Source: Review copy
Publication; 14th June 2018 from Doubleday
What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?
It is 1928. Matilda Simpkin, rooting through a cupboard, comes across a small wooden club – an old possession of hers, unseen for more than a decade.
Mattie is a woman with a thrilling past and a chafingly uneventful present. During the Women’s Suffrage Campaign she was a militant. Jailed five times, she marched, sang, gave speeches, smashed windows and heckled Winston Churchill, and nothing – nothing – since then has had the same depth, the same excitement.
Now in middle age, she is still looking for a fresh mould into which to pour her energies. Giving the wooden club a thoughtful twirl, she is struck by an idea – but what starts as a brilliantly idealistic plan is derailed by a connection with Mattie’s militant past, one which begins to threaten every principle that she stands for.
Set in 1928 when women’s suffrage is on the cusp of being extended to women over 21, irrespective of whether or not they are property owners. It is a massive change for which women have fought over many years. Emmeline Pankhurst sadly does not live to see the day, but Mattie Simpkin and her sister suffragettes, are looking forward to celebrating. Not that Mattie is one to rest on her laurels, certainly not!
Mattie’s raison d’être is all about encouraging young women to embrace the new found future that the suffragettes have fought for; to help young women understand that there can be more to their lives than inheriting that which their mothers had.
Florence Lea (known as ‘the Flea’) and Mattie share a house in Hampstead known as the Mousehole, because it was used as a convalescent home for hunger-striking suffragettes during the Cat and Mouse Act.
Florrie is a sanitary inspector, and helps Mattie at her slide lectures about the exploits of the Women’s Suffragette movement. Mattie lived for those exploits and is looking for something to carry on her enthusiasms.
Two unconnected events lead her to her next project. Reacting to a mugging on Hampstead Heath, Mattie throws a cudgel at the perpetrator, but unwittingly hits a young girl named Ida. Then, a chance encounter with a sister suffragette, now married to an Australian, leads her to understand that the fascist movement is actively recruiting young people in London.
Mattie decides there and then to set up a group for young women, called The Amazons, with Ida as her first recruit. She teaches everything from debating to wood chopping, encouraging these young women to think for themselves and be self-sufficient.
Inevitably, the Amazons come face to face with the Empire Youth League, the young fascist group whose members are exhorted to use their ‘strength and commitment to drive back the sickly tide of foreign interference’.
Mattie, whose head and heart have become inextricably mixed up, makes a very bad error of judgement; one which will lead to the destruction of everything she holds dear.
Full of rather wonderful phrases, Lissa Evans conjures up a sense of what it must have been like to be an activist in the suffragette movement and how those women whose sweethearts and husbands didn’t return from World War 1 made a path for themselves with their newly found enlightenment.
The characterisation is excellent; from Mattie and Florrie to Ida and Inez, we learn about living conditions, expectations, and emotions.
Old Baggage is a warm, tender and sometimes downright funny book. It is a wonderful evocation of friendship, passion and commitment and I really enjoyed it.
Verdict: A terrific, engaging and moving read.
About Lissa Evans
Lissa Evans grew up in the West Midlands. She comes from a family of voracious readers and spent most of her adolescence in the local library, thus becoming well read if not wildly popular.
After studying medicine at Newcastle University, she worked as a junior doctor for four years, before deciding to change to a career in which she wasn’t terrified the entire time; a job in BBC Radio light entertainment followed, and then a switch to television, where she produced and directed series including ‘Room 101’ and also ‘Father Ted’, for which she won a BAFTA.
Her first book, ‘Spencer’s List’ was published in 2002, and since then she has written four more novels for adults (one of which, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, was filmed in 2017) and three novels for children. She lives in London with her husband and two daughters. She still reads voraciously.
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