’s about the way in which different British cities produced different music.  We hear a lot about “diversity” these days, but, it many ways, everything seems so uniform, so samey.  You go on holiday, and you’re in France or Germany or Italy or Spain and there are billboards everywhere showing adverts in English.  The same with slogans in shops or bars.  What??  What is wrong with the language of the country you’re in?  And there are branches of McDonald’s and Starbuck’s everywhere.  It’s all the same.  I tell you, three cheers for Greggs, who make a big effort to stock cakes and pastries that are relevant to the part of the country that each particular branch is in.  The National Trust do as well, to be fair.  I love it when I see bara brith in the tea room at Chirk Castle, or Scouse in the tea room at Speke Hall.  Uniformity is boring!

Towards the end of the 1980s, things did get rather uniform, thanks to Stock Aitken Waterman.  Whether it was Rick Astley from Newton-le-Willows and Sonia from Liverpool, Kylie and Jason from Down Under, or Big Fun who were a mixture of Mancunians, Midlanders and Londoners (what???), it all sounded the same.  Don’t get me wrong – I love SAW songs.  I would never have admitted that, back in the day, because only really uncool people admitted to liking SAW, but, come on, everyone likes those songs, don’t they?  But it was all artificial, and manufactured, and samey.

And then came the “Madchester” era.  Hooray!   I remember going on a school trip to the British Museum in London in 1990.  No school uniform on school trips.  Presumably so that, if anyone did anything terrible, no-one would be able to tell what school they came from!  Practically every single kid turned up in a hooded top – bought from places like Stolen from Ivor – and a pair of jeans by Joe Bloggs of Cheetham Hill.  We thought we were the coolest thing ever, strutting round That London in all our Manchester gear.  “You’re twisting my melon, man.”   It was a local thing.  Like Merseybeat’d been in the ’60s.  There was a lot of local stuff going on in the ’80s and early ’90s.  Music meant something: it came from places and times and cultures.

“Madchester”, coming at the end of the 1980s, is going to be covered in the final episode of the three.  Next week’s Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  I’ve just booked to see The Proclaimers in November: I’m very excited about that.  I’d be even more excited if it was Wet Wet Wet, but I did get to see them a couple of years back.  Anyway, the first episode was about London, Coventry and Sheffield.  And it took us right back to the early 1980s – which was before my musical time, so it was quite educational, because I don’t really remember the “scenes” of that time.

First up, the New Romantics.  Definitely before my time – although I remember my older cousin being obsessed with Duran Duran.  I love Spandau Ballet’s music, but Through the Barricades is the only one of their hit songs that I was really into at the time at which it was out.  Incredible song!  True, To Cut A Long Story Short and Gold are incredible songs too.  Is there anything around now that can come even close to matching music like that?   And Karma Chameleon was one of the first records I owned: Boy George was such an icon, even to younger kids.  The programme, presented by Kim Appleby – and I well remember the sadness when Kim’s sister Mel died so tragically young, and the admiration for Kim as she bravely went on with her music career as a solo artist – and Midge Ure (“Oh, Vienna … ) explored the Soho scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how that gave rise to Adam and the Ants, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club.

Duran Duran are from Birmingham, obviously, just before I offend anyone by seeming to count them in with the Londoners!   In fact, I thought Birmingham should have been given more credit here, because it was just as much of a New Romantic centre as London was.  And a lot of the talk was about the success of British bands in America.  “The second British invasion.”  British music was big.  It was so big!

A lot of this was put down to MTV and the influence of videos.  We didn’t have MTV, until the advent of satellite TV in the late 1980s.  We only got to see the much-discussed videos on Top of the Pops and The Roxy, about an hour a week in total.  But what a big deal the videos became!   I remember the first time that the video for Madonna’s Like A Prayer was shown in the UK.  There’d been a huge fuss about it, because it’d offended the Vatican!   That evening, I went round to my then best friend’s house for tea, and she and I and her brother were sat there, waiting for the video to be shown, like it was some world-changing moment!

And Smash Hits, the music magazine, was also given a lot of credit for the rise of the New Romantics.  Ah, Smash Hits!  Both it and Just Seventeen used to come out on a Wednesday.  In the third year of secondary school, we used to have double physics on a Wednesday afternoon.  I’m sure the teacher was a really nice woman who was much loved by her family and friends, but a) she couldn’t hold the class’s attention and b) she never seemed to notice what any of us were doing.  So we’d all sit there reading Smash Hits and Just Seventeen!  I never did learn very much about physics, but ask me anything about pop music in 1987 or 1988 and I’ll probably be able to tell you!

Sadly, the New Romantics movement didn’t last.  The programme put its demise down to Adam and the Ants miming on The Children’s Royal Variety Performance, during which they were apparently on in between The Krankies and Rod Hull and Emu.  I don’t remember that, so I’ll have to take Midge and Mel’s words for it.  But the music lives on.  ’80s music lives on!!

Next up came Coventry and ska, and, with this, much more of a sense of a particular city’s history and culture.  Sorry, London, but you don’t do regional identity in the same way as other cities do!  I was only thinking about The Specials last week.  “Free Nelson Mandela”.  Ghost Town is the other Specials song that everyone knows – and, as Mel and Midge pointed out, that (again, before my musical time, really) said so much about 1981, the year of the riots in Toxteth and Brixton and elsewhere.  Music then was so much more about time and place than it seems to be now.  And a big element of ska was the influence of Jamaican culture on Coventry.  Funny, we’re hearing so much about immigration at the moment, but I’m not really getting a sense of Eastern European influence on music.  Or am I just too old and out of touch to know what’s going on?!

