Thursday, June 4, 2015


A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN by KATE WALBERT, published 2009. New York Times Book Review: 10 Best Books of 2009
TO END ALL WARS by ADAM HOCHSCHILD, published 2011. New York Times Bestseller. 

We begin with these two books. And, no, they are not both historical nonfiction works.
   Despite the title of her book, Kate Walbert has authored a difficult to forget work of fiction.
   Upon its publication in 2009, I went to a chain bookstore and needed help finding it. Her novel was not in the New Fiction section. An employee, making a good faith mistake, directed me to the History section. I tried to explain and, of course, the book wasn’t there. This, after a photo of Kate Walbert had just appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review with an accompanying laudatory review. A check with a manager produced a box of the books from the store room which he began unloading on the shelf of the New Fiction display section.
   Adam Hochschild has written a well-researched, highly-praised, compelling non-fiction narrative of World War I on the British home front.
   Both of these books concern World War One or “The Great War” as it was  termed at the time. Both authors write of that war and its effects on Britain and its people. Both delve into two related political movements/positions: the pacifist/workers’peace movement and the women’s suffrage movement.Those two causes once joined at the hip - would find themselves severed by the scalpel of war.
   “A Short History of Women” is nothing of the kind. Rather, it is a deep, sharply focused exploration of an era - a moment in history echoing across a century, heard and responded to by five generations of the women of one family beginning with the woman we will mainly concern ourselves with here: Dorothy Trevor Townshend - the family’s controversial, short-lived matriarch.
   Walbert offers up small slices of individual lives affected, if not shell-shocked, by war. Characters described for us in eloquent, engaging prose that drops us, not always gently, into that turbulent time.
   Do not be thrown off by the LINEAGE chart of the women and the family at the front of the book. Kate Walbert is not a historical novelist. She writes not of history, per se, but of characters moving through time and place with history in relief, as backdrop.
   In the novel's opening sentence, daughter Evelyn (Evie) tells us that her mother "starved herself for suffrage." After her mother’s death, 13 year-old Evelyn is enrolled at a school for girls. She and her classmates often find themselves hungry due to wartime shortages. Being so close, physically and psychologically, to the booming artillery and occasional whiff of gunpowder takes its toll on them. One of the girls, feeling, fearing, that she is too near the continental carnage, moves away from the Channel coast to Buenos Aires.
   Dorothy Trevor Townshend does not match the usual image of a “matriarch.” At the age of 34, she dies gradually, though in a shocking manner.Vilified by some, eulogized by few. Her granddaughter finding her, many years later, in the footnotes of history books.
   Walbert presents Dorothy’s death by self-starvation in 1914 as a moral choice occurring in the early days of a war about to devour an entire generation of young British men. A war of choice - made by men. 
   Dorothy will claim that she had no choice in the matter. Yet, we know from reading this novel and Hochschild’s book, that many of Britain’s young men had no choice either. (Conscription raising its ugly head as the war trudges on into 1916). The author immerses us in the murky waters of moral equivalency.
   Even the clergy will not be exempt. The young, ethereally named, Father Fairfield, will be called up in the draft. The girls at Madame Lane’s school are enamored of him, to say the least. But as Evelyn later looks back in witness to that historical moment, she tells us that the Father is, before being shipped across the Channel, “beautiful and ruined” because he will be killed in his second week at the front. We hear a faint echo here of Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, 1922, and of that generation “lost” in so many ways to the Great War. 
   Father Fairfield tells Evelyn that he learned of her mother’s death in the newspapers, and that he thinks that she was a hero. He himself admits that he is not a Bertrand Russell pacifist or conscientious objector. He will not resist the war as others did in Britain at the price of ostracism or of prison terms served, according to Hochschild, at hard labor.
   We are left to wonder if this young, handsome Father had in mind an image of heroism inspired by that of the 34 year old suffragette who willfully orchestrated her own end for the cause that determined both the track of her life and the time and manner of her death. Fairfield not choosing that other path he mentions to a different sort of heroism - resistance, conscientious objection, to the war machine. Choices.
   In 1899 when she is till Dorothy Trevor, she encounters a doctor tending to the wounds of her male friend, the victim of an assault. Flashing forward, Dorothy tells us that this good physician will be a hero as a medic bearing witness to the miraculous Christmas Truce of December 1914. The doctor writes of this extraordinary event in a letter meant for home - the letter will make it back to England but he will not. His letter describes a moment of light and peace brought to the dugouts by the soldiers themselves. The flickering candles atop the trenches, the exchanges of food, the singing of Christmas carols. The opportunity to recover the bodies of their fallen comrades. The doctor observes the friendship and the camaraderie noting that this is something powerfully female - stronger than the violent male impulses leading to war. Morally moved by the sight, he plans, upon his return home, to join the pacifist movement.
