I toyed with the idea of reading Old Baggage when it was published in 2018 but hesitated because it was described as “funny and bittersweet”. I’ve not had a good track record with books of this kind in the past; discovering too often that the humour lacks subtlety or the “sweetness” is over played.
Old Baggage would probably have remained unread but for the fact I found a copy in a little free library on the very day I felt the need for some lightish reading material to serve as an antidote to the darkness of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy.
It proved to be an entertaining read, particularly once I’d overcome my initial aversion to the comic tone and grew to love the two central characters: Mattie Simpkins and her companion, Florrie (nicknamed The Flea).
Mattie was once a fearless warrior in the fight for a woman’s right to vote. In the early 1900s she stormed the barricades, protested outside Parliament, smashed windows and ended up in prison five times. It’s now 1928; the heady excitement of those days is over and the band of women with whom she marched and sang are scattered to the four winds.
We were a battering ram, Mattie was won’t to say. Together, we broke down the door, but beyond that splintered door had been a dozen more doors, and scattered by their momentum, some women had tried one and some another, and some had given up and turned away and it seemed to The Flea that all that unity and passion had dissipated.Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
Mattie is undeterred. She keeps the flame of the suffragette movement alive through public lectures (somewhat dispiritingly her audience is less than enthusiastic) and stands ready to fight again. Though women were granted a vote in 1918, it was only a partial victory – as a property owner, Mattie is entitled to vote, but The Flea cannot. “The battle is not yet over; every day brings fresh skirmishes,” announces Mattie.
She’s the kind of woman often derogatively labelled “an old bag”; forthright in her opinions and unafraid to share them. In Mattie’s case, she faces up to a young man who steals her handbag but also gives an earful to the police constable who questions her about the incident. Mattie in short, is a woman who has energy, drive and a burning passion to make the world a better place.
And so she comes up with a new scheme: a club that will educate the young women of the future; equipping them to exercise their vote thoughtfully and preparing them physically and mentally for injustices and challenges ahead. And so The Amazons are born, meeting on Hampstead Heath and in the garden where they learn about the pioneering women of the past, debate topical issues and learn how to throw javelins.
It all starts to go wrong when a rival group emerges, led by a fellow former suffragette who has developed a leaning to Fascism. Mattie’s fire of indignation is ignited and she agrees to a competition between the two groups, believing firmly that her girls will run rings around the Empire Youth League. In trying to set right a mistake from the past, she makes an error of judgement with unforeseen consequences for Mattie, The Flea and the Amazons.
Old Baggage is related with such gusto that it was easy to miss a darker note about social inequality yet this was one of aspects that most held my attention.
Lissa Evans has a keen eye for social context, cleverly weaving into the narrative details about the realities of life for working class women in the 1920s. Burdened down with too many mouths to feed on a pittance; ignorant of basic principles about disease and health; confined to house and hearth with few opportunities to find a better life. Mattie is so single focused in her fight against political inequalities she is oblivious to these social inequalities. It’s The Flea, who as a health worker, witnesses poverty and the resulting ill health every day. Instead of slogans and sashes, she offers practical help on hygiene and nutrition, gently trying to nudge the women to adopt her advice.
Some women listened, some didn’t and to those that didn’t you just had to offer clear and simple advice and repeat it when needed. The other sort, though, presented a type of chink, which with gentle persistence you could widen into a doorway.Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
Old Baggage didn’t charm me as much as it did several bloggers whose opinions I’ve come to value over the years. I thought the dramatic turning point in the narrative took too long to materialise and the fall out was rushed. But it got me thinking about all the women like Mattie who were once at the forefront of campaigns for change and now feel forgotten. What will happen to all the female campaigners of today, people who are leading the charge against forced marriages and genital mutilation or advocating for the right to abortion and education (to name just a few issues). Will their efforts be similarly overlooked by the generations that follow?
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