I’ve never really been into ska, TBH.  But this was Coventry’s thing.  A smaller city having such a big influence on music.  And then it was on to electronic scene, in Sheffield.  Again, its heyday was a bit early for me, but I love some of these songs.  “Don’t you want me, baby?”  “Shoot that poison arrow to my hah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-heart!”  And, again, it was about a time and a place – deindustrialisation in a Northern city in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.  The Human League, Temptation and ABC were the groups discussed.  “All I’m saying. It takes a lot to love you.”   Wonderful stuff.  And all rooted in Sheffield, a city badly hit by the economic problems of the era.

The synthesiser!   That led on – although the programme didn’t go into this – to the later electro-pop music, and that really was my era.  A-ha.  The Pet Shop Boys.  Erasure.  There was even a group called Electronic – a collaboration between the wonderful, wonderful Pet Shop Boys and Manchester’s very own New Order.  “However I look, it’s clear to see, that I love you more than you love me.”  Sorry, that’s way off the point.  Sheffield!  Early 1980s!  The banning of Heaven 17’s “We don’t need this fascist groove thang” by the BBC, in case it offended the president of the United States.  Maybe that song needs a bit of a revival?!

And that was Sheffield.  London.  Coventry.  Sheffield.  Music that grew organically out of the culture of a particular city, at a particular time.  All a bit mad, in its way.  But natural.  Not manufactured.  Not artificial.  Not uniform.  And all so very gloriously 1980s!   There will never be another musical decade like the 1980s, and the music of the 1980s will never die!

 

Emmeline Pankhurst: the Making of a Militant – BBC 1

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Is this a thing now, having historical documentaries presented by soap stars?  What next – six times married Steve McDonald presenting a programme on Henry VIII?!  Some of the Dingles, who always seem to be feuding with their cousins, presenting a programme on the Wars of the Roses?!  First it was Tracy-Ann Oberman, who used to play Chrissie in EastEnders, presenting the recent series on Queen Victoria, and then last night it was Sally Unwin, best known as Shelley in Coronation Street, presenting this programme about Emmeline Pankhurst.  No offence to lovely Sally, but she clearly knew little beyond the basics about Emmeline Pankhurst and was surprised to hear what the real historians had to say, so wouldn’t it have been better just to have had the real historians doing the presenting?

Oh well.  It was a very interesting programme.  Mrs Pankhurst does have this image as a real battleaxe, and we don’t often hear much about the flesh and blood woman behind that image.  And there is often an image – presented by men – of women who espouse causes, especially women’s rights, as being hard and unfeeling, and Emmeline Pankhurst was anything but.  This programme showed how she had a very romantic relationship with her husband, worked hard to support her children after being widowed, and how deeply she cared about the sufferings of women betrayed by a patriarchal society and believed that giving women the right to vote was the best means by which to help them.

The subject of reform movements in the Victorian era is a fascinating one.  Abolitionism – and British abolitionists continued to work for Abolition in the US, after slavery had been abolished within the British Empire – , prison reform, the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, education reform, better sanitation … that would make several programmes on its own.  Emmeline Goulden was born into a prominent Manchester Abolitionist movement, and was politically aware from her childhood.  In 1867, when Emmeline was 9, a woman called Lily Maxwell somehow accidentally got on to the list of voters in Chorlton-on-Medlock and, supported by the early Manchester suffragist Lydia Becker, went off to cast her vote.  This ended up in court, and the court ruled against her right to vote.  The lawyer who defended her was Richard Pankhurst, so, as Sally and the historians pointed out, he became quite a local hero.  He and Emmeline met at a political meeting some years later, had a whirlwind romance, married, and had five children.

And, as the programme made clear, she could combine the roles of campaigner and middle-class wife and mother.  It even mentioned that she sang at parties.  Very Jane Austen – and what a fascinating character.  One role in public life open to women was that of Poor Law Guardian, and she was elected as a Poor Law Guardian, running soup kitchens during the harsh winter of 1894, and that brought her into close contact with the workhouses, and the terrible conditions endured by women there.  This is what we don’t hear about – we hear about the militant suffragette campaigns, but not all the story behind it, the fact that this wasn’t “just” about equality as a principle but about trying to improve the lives of women in general, especially those at the bottom of the heap.

Then on to something else which we rarely hear about – the Boggart Hole Clough Incident.  Sounds like an Enid Blyton book, doesn’t it?  Boggart Hole Clough is a park in North Manchester.  When my dad was a teenager, he used to play for a local football team.  One weekend, the team had an important match, and Dad and a couple of his mates somehow got the wrong end of the stick about where it was being played, and thought they were meant to be at Boggart Hole Clough playing fields.  They weren’t.  By the time they’d realised that, and got to where they were meant to be, it was too late.  The manager was very cross.  Sorry, that’s got nothing to do with Emmeline Pankhurst!  She held a women’s suffrage rally, and was arrested, on the grounds that local by-laws prohibited the holding of political meetings there – and that was when she first realised the power of court appearances, and the potential of being sent to prison, as a means of publicity.  That was to become so important in the suffragette campaigns.  And it can be traced back to Boggart Hole Clough!  I love that!

Then tragedy struck.  Richard Pankhurst died suddenly.  Emmeline and her children were forced to give up their home and move to a smaller house – and she had to take a job.  No, she didn’t try to live in genteel poverty, or depend on help from relatives.  She got a job as a registrar – and this came up in Thursday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, when Michelle Keegan, another former Coronation Street actress, found out that Emmeline Pankhurst had registered the births of some of her relatives, and that her own great-grandmother had been part of the women’s suffrage family.  Michelle’s ancestors, like many of the people with whom Emmeline’s work brought her into contact, were desperately poor, and this all proved more and more to Emmeline that women needed power.  Sally read some very distressing extracts from Emmeline’s diary about how she’d registered the births of babies to young girls who’d been abused by male relatives.   No-one tells you that, when they show you the pictures of suffragettes smashing windows and all the rest of it, do they?