   In 1914, the year of her death, the war has already begun when Dorothy Trevor Townshend attends a lecture at the Victoria Club given by a philosophy don, a professor fond of the eugenics movement, who will speak on “A Short History of Women: Some Observations on the Woman Question”.
   She sits at table with some other suffragettes she has never met.  It is here that we are told, through Dorothy, that the suffragette cause has been, in effect, weakened by the war effort with these same women distracted from their suffragist efforts, diverted by things like putting together Red Cross packages for the men at the front.
   They sit there listening to this condescending professor who believes, with the certitude of science on his side, that women lack the capacity to think clearly, weighted down as they are by uncontrollable emotions and a tendency to the dramatic. Their actions based upon impulse and not intellect, driven by their inner tides toward irritability. The don suggests that their true role is to comfort men - with a subtle suggestion, unspoken - of providing men with sexual satisfaction and children. He throws his female audience a bone by predicting that they may get the right to vote sometime in the current century. If they’re lucky, maybe in a decade. But he hopes, that in casting those future votes, they will recognize and bow to the fact that war is a necessity, an inevitability. And, importantly, women are to breed and replace the lost, slaughtered generation of young men.
   After the lecture Dorothy returns home to her family and two children. She fears that what she has dedicated her life to is being overshadowed by the war. All of the work, the fundraiser benefits, the rallies, lost in the terrible reality of all-consuming military conflict.  
   It is, then, that she decides that she must do something. Something to change the direction and decisions of a world dominated by men and their wars.The same man's world that can tell a mother, Dorothy, that her young club-footed son Thomas’congenital physical problems must have been caused by some "unhappy" thoughts of hers during the pregnancy.
   It is not that Dorothy has no doubts about the choice she makes. In the hospital bed, wasting away, she seems to acknowledge that this final, irrevocable decision will be a cruelty to her two children, and she wonders if she can somehow explain to them that she had nothing to give to the cause but her own life.  
   The suffragette cause is an undeclared war, as her daughter Evie thinks. Evie, at thirteen, appearing to accept and even understand her mother’s death, saying, sitting at her dead mother’s side, that this ultimate sacrifice of her mother’s may stir things up for the better. Yet, her mother’s sacrifice orphans the two children - the father having disappeared from their lives.
   A few years later, 1919, Evie at 18, is bound for America to spread the suffragette gospel. She wonders, if one day, her mother will appear on a postage stamp.The vote, with age and property restrictions, having been won along with the war.
   But we wonder - what of ten year-old Thomas? We only know that by 1919 he is in California with his new family after having become a piano prodigy by the age of 16. We read much later, in the final chapter, that he died in his mid-forties from alcoholism (according to the Lineage chart in his mid-forties) and that his abbreviated life was not happy one. That Lineage chart reminds us of History - and history - and that the roots of both entangle themselves down through the generations.
   Dying, Dorothy tells the Nurse that she refuses to simply go along as women are expected to do, implying that this is the final act of her life’s work.
   Selfish or Self-less? Useless suicide or an ultimate act of heroism? A legacy wrapped in a mystery that Dorothy has bequeathed to her female descendants. Leaving those women to unwrap, unravel, it if they can.
   We are left to read, to observe, to try to comprehend. To judge? Suffragette shenanigans? Treason? Or something else? Dorothy dies with her body bent into a question mark. A mystery to her descendants and to us the readers of Kate Walbert’s remarkable, memorably moving book.
   In a chapter set in 2004 Thomas Townshend’s daughter, Dorothy Townshend Barrett, gives a lecture about her suffragette aunt. She herself is in her mid-seventies at the time. She informs the audience that her grandmother, Dorothy, was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union during the suffragette era. But with the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, she left that group, disappointed and disillusioned, by how many women strongly, blindly, supported England’s involvement in the Great War. Dorothy firmly believed that war is an institution constructed and maintained by men. The war brought about a schism, a break, in the once solid union of hearts suffragist cause. 
   In To End All Wars Adam Hochschild writes of that schism. He introduces us to Charlotte Despard who believes that, once given the vote, women will spearhead a revolutionary, socialist movement which will end the horrors of war and poverty once and for all. Ironically, she is the older sister of one of Britain’s leading militarists, Field Marshal Sir John French.
