Reviews||

Win! The Right of the Subjects by Jude Starling

25th Feb 2014

★★★★
the-right-of-the-subjects-jude-starling
‘It is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning illegal.’ This extract from the 1628 Petition of Right was invoked by Marion Wallace-Dunlop in 1909, when she wrote it on a wall in the House of Commons.

However, this basic right is not always freely given, as Jude Starling (author of Goldcord Asylum) reminds us in her new novel about the women’s suffrage movement.

The Right of the Subjects is set over an eight-year period before the onset of World War I, when Evanna Bailie, a Lancashire teenager working in a mill, joins her older sister at a demonstration, and becomes involved with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), headed by Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters. What begins as ‘a rowdy rabble of girls’ becomes more serious after Evanna’s first stint in Holloway Prison.

Her family, long-involved in campaigns for workers’ rights and universal suffrage, remain dubious of the Pankhursts’ motives, and increasing militancy.

But Evanna seizes the opportunity to escape the grimness of factory life, and eventually leaves home to join the ‘Young Hot Bloods’ in London.

An aspiring artist, Evanna becomes a model and apprentice to a painter who supports her cause. She also has a fling with his assistant, a young Irish Nationalist.

The Women’s Suffrage movement is a complex subject, and rather under-explored in fiction. It is to Jude Starling’s credit that she manages to cover so many significant events, and to depict real-life figures alongside fictional characters, without losing pace. Evanna’s first-person, present-tense narrative resembles a diary, and her irreverent wit ensures that the story never becomes dull.

Among the historical luminaries featured is Christabel Pankurst, the eldest, and most favoured of the three sisters. After training as a solicitor, she dedicated herself to women’s suffrage.

A brilliant strategist, Christabel could also be ruthless. Under her influence, the WSPU turned to increasingly desperate measures, including hunger strikes and fire-bombing.

British society was on the cusp of enormous change, and yet the forces of state repression were also gaining in strength.As the novel progresses, Evanna realises that these tactics are alienating the public. She grows uncomfortable with the ‘martyrdom’ of Emily Davison, who threw himself under the king’s horse at Epsom Derby; and is disturbed by the vandalism of Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus, perpetrated by Mary Richardson.

Another leading light of the WSPU, Annie Kenney, was drawn from the same industrial turf as Evanna, whom she later recruits. A former mill-worker from the North, Kenney was known as Christabel’s ‘right-hand woman’, and became the WSPU’s only senior member of working-class origin.

Warm and flirtatious, Annie has a knack for charming both allies and opponents. However, her unwavering loyalty to Christabel will cost her dearly.

With conflict brewing at home and abroad, the right to vote was one of many controversies dominating public discourse in the early twentieth century.

Innovations like the car and telephone were breaking down technological barriers. British society was on the cusp of enormous change, and yet the forces of state repression were also gaining in strength.

The radical community, as portrayed in The Right of the Subjects, brought women of very different backgrounds together. Evanna’s close friendship with a middle-class suffragette is an imagined example of a pattern rooted in reality. The easy intimacy between activists often led to same-sex relationships, which were not frowned upon.

The WSPU effectively disbanded after the outbreak of war in 1914, and although universal suffrage was granted to men four years later, working-class women would be excluded for still another decade. For Evanna and others like her, however, the revolution had begun.

Want to win a copy of The Right of the Subjects? We’ve got a paperback copy – signed by author Jude Starling – to give away to the first person to answer this simple question: 

What was the title of Jude Starling’s last novel?

To enter, just email your answer by midnight on Tuesday 4th March 2014. Entrants will be added to the For Books’ Sake monthly mailing list – if you’re not keen on that idea just let us know in your email, or you can easily unsubscribe when you get your first one.