After that, it was on to the founding of the WSPU, and the famous incident with Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney at the Free Trade Hall, and all the things we’ve heard before – but we don’t often hear the story of Emmeline Pankhurst’s life before the WSPU, and this programme was fascinating.

And, of course, it ended with a reminder that this was a Manchester story.  The Manchester WSPU banner that’s now in the People’s History Museum – “First in the Fight”. And a reminder that, at last, Manchester will soon have a statue of one of its most famous daughters.  Emmeline Pankhurst, we are so proud of you!  And thank you, BBC 1, for showing this.  It was well worth watching.

Suffragettes with Lucy Worsley – BBC 1

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As I’m fond of reminding people 🙂 , I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters Sylvia and Adela.  We used to have Speech Days in the Free Trade Hall, the iconic building where, in 1905, Christabel and her friend and fellow suffragette Annie Kenney heckled politicians at a Liberal Party rally, whereupon they were arrested and carted off to Strangeways.  (Strangeways was unisex in those days.)  I’m trying and failing to resist making the old teenage jokes about how being carted off to Strangeways would have been preferable to having to sit through school Speech Day, which, in my day, was usually held on the first Monday in July, generally very hot and stuffy and often fourth round day at Wimbledon.  We so did not want to be there!

Sorry.  Back to the point.  The Free Trade Hall incident in 1905 marked a turning point in the campaign for women’s suffrage, and it was the starting point for Monday night’s hour and a half long programme on the suffragettes, presented by Lucy Worsley.  It also summed up the suffragette movement very well.  The brilliant PR machine run by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903: Christabel, as a law graduate – although, as a woman, she wasn’t allowed to practise – knew that spitting at the police would get them arrested on charges of technical assault, and that that would get them far more publicity than just being dragged away.  The contempt shown to campaigners for women’s suffrage by the Establishment.  The wide range of backgrounds amongst the suffragettes: Christabel was from a middle-class family from the city of Manchester, Annie from a working-class family from one of the semi-rural mill villages of Saddleworth.  And the extent to which women were prepared to go to – at this stage, arrest and imprisonment.  Later, it would be what can only be described as torture; and, whilst I honestly don’t think Emily Wilding Davison meant to lose her life, women did say that they were ready to die for The Cause.

I do find Lucy Worsley’s bossy prefect style of presenting a bit irritating, and her obsession with dressing up rather infantile.  However, that’s become quite a clever PR machine as well: every time one of her programmes is on, it’s all over the TV reviews as pundits argue over whether her dressing up is entertaining or just plain silly.  She certainly gets attention.  It’s unlikely that, had anyone else been presenting this programme, it would have been on BBC 1 rather than BBC 2 and in a prime time slot straight after EastEnders.  So take a bow, Lucy.  You might be annoying, but you get the media talking about history, and that can only be a good thing!

It was presented in docu-drama style.  That again can seem quite infantile sometimes, but in this instance it worked extremely well.  Seeing women with the clothes and hairstyles of the period, reading out the suffragettes’ own words, especially about the horrors of force-feeding and of sexual assault by the police, was very evocative and very effective.  The roles assigned were those of Annie Kenney and several other leading suffragettes who were… well, most of the names were familiar, but they were certainly far less well-known than those of the Pankhurst women, and the idea was to show that it wasn’t all about the big names.  I would have thought that was rather obvious, TBH.  With any sort of movement, you’re always going to have the big names, but surely everyone realises that the big names didn’t do it all by themselves.  But, OK, it made the point that there were a lot of people involved.

Lucy also made the point that this was an effective home-grown terrorist organisation.  I’m not very comfortable about the use of that expression to describe the WSPU. OK, yes, they were.  They used violence.  But the word “terrorism” has come to mean the murder of innocents.  Slashing paintings, smashing windows, setting fire to empty houses, and even letter bombs, vandalising public buildings and attacking politicians with catapults can hardly be compared to that.  So may we stick with “militant” rather than “terrorist”, please?

Just wandering off topic a bit, it’s interesting that the campaign for universal male suffrage at this time was so low profile, compared with the campaign for female suffrage.  Despite the reforms of 1832, 1867 and 1884, millions of British men did not have the right to vote until 1918.  So why weren’t they doing all this militant campaigning as well?  This never gets asked.  It wasn’t mentioned at all in Lucy’s programme.  Well, those who still didn’t have the vote were those at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale, who wouldn’t have had the time or funds for campaigning – but you could say the same about a lot of the men, and women, who’d attended the large-scale rallies of the first half of the 19th century.  Think Peterloo.  Think the Chartists.  There were major developments taking place in trade unionism at this time, so were the blokes putting their attention into that, rather than into campaigning for the right to vote?  I wish someone would do a programme on that.  This year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the T.U.C. – in Manchester, of course!! – but that hasn’t had even a fraction of the attention that “Vote100” has.  Hmm.

Back to the subject of PR.  It’s a modern term, but the suffragettes were bloody good at it!  As Lucy pointed out, the image of women chained to railings is one that everyone knows, the iconic image of the suffragette movement – but it’s not something that actually happened very often.  It just got brilliantly publicised.  And then there are the suffragette colours – white for purity, green for hope, purple for dignity.  Everyone knows those colours.  Theresa May wore those colours on the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act – a day which she marked by visiting Manchester, of course (just had to get that in!).   And this was turning the tables on the mockery shown by the Establishment, including sections of the media, which presented suffragettes as unfeminine, and made fun of them.  Being criticised, you can take.  Being made fun of, not being taken seriously – that’s horrendous.  It still happens now, with the so-called “liberal elite” and the scorn which they pour on anyone who doesn’t agree with them, but it was even worse at the time of the suffragettes.