   We meet the women of the Pankhurst family - mother Emmeline and daughters, Christabel and Sylvia. Suffragettes who believed, before the world war, that they were waging their own holy war on behalf of women. But as war rumors swept across the continent to England, a real fear seized socialists and suffragettes, Hochschild tells us. Fear that a war between the European nations might break the solidarity of the workers of Europe, causing them to abandon the fight for economic and social justice, even setting them against each other on the battlefield as well as on the home front.The activist women, for their part, feared that their suffragette movement itself would weaken and perhaps even disappear altogether.
   A year before the war, 1913, in the middle of a dock workers’ strike, Sylvia Pankhurst convinces women to feed the workers’ children. In gratitude, the dock workers march en masse to Holloway Prison to show their support of a hunger-striking suffragette. The male workers had made common cause with the suffragettes. As the author informs us, many male workers in England did not themselves have the right to vote - about 40% being too poor to qualify for the franchise.
   Just two years earlier, 1911, Christabel Pankhurst had incited the WSPU, Women’s Social and Political Union, members to violence after Parliament voted down a women’s suffrage bill. It is the scale and nature of their actions, described in vivid detail by Hochschild, which gets our attention here.
   Suffragettes vandalizing central London using hammers to break windows in government offices, hotels and over 400 businesses and shops. Those of us of a certain age can recall the anti -Vietnam War “Days of Rage” in Chicago staged by the Weather Underground. But that outburst of righteous anger appears small scale compared to this.
   Emmeline Pankhurst makes a daring raid on 10 Downing Street, itself, alighting from a taxi, to smash windows at the Prime Minister’s residence. Fires are set and bombs detonated. Telephone wires cut. All told, damages in today’s currency, Hochschild informs us, estimated at $60 million. Over a thousand women were rounded up by the authorities and imprisoned. One suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, killed herself for the Cause in front of a large crowd by running directly onto the racetrack at Epsom Derby - struck by a swiftly running horse. When she died a few days later, the Queen called her a “horrid woman.” Emmeline Pankhurst praised her as “one of our bravest soldiers.” 71
   Hochschild shows us the Women’s Movement, before the war, as united, solid, self-sacrificing and, yes, violent.
   A month before the outbreak of hostilities, July 1914, the socialist parties of Europe convened an emergency conference at Brussels hoping for an anti-war general strike resolution. It failed to pass despite 100,000 people marching in Berlin against war. 
   In England at this time suffragettes were engaging in hunger strikes by the hundreds. The British government responded by ordering their force-feeding. Sylvia Pankhurst repeatedly pushed herself to her physical limits. "I am fed by stomach tube twice a day.They prise open my mouth with a steel gag. I resist all the time...struggling whilst they hold the tube into my throat." (Hochschild quoting part of a letter, March 1913, from Sylvia to her mother Emmeline).
   In 1913 Britain, with war approaching, Parliament passed a bill which its opponents called "The Cat and Mouse Act" formally “The Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act” calling for the release of any hunger-striking suffragette whenever doctors adjudged her to be too weak from lack of nourishment. The Act allowing her time to “recover” only to be rearrested and even released again as many times as necessary for her to complete her prison sentence.
   This new legal measure was particularly aimed at Emmeline Pankhurst who in 1913 had been found guilty of incitement in the bombing of a house being constructed for Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, soon to ascend to wartime Prime Minister. She declared herself a prisoner of war and, like her daughter Sylvia, began a hunger strike. Released and rearrested repeatedly, as authorized by the new law, she was sent back to prison just a month prior to the war in July 1914.
  Christabel Pankhurst, at that time still on the side of all suffragettes, declared that any war that was about to be fought by the nations of Europe would be divine retribution upon those holding women “in subjection.” 
   BUT, as Hochschild informs us, when war breaks out “everything changed”. Emmeline Pankhurst ordered all women’s suffrage activism to come to an immediate halt. In return, the government released all imprisoned suffragettes with an amnesty.
   Charlotte Despard silenced herself finding it difficult to oppose the war with her little brother, John, now commander of the British forces at the Front. Labor unrest and planned strikes ceased.
   For their part, two of the Pankhursts, Emmeline and Christabel, a few weeks after the war declarations, held a large conference on the “German Peril.” In their speeches, they told the women to turn their suffragette militancy to firing up a kindred militancy in men for the war effort. Now, was not the time, they said to talk of “Votes for Women." Encourage your men, Emmeline declared, to march into war like the knights of old. To die in battle would be “a splendid thing.”
   Emmeline and her followers believed that by strongly, vociferously supporting the war effort, they would be, for once, at the front and center of public opinion, no longer to be dismissed as a lunatic fringe group. Most importantly, they made a strategic calculus that in so doing they could only strengthen their own cause and be rewarded at the end of hostilities with "the Vote".
