You may remember Crooked Heart, Evans’s novel set during World War II about a middle-aged grifter on hard times and Noel, her young evacuee. The story provides an original view of wartime life, smart and witty with some brilliant characters. Among them is Mattie, Noel’s godmother who makes a brief but memorable appearance at the start of the book. So memorable in fact, that Evans has devoted a new book to her: Old Baggage.
The story takes place in 1928 as the suffragette movement finally sees franchise for women on equal terms with men. (When women got the vote in 1918, it was for property-owning women over thirty only). Mattie Simpkin is a former suffragette in her late fifties, who with old campaign chum Florrie, puts on talks about the battle for the vote and holds forth to anyone who pauses to listen. Ever the campaigner, the story concerns Mattie’s discovery that there’s no point giving women the vote if they have no knowledge of politics, history or the world at large. She starts a group for young girls called the Amazons who learn vigorous activities on Hampstead Heath (javelin throwing, slingshots and archery) as well as taking educational excursions, camping out and debating.
Here’s what I particularly liked about the book:
- The character of Mattie is brilliant. She’s witty and funny, and knows her stuff, but underneath she’s flawed. Blinkered by her determination and her position on the moral high ground, she misses key signals regarding the people around her.
- Florence Lee (The Flea) is Mattie’s indispensable helper, who worked tirelessly in the background doing the paperwork for the women’s suffrage movement, and now keeps Mattie’s slides in order as well as keeping house. Hers is a more poignant story – her unfulfilled devotion to Mattie; her work as a visiting health officer takes her to the poorest homes and adds a good dose of reality.
- Ida – the young working-class girl who Mattie accidentally hits with a bottle and who in reparation, The Flea takes on as a maid. She’s just as intelligent as Mattie, without the oratory, and offers a telling view of both Mattie’s leadership and the class divide.
- There are some wonderful scenes: Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral – she died just before the new suffrage legislation – where Mattie rescues an alcoholic suffragette from making a fool of herself; the competition the Amazon’s become drawn into against a rival group of boys and girls styled on fascist-like drilling and marching, and where Mattie meets her downfall. To name but two.
- The past makes its presence felt, not just in recollections of the old campaign, but with Mattie and Florence on a personal level – each has ‘old baggage’ and for Mattie this unsettles the present and causes conflict.
- The ending is a wonderful surprise – moving, a little sad, but also offering hope for the future.
If you like the novels of Jane Gardam (one of my all-time favourite authors), you will love Lissa Evans. Her novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half was made into the recent-ish film, Their Finest – a look at people involved in the wartime propaganda machine. Old Baggage would also transfer beautifully to the large or small screen. Four out of five from me.