What summed it up brilliantly was a bazaar featured as part of the docu-drama –selling the sort of things which Edwardian ladies were supposed to make, and sell, but also featuring a mock-up of a prison cell, so that visitors could see what suffragettes who’d been imprisoned for their activities were having to endure.  What a superb juxtaposition.  And a lot of women were being imprisoned, even before the really militant period of the campaign began – but, as Lucy explained, this actually boosted the movement.  What does the suffragette song in Mary Poppins say?  “Take heart!  For Mrs Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again”.  Lucy used the word “radicalised” – and that’s another modern term which fitted the events of the time perfectly.  Suffragettes bonded with each other during their time in prison.  When they were released, they were greeted by cheering crowds.  We’ve all seen the pictures of that.   Less well-known are the huge banquets which were held afterwards, to honour the suffragettes who’d done their stints in prison, and the medals – “For Valour”, the words used to accompany the Victoria Cross – presented to them.

It wasn’t all of the media.  One photographer hid in a cupboard so that he could jump out and take a photo when policemen came to arrest Emmeline Pankhurst (again) – another clever PR coup for the WSPU.  It wasn’t all of the Establishment, to be fair.  But it was enough of them.  The suffragettes tried doing things peacefully, in the tradition of those who attended the rally at St Peter’s Fields – and look how they were treated – and the Chartists.  They held huge rallies.  And even the more militant activities, such as the planned “rush” on Parliament, over which the arrest with the photographer in the cupboard took place, weren’t violent.  60,000 people attended that.  Sixty thousand.  Still, nothing was done.  And this wasn’t some sort of ultra-conservative government.  This was the reforming government which introduced Old Age Pensions and National Insurance.  And showed some sympathy for Irish Home Rule.

And this same government, the great Liberal reforming government, was the one which force-fed women on hunger strike.  Marion Wallace Dunlop, who deserves to be better-known than she was, was the driving force behind hunger striking – and it was really the first time that this tactic had been used.  It’s used a lot now, but it was new then.  And it’s horrible, but it’s very clever.  What do the authorities do?  Let people die?  Create martyrs?  Be seen as murderers?   They didn’t want to do that, so, instead, they fed them by force.  The descriptions of this, and they’re pretty well-known even if the name of Marion Wallace Dunlop isn’t, are horrific.  The bravery of the women who endured it, some of them over and over again, was incredible.  Doctors protested.  Public sympathy for the suffragettes increased.

And a truce was called.  At last, Parliament addressed the subject of women’s suffrage.  In came the first Conciliation Bill, which would have granted some women the vote.  It passed its first reading.  It passed its second reading.  But that was as far as it got.  Asquith refused to allow it any more parliamentary time.  Lucy said that it got lost amid all the chaos of the People’s Budget.  Two general elections in one year.  Reform of the House of Lords – and what a great shame that they didn’t just abolish it.  I’m not sure that I entirely agree with that, though.

Yes, there was a lot going on at the time.  Social reform.  The Irish Question.  Concerns about Germany.  But many of the leading Conservatives and Liberals just weren’t prepared to give women the vote, and that wasn’t just about misogyny – that women weren’t intelligent enough to understand politics, or were ruled by their emotions and couldn’t make sensible decisions, or were so soft that they’d oppose declaring war if it came to it -, it was also about self -interest and both parties believing that they’d lose out if women got the vote.  The Liberals had won by an absolute landslide in the “free trade” election of 1906.  After the second of the two elections in 1910, they could only hold on to power by forming a coalition with the Irish Nationalists, but they were still the biggest single party.  Some Conservatives, believing that women would vote as their husbands or fathers told them (seriously), thought that giving the vote to women would just double the Liberals’ advantage.  Some Liberals, on the other hand, thought that women were “conservative” by nature and that giving the vote to women would boost the Conservatives.  And some amongst both the Liberals and Conservatives thought that giving the vote to women would lead to universal male suffrage and boost the rise of the Labour Representation Committee.

Whatever the reason, the bill got chucked out – but it had got a lot of support from MPs.  That was the first bill, in 1910.  The second Conciliation Bill, introduced as a Private Members’ Bill, in 1911, passed its first reading.  Asquith tried to change things by proposing a bill to introduce universal male suffrage, and the whole thing got dropped.  In 1912, the third Conciliation Bill was narrowly defeated, and this seems to’ve been because the Irish Nationalists voted against their Liberal coalition allies because of fears that it’d take attention and parliamentary time away from the issue of Home Rule.

So what was going on?  Did MPs think that other issues were more important?  Or were they just making excuses because they weren’t prepared, when push came to shove, to see any women get the vote.  A bill to introduce universal male suffrage was also introduced in 1912, but got nowhere either.  But the first two Conciliation Bills did get passed, as far as they were allowed to, and the third one came close.

Was it all about Asquith?  The WSPU certainly seem to have blamed Asquith.  Whatever the truth of it, and it’s hard to assess, the mood turned more militant – especially after the disgraceful events of “Black Friday”, in November 1910, when, after the abandonment of the first Conciliation Bill, hundreds of suffragettes protesting outside Parliament were “kettled” – a controversial procedure still in use – and treated very brutally by police brought in from the East End.  There were tens of serious injuries.  Two women, including one of Emmeline Pankhurst’s sisters, died as a probable result of their injuries – which the programme didn’t actually mention.  Others were sexually assaulted by policemen who pulled their skirts up and twisted their breasts.  There were calls for a public inquiry.  They were ignored.  It’s beyond appalling that something like this should have happened in Westminster, and it says so much about the attitude of men towards women who defied convention, and about the attitude of the Establishment towards those who challenged their authority.  It’s well-named “Black Friday”: it’s a very black day in British history.