   But as the war continues to chew up a male generation across the Channel, the divide between suffragette war supporters and war resisters only widens. By 1917 Charlotte Despard has formed the Women’s Peace Crusade, writing an antiwar pamphlet purchased by one hundred thousand readers.
   The author tells us that Christabel Pankhurst lashes out at her, writing in an issue of Brittania, (the name of the paper changed by her from its original name Suffragette) “I consider the pacifists a disease…a very deadly disease.”
   Alarmed by the overthrow of the Tsar and the possible end of hostilities by Russia, Emmeline Pankhurst, herself, travels there in 1917, to try to convince the Kerensky provisional government to keep fighting the war. 
   In opposition to her mother, her daughter, Sylvia, changes the name of her newspaper from Woman’s Dreadnought to Workers’ Dreadnought urging a class warfare waged by the workers of the world to end this war to end all wars. She even proposes a “Women’s Peace Expeditionary Force” to march with a white banner into “no man’s land” between the rival armies. “We must all urge that peace be made… We are yours in this sisterhood of sorrow.” (Hochschild quoting from an open letter Sylvia signed to German and Austrian women)
   Later in the war, Charlotte Despard and Sylvia Pankhurst helped establish an organization to help and protect returning veterans. In April 1915 Sylvia and almost 200 other women attempted to attend a “Women’s International Peace Conference” at the Hague with, yes, German women participating. Outraged British leaders and the press howled at this “pow-wow with the fraus”, with Emmeline turning on her daughter, despising her actions as part of “the peace-at-any-price crowd.” Due to the British government’s interference, only three English women managed to attend the conference.    
   On the other side of the war issue, Emmeline’s “good” daughter Christabel had changed the name of their suffragist newspaper from Suffragette to Britannia - filling its pages with purple, patriotic prose and images of historical heroines like Joan of Arc.
   By the end of 1914 one-third of the British Expeditionary Force is dead at the front. Hochschild telling us that “trainloads of maimed men flooded London….”
   In one of the most memorably moving scenes in Kate Walbert’s novel, Dorothy Trevor Townshend, after attending that 1914 lecture by the Oxford don on the “Short History of Women”, encounters one of these returning troops at the train station, “a battered soldier” with his prosthetic leg unbuckled and propped up against a bench.                                                                              

   She offers him water from her thermos and a biscuit which he accepts with a polite “Thank you.” At his invitation she sits on the bench next to him. She remembers this station from childhood, her mind wandering to the places she once wanted to travel to and see. But all of that has now been thwarted, Kate Walbert suggests, by the war and by the choice she is about to make.                           
   The soldier has been talking to her but she "seems no longer capable of listening" and offers him an apology. But the soldier stands up and, after buckling his "chiseled wood" leg back on, he moves away from her. But not before she sees that he is wearing a woman's ring on his pinkie finger and she knows “this she will always remember.”

**PLEASE NOTE: Kate Walbert’s new novel:
THE SUNKEN CATHEDRAL has a publication date of June 9, 2015. 
If you are in or near Connecticut, she is giving a reading at RJ JULIA’S in Madison on THURSDAY JUNE 11at 7:00pm. Her website, Kate has a listing of her national tour appearances.

Monday, June 1, 2015


Each month this blog presents two books for consideration. One fiction volume and one historical non-fiction book. The two books related by historical events, particular places, singular people or characters, the same or similar subjects.
    These may not be current bestsellers or even recently published books. So it is possible that the reader may have already read one or both of them. If so, it is hoped that the reader will peruse the post here and read the books again. To paraphrase Hemingway - if writing is rewriting then, perhaps, at least some reading is rereading. If these books are new to the reader, the hope is that the reader will pick them up at the local library or bookstore, or load them onto an E-reader or other device - and Enjoy!
   The idea is that the reading of one book will lead to the reading of the other - in any manner the reader likes. Sequentially perhaps, or if the reader is feeling adventurous, concurrently.
    We might read the novel straight through. Followed by the historical volume. Or, while engaged with the novel, we might flip through the historical text, perhaps, checking out any photographs, maps, or illustrations. 
    For example, in Kate Walbert’s novel  A Short History of Women we are told of British propaganda posters of Germany and its soldiers being plastered all over London. If we go to Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars, the second photo section, we see a lurid poster caricature of a German soldier as a rampaging ape - a large club in one hand and a struggling damsel in distress tucked in the crook of its other arm. At the bottom of the poster, the single word: ENLIST. More to come...