Is it any bloody wonder that the suffragettes turned militant after that?  You’re supposed to make your feelings known at the ballot box.  But how do you do that if you aren’t allowed to vote?  Peaceful protests hadn’t worked.  Even with support from MPs, no progress had been made.  But violent protest is wrong.  It has to be.  Smashing shop windows might not have hurt anyone, but it caused thousands of pounds’ worth of damage to the property of people who had nothing to do with the government.  Vandalising letterboxes and telegraph wires caused widespread disruption, and, again, most of those affected had nothing to do with the government.  And it swung public opinion against the suffragettes.  It also lost the support of many MPs – it’s a problem that existed then and a problem that continues to exist, that you do not want to be seen to be giving in to violence.  And it split the WSPU: some of its members thought that things had gone too far.

But else was there to try?  It was an impossible situation.  It is an impossible situation, when those excluded from power are treated in such a way – and it’s why lack of reform has so often led to civil war and or revolution, when that hasn’t been the original aim of those calling for reform.   There aren’t really any answers.  Just the arrogance of the Establishment – towards women, towards working-class men, towards nationalists in Ireland and India.  Sorry, but it’s hard not to go on a rant when you think about all this!   As Lucy said, the militant phase of the suffragette campaign – and she did use the word “terrorism”, and she justified doing that, but I just don’t like it – was wrong, but you can see, and how understand, how it came to that.  Especially the attacks on property, given that the society at the time seemed to value property more than it valued women.

The next part was the phase of the suffragette campaign which is best known.  Arson attacks, letter bombs, vandalism, and, of course, Emily Wilding Davison dying under the hooves of the king’s horse at the Derby.  By this time it was 1913.  Then came the Great War, and then, finally, in 1918, some women were given the vote.  Only in 1928 were women given the vote on equal terms with men.  How long would it have taken for women, and for all men, to be given the vote, had war not come?  We’ll never know.

Lucy summed it all up brilliantly at the end of the programme, saying what an important chapter in British history this was, and how the violence cannot be excused but how it raises crucial questions about who should have a say in running society, how far you should go to get that say, and to what extent does the end justify the means.  Those questions apply to a lot of struggles for civil rights.  They aren’t easy questions.  This programme really made the viewer think about them.  Very, very well done.

 

A Very English Scandal – BBC 1

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The one genuine hero in all this was a minor character, Leo Abse, the middle-class Welsh Jewish Labour MP who led the parliamentary campaign for the decriminalisation of homosexuality – whilst the Old Etonians were off murdering their ex-lovers’ pet dogs. The main characters were all thoroughly unlikeable.  Daniel Cleaver, sorry, Jeremy Thorpe, as brilliantly portrayed by Hugh Grant, was so bloody obnoxious that I just kept wanting to thump him.  I’d expected to feel some sympathy for him in the early part of the programme, as the victim of institutionalised prejudice and a blackmail plot; but he was just odious.  Snooty (in practically the first scene, he and his sidekick Peter Bessell were making fun of Harold Wilson’s Yorkshire accent), ruthless, self-obsessed, conceited, arrogant, entitled … and, whilst (hooray!!) I’m not old enough to remember the 1960s or most of the 1970s, by all accounts that was pretty much what he was like in real life.

As for Norman Scott (Norman Josiffe, until he changed his surname to that of an earl whom he’d convinced himself was his natural father), equally brilliantly portrayed by Ben Whishaw, however sympathetic the viewer might have felt about his mental health problems and financial traumas, it’s very hard to feel any sympathy for someone who tried to blackmail and ruin the career of a person with whom he’d once been in a relationship and had then received help from in finding work and accommodation.  As Peter Bessell pointed out, he at least had the strength and honesty to speak openly about his sexuality; so he deserved credit for that, but that was all.  So it was hard to warm to either main character.  But, as TV viewing, it worked really well!  Cosy Sunday evening viewing, like Downton Abbey or Victoria, it is not; but it certainly kept your attention.

(Just to be accurate, the dog-shooting incident actually took place eight years after the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the UK, but I thought the contrast in priorities between the self-obsessed Thorpe and someone who was actually in politics to try to make a difference to society made the point well!)

You really couldn’t make this story up.  I don’t know who is and isn’t going to turn up in later episodes, but I assume we’re going to get Thorpe’s second wife, who’d previously been married to none other than the Earl of Harewood, Sir Jack Hayward of Wolverhampton Wanderers fame, who provided the funding to the Liberal Party which was allegedly used to try to pay Scott off, and George Carman, the barrister famous in Manchester for trying to keep the Hacienda open but whose first big case was the defence of Jeremy Thorpe against attempted murder charges.  And apparently Thorpe, back in 1960, was considered for the role of best man at Princess Margaret’s wedding.

It all makes for such a brilliant story.  Great TV.  A great book, I assume, although I haven’t read it.  The leader of a British political party, someone who stood a real chance of becoming Prime Minister in a coalition government, ended up on trial for plotting to have his blackmailing ex-lover murdered!   If it had been the storyline in a Jeffrey Archer novel, readers and reviewers would scoff at how far-fetched it was.  And yet it really happened.

And, in so many ways, it was a tragedy.  A promising political career ruined: Thorpe had to resign as leader of the Liberal Party because of the Scott saga. At the heart of it all, Thorpe’s relationship with Scott having taken place when both were single, was the fact that any public figure who was gay had to live in constant fear, knowing that his or her career would be ruined should that fact ever become public.  There was a very poignant scene in which Lord Arran, whose gay elder brother had committed suicide, spoke about the high rate of suicide amongst gay men, and said that they weren’t really killed by their own hands, but were murdered by society.  What a brilliant line, and what a tragic one.

You think, too, of all the other things that people have felt obliged to conceal about themselves over the years, because of prejudice.  Illegitimacy.  Ethnic or religious background – think of all the actors and singers who changed their names to conceal their origins, and the people who concealed the fact that they had non-white ancestry.  Be very glad that we’ve moved on from that – but remember that there are many countries in which that isn’t the case.  And we’ve still got a way to go, even now.  There are, famously, still no openly gay Premier League footballers.  And think of Will Young and – bah, I’ve forgotten the guy’s name, but another singer spoke out about this recently – being told to pretend to be straight, because record producers apparently thought that their popularity would be affected if they were known to be gay.  Which is bloody rubbish: Elton John sang at the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding reception!  And remember all the support that the late Stephen Gately got when he announced that he was gay?  But we’ve come a long way – and, in Jeremy Thorpe’s time, things were very different.

That was why I thought I’d feel some sympathy for him – before things got to the murderous stage, obviously! – but no.  The BBC did include one speech about Commonwealth immigration (I’d love to know if that was in the original script or if it was added in in the wake of the Windrush affair), but there was nothing else to show that Thorpe was a well-known anti-racism/anti-apartheid campaigner, his main redeeming virtue.  That was a shame.  He wasn’t all bad.  And it did show him having some affection for his son, but all I felt was overwhelming sympathy for his wife (his first wife, who later tragically died in a car crash), after we’d seen him talking about how he’d decided to get married because he hoped it’d give him a boost in the opinion polls.  OK, it wasn’t uncommon at the time for a gay man to marry a woman for the sake of being seen to be conventional, but the way he spoke about it was so callous, and we didn’t see how he met and courted his wife so we didn’t know if he felt any genuine affection for her or not.  He just came across as being a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

And yet he was pretty popular, at one time.  Was that all about charisma?  Well, charisma in a politician can be a very overrated trait!  Mentioning no names.

And the Scott saga went on for years.  The relationship between Thorpe and Scott took place in 1962.  Scott’d been working as a groom – how Lady Chatterley-ish is that?  He worked in Altrincham at one time: I didn’t know that until I did a bit of reading up on all this!   He started threatening to go to the press in 1965, but the press didn’t want to know.   That’s fascinating in itself.  We’re so used to the press falling over themselves to print stories about famous people’s private lives.  The story couldn’t be proven.  In the era of fake news, it’s quite impressive to think of the press turning down a story because it couldn’t be proven – although it’s hard to know how much of it was down to integrity and how much of it was due to fear of being given huge fines under the libel laws.  But, whatever the reasons, it says a lot about how good the Establishment were at covering things up back then.  When it comes to protecting someone from attempted blackmail when they’ve done nothing wrong, that’s a good thing; but, as we all know, there were other things which were covered up, by politicians, the BBC, the religious authorities, and other powers that be, at the cost of great suffering to young boys and girls.

Anyway.  But, all along, even though the story didn’t get into the press, Jeremy Thorpe was paying Scott off, and having to live with the knowledge that this could all come out at any time, in an era when gay people, even after decriminalisation, faced horrendous prejudice.  So, in 1968, he apparently decided to have him killed off.  And the TV programme was quite clear about that: we saw Jeremy Thorpe saying, quite clearly and unmistakeably, that Scott had to be killed.  Things like that don’t happen in British politics, do they?  Well, yes, they do.  OK, Thorpe always denied it, and he was acquitted, but … well, what do most people really believe?   It’s difficult to believe that the character portrayed in this series wasn’t capable of ordering his ex-lover to be murdered.

Nothing happened at that time, but, in 1971, Scott went to the Liberal Party with his tale – and was sent packing.  It then all died down again, until 1974, when papers containing details of the various goings-on came into the hands of the Sunday Mirror … which decided not to publish them.  The Sunday Mirror decided not to print the story, and handed the documents over to Thorpe!  Imagine that happening now!  However, Thorpe allegedly decided that enough was enough and that Scott had to be “dealt with”.  And this, in 1975, was when Scott’s poor old dog was shot dead.  I mean, I can’t stand dogs, but shooting one dead is a bit much.  Poor dog 😦 .

Did the gunman really intend to kill Scott, rather than his dog?  And, the crux of the matter as far as this story’s concerned, was this on Thorpe’s orders?  In 1976, the whole tale finally ended up all over the papers, after Scott was brought to court on charges of benefit fiddling and shouted his mouth off about Thorpe: claims made in court are exempt from libel laws.  So maybe the press were just scared of the libel laws, rather than being part of a cover up, or actually showing some integrity in not wanting to risk damaging someone’s career without being sure of their facts?  Whatever, into the papers it went.  And, in 1978, nearly twenty years after Thorpe and Scott met, Thorpe was put on trial on charges of conspiracy to murder his ex-lover.  Well, Scott’s generally referred to as his “ex-lover”, but he denied that Scott had ever even been his lover.

And he was acquitted.  But he’d already had to resign as Liberal Party leader, and his attempts to find a new career outside politics came to nothing.  Because no-one really believed in his innocence?  And then, because of Parkinson’s Disease, poor health also restricted his attempts to re-establish himself in public life.  That’s very sad.  But … well, he couldn’t get back into public life anyway.   It does seem that most people thought he was very lucky not to have been found guilty.  You couldn’t make it up.  Imagine – anyone reading this (I never know if anyone reads anything I write!), if you don’t remember the late 1970s, a senior politician being put on trial for the attempted murder of a blackmailing ex.  Nah, stuff like that doesn’t happen here.  We’re much too safe and boring.  Well, obviously we’re not!

As I said, it’s not cosy Sunday night viewing.  It’s exciting, but it’s also troubling, especially knowing that it’s a true story.  But the script is brilliant.  So is the acting, even if you do sometimes forget that Hugh Grant isn’t actually playing Daniel Cleaver or the baddie from Paddington II.  He plays all three parts in pretty much the same way!  But it really does grab, and keep, your attention.  Fact really can be stranger than fiction.

Queen Victoria and her tragic family – Channel 5

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Oh, Channel 5!   You’ve reverted right back to type with this – dragging out a load of very old chestnuts, exaggerating them wildly, and only going a very slight way down several roads that were potentially very interesting, such as the mental health issues in the Hesse-Darmstadt line and the row over the use of chloroform in childbirth.   Dear oh dear!

The programme seemed to aim to show that Queen Victoria had ruined the lives of all her “tragic family”. (We’re just talking about her children here: it would take a very, very long series to discuss all her grandchildren!) That’s very unfair. Yes, they did have their share of tragedies. Leopold died young, of a fatal haemophiliac bleed. Alice died young, of diphtheria. Vicky (I’ve read so many books about Queen Victoria’s children that I think of them by their nicknames, sorry!) and Beatrice were both widowed young – and, in Vicky’s case, it was a tragedy for the whole world, because her husband’s premature death meant that her son was able to set Germany on the militaristic path that would eventually lead to the First World War. Louise’s marriage was unhappy, and Affie’s wasn’t brilliant either. But that was hardly Queen Victoria’s fault!  And show me any family that’s never been affected by premature deaths and bad marriages.

This first episode of three never even mentioned any of these genuine tragedies – although, to be fair, it was mainly about when the children were younger. But Vicky, Arthur and Affie, with all of whom Queen Victoria got on pretty well for the most part, were barely even mentioned: the programme focused purely on the negatives. All the same old stuff. Queen Victoria wasn’t good with babies. Well, OK, we all know that, but she was OK with the children once they were past the baby stage. And is it any wonder that she was frustrated by having nine pregnancies, especially at a time when upper-class women were supposed to retreat from public life whilst expecting a baby?

Admittedly, she was very critical of her children – the hackneyed tale about how she named a cow after Alice because she disapproved of her daughter Alice breastfeeding came out again, as did various comments about Lenchen (Helena)’s lack of good looks – but that wasn’t uncommon in Victorian times. The cultural and religious environment just didn’t favour praising children.

A lot of comments were made about corporal punishment, too, but that was very much the norm at the time, especially for boys. And surely, certainly by the standards of the time, Bertie deserved to put in solitary confinement after spitting at his tutor and teaching his younger brother how to smoke?! A lot of what was said about the girls was also wildly exaggerated. The palaces were “pressure cookers of sexual tension” … because the teenage Lenchen and Louise eyed up some good-looking valets?!   So Victoria pushed them into marriage?   What rubbish!   Princesses were expected to marry young, and their families were expected to find them suitable blokes. And Victoria never made any of her children marry the partners of her choice. And, guess what, next week they’re trotting out that silly rumour about Louise having had an illegitimate child.

Some of what was said, to be fair, was more valid. Talking about Victoria having “turned her home into a tomb” and “crushing the spirits” of her children was melodramatic to say the least, but, as we’re all aware, Queen Victoria went into extreme mourning after the death of Prince Albert, and that undoubtedly had a significant effect on her children. And, no, she doesn’t seem to have considered that they were also grieving, for the loss of their father.   Bertie was certainly given a hard time, because Victoria felt that his fling with an actress, which most upper-class Victorian father would have found amusing and even praiseworthy, had traumatised Albert, and that his illness was due to getting wet in the rain whilst out with Bertie. The younger girls missed out on the dancing and parties that they should have been enjoying in their late teens, and those wedding photos with a bust of the dead Prince Albert plonked in the middle of the family group are ghoulish to say the least. And we haven’t even got as far as the hassle that Beatrice was given when she wanted to get married.

So, OK, Queen Victoria’s children were undoubtedly affected by her very long and – it has to be said, however sympathetic you try to be – excessive mourning, and her undoubted selfishness and self-obsession. But “tragic family”? That’s a bit of an exaggeration. And they didn’t explore some avenues that haven’t been done to death and would have made the programme a lot more original. They did briefly mention the fact that some doctors tried to blame Leopold’s haemophilia on Victoria’s use of chloroform in childbirth, and the opposition to the use of chloroform by doctors and religious ministers (all men!) who claimed that women were supposed to suffer pain because of the sin of Eve or whatever, but it was only briefly. OK, the programme was not supposed to be a history of pain relief, but Queen Victoria using chloroform did – despite the nonsense spouted about a possible link to haemophilia – help to change attitudes.

And they only briefly touched on the life of Alice, who in many ways was the most interesting of Queen Victoria’s children. They mentioned that Victoria relied heavily on her immediately after Albert’s death, both emotionally and in terms of official business, and that Alice may have suffered from eating disorders for a time, as a result of emotional stress, but they said very little more. I don’t know when this programme was actually made, but, with last week having been Mental Health Awareness week and with Prince Louis having been given a name from the Hesse-Darmstadt side of the family, I really got thinking about Princess Alice.

She did find happiness with her husband and children, only to lose one child to haemophilia, another to diphtheria, and to die young herself. Her humanitarian work during the Austro-Prussian War’s interesting too. But I was thinking about the … I don’t know what you’d call it exactly. Alice herself seems to’ve held some quite controversial religious views, in her case mainly a case of denying the “miraculous” nature of some of what’s in the Bible. I don’t think that was linked to any problems she might have had with eating disorders, but two of her descendants, who both shared her name – the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, originally Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, and Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, both seem to have suffered from depression which got tangled up with an interest in mysticism in the Tsarina’s case and a “religious crisis” in the princess’s case. I know, I know – that’s got nothing to do with Queen Victoria, and I’m talking rubbish by saying that the programme should have gone into it all. But I wish it had done. It would have been a lot better than same old, same old, and a load of wild exaggerations!

And, on the subject of Mental Health Awareness Week, was it really appropriate to use the term “go nuts” when referring to the madness of George III. I personally go with the porphyria theory, but people in Queen Victoria’s time would have assumed that it was a mental health issue. “Go nuts”?! Seriously?!

Oh well. Channel 5 has traditionally not been the best of places for historical documentaries. I’d thought it was getting better. Now I’m not so sure!

 

 

 

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

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This is a rather depressing book, although I’m not honestly sure what else I should have expected from a novel set in an asylum. It sounded like it was going to be a romance.  It was actually more about attitudes towards mental health patients in early twentieth century Britain, and, in particular, about eugenics.  It’s easy to forget that belief in eugenics was widespread and quite “respectable” until the horrors of the Nazi period completely discredited them, and there are frightening stories of forced sterilisations being carried out on people well into the second half of the twentieth century.

The book’s set during the exceptionally hot and dry summer of 1911, and – as in The Go Between, set in 1900, and I’m sure there must be other examples but I can’t just think of any! –  there’s a sense that the tension is going to keep rising for as long as but not after the hot weather lasts.  There’s also a sense of the tension outside the doors of the asylum, with the railway strikes, and the Liverpool general transport workers’ strike and the riots which broke out during it.  The location is the High Royds Asylum at Menston, near Leeds, but the author’s confusing renamed it “the Sharston Asylum”, making it sound as if it should be in Wythenshawe.

There are all sorts of horrifying and terrifying real life stories about people who were locked up in mental asylums for no good reason, such as women who’d had illegitimate children, or (although not so much in Britain, but certainly in a lot of countries) people who’d opposed the regime in power. There are even more stories of people who did have severe mental health problems but, instead of being given treatment that might have helped them, were, even in the twentieth century, very badly-treated. Even some of the treatments that were supposed to help just seem so barbaric now.

The main characters are Ella Fay, who’s been sent to the asylum because she broke a window at the textile mill where she worked, John Mulligan, who’s suffering from depression after the death of his child and the dissolution of his marriage, and Charles Fuller, a delusional doctor who thinks that he’s going to become a world leader in the field of eugenics, and that the patients are his to experiment on. There are various minor characters, including Ella’s best friend Clemency, who commits suicide after Fuller stops her from reading her beloved books, and John’s best friend Dan, who speaks Polari – a language usually associated with gay culture pre-1967, but also, as in this case, with travelling showmen, merchant sailors and various other groups.

Clemency is from quite a well-to-do family, who are genuinely concerned about her, which is interesting – it would have been far easier to have brought in a stereotype about a family wanting a “mad” child shoved away out of sight because of fears about “the taint of hereditary madness” damaging the family’s reputation. Clemency says that she actually prefers the asylum to life outside, because, in the asylum, no-one’s trying to push her into an unwanted marriage.  It’s a shame that we don’t hear more about her, and about Dan – we never find out what happens to her – but the book is largely about Ella, John and Fuller.

Fuller’s focus through it all is on Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, whose attention he hopes to attract, and the novel draws attention to how close Britain came to legalising the forced sterilisation of mental health patients – something which was legal in Japan, for example, until the 1950s.  It could well have become part of the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, although in the end it didn’t, and was proposed again in 1931.  A lot of well-known names on both the right and left wings were associated with it – Churchill’s the one on whom Anna Hope concentrates, but others included Arthur Balfour, William Beveridge (of Beveridge Report fame), J M Keynes, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

This was just in Britain: the eugenics movement was far more popular in the US and in many other countries in Europe and elsewhere. Sixty thousand “mental defectives” were forcibly sterilised in the US, around a third of them in California, and many others were barred from marrying.  It also happened in Japan, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, France, parts of Canada and elsewhere.   And then, of course, there were, and these went on long after the Nazis, other eugenics-related policies, such as the “Stolen Generation” tragedy in Australia and the ethnic immigration quotas in the US.

So much for a romance!  Well, there is a romance.  Charles Fuller doubles as a musician, and the asylum holds weekly dances at which the male and female inmates, usually separated – men doing work such as quarrying and farm labour, women work such as laundry – were able to meet.  John and Ella meet, and there’s an exchange of letters – facilitated by Ella’s friend, as Ella can’t read or write.  Working outdoors, and the relationship with Ella, do a lot for John.

Ella becomes pregnant, and, as part of Charles Fuller’s strange scheme to monitor John, is released. In a rather bizarre sequence, Fuller decides that John will become the first patient in his unauthorised forced sterilisation experiment, and has actually got him anaesthetised, and the scalpel poised, when he’s called away to answer to Clemency’s family about why better care wasn’t taken of her.  John comes round from the chloroform and is able to do a runner.  That bit really was rather silly and OTT, which was a shame because the book addressed some important and very serious issues about mental health care.

The power of doctors is another issue – it’s not one which is discussed as much as the wider issues of eugenics and mental health “care”, but it’s certainly there: John’s future, and that of Clemency, the woman who killed herself, were in Fuller’s hands. I’ve seen interviews with people in Spain who had their babies stolen because they weren’t considered suitable parents by Franco’s regime, and many of them said that they never questioned what they were told about their babies having died because the word of a doctor was not to be questioned.

There’s no happy ending. Well, there is, sort of, but not for Ella. She and John are never able to find each other again, and eventually both give up trying.  Their daughter eventually traces John a few years after Ella’s death, and is able to establish a happy relationship with him, so that’s a happy ending of sorts. But if you’re after a romance, don’t go for this.  If you want to learn more about early twentieth century attitudes towards mental health patients – and, even now, attitudes towards people with mental health issues leave a lot to be desired, despite the various recent campaigns supported by members of the Royal Family and many others – then maybe try it.  It’s not brilliant, but it raises some interesting points not often covered in novels … or indeed anywhere else.