Lucy Ribchester: stays, scoops and suffrage

The final event of the Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival at the end of last month was Circuses and Suffragettes, focusing on Lucy Ribchester’s Edwardian tale of crime, politics and fetish, The Hourglass Factory. It’s a fast-paced investigation by reporter Frankie George and Inspector Frederick Primrose into the disappearance of aerialist and suffragist Ebony Diamond, which also serves as a primer on the factionalism of, and opposition to, the fight for votes for women.

Ribchester was joined by event chair Lee Randall for a discussion that ran off into all sorts of interesting directions, which it was bound to do as there is a lot going on, often just below the surface.
After joking that the ornate chairs on stage looked like something one of her characters would own, she gave a reading of the second chapter of the book, in which Emmeline Pankhurst pops into an ironmongers to buy 25 hammers. It’s typical of the book, in which bizarre situations and humorous misapprehensions are underlined by a constant threat of violence.

She revealed that it was her dad’s suggestion that for a school project she write about “Emily Pankhurst, the woman who threw herself under the King’s horse” that first sparked her interest in suffragism, even if he had, she realised later, conflated two different women. At Randall’s request She then rattled through the differences between suffragists, suffragettes, Nussers, Wasps and Spankers.

“Suffragist refers to anyone who was campaigning for the right to vote for women, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society [NUWSS, hence the Nussers], headed up by Millicent Fawcett which was a sort of umbrella organisation. The term suffragettes was coined by a Daily Mail journalist in 1906. The Women’s Social and Political Union [WSPU, the Wasps] had been around for a few years, but that’s not that catchy. Then this scathing journalist called them suffragettes because anything with ‘-ette’ on the end of it is a little girly thing. But they really liked it, one reason I read was that you could harden the G to suffraGET ‘… and votes is what we’re going to get’.

It wasn’t just one group of women all merrily working together and marching along

The Women’s Freedom League broke away as they were unhappy with the idea of militancy and vandalism to achieve their goals. They were the ones who chained themselves to the railings outside Parliament. Ironically, the suffragettes [the WSPU] were not run democratically. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst had declared autocracy on that organisation. They didn’t think that they should be wasting time having votes to figure out who should be the leader. ‘Spankers’ was a derogatory term for people who followed the Pankhursts.

“It wasn’t just one group of women all merrily working together and marching along. Some of them could be quite backstabby against each other. To me that was as interesting as the factions you hear about in gangland Chicago, a complex and quite divided group all trying to achieve the same aim.”

On the topic of the violence in protest, one of the things that I find interesting is that Ribchester said she herself “had to really question where my line came, and I’m still not sure”. It seems pretty clear in the book where her line is, with a great deal of sympathy for those who draw the line at hurting others. The examples of those who overstep that mark are portrayed as distinctly unhinged. Here she cited Gladys Evans, who dropped a hatchet into Asquith’s carriage and set fire to a theatre.

However, it’s clear from the start of the book that her big inspiration was Isabel Kelly, and she read out this article about her daring break-in to a meeting in Dundee. The first chapter has Ebony attempt an even more daring feat at the Albert Hall. “I made her protest more elaborate than Isabel Kelly’s. Something as daring as Isabel Kelly’s doesn’t need to be more elaborate, but I had to combine the circus element.”

Randall noted that as a journalist Ribchester writes about dance and circuses, but why combine the two?

“I wanted to write a book not only set around circus and music halls but hopefully with the spirit, showmanship, liveliness and performativity. I also wanted to write something not only implicitly about feminism but overtly. I made the connection that when circus and music hall had their heyday and move into variety and become mainstream and respectable was about the same time as women were making violent protest.

“It intrigued me that women could find emancipation on the stage, like Vesta Tilley, male impersonators who could send up men in the same way that pantomime dames could send up women. Also Marie Lloyd, who was incredibly successful music hall star who could sing these very bawdy songs and bawdy jokes on stage, a sort of freedom. To juxtapose that against this fighting for political freedom was interesting.”

Apparently her interest in circus and dance was sparked by the fact that when she lived in London it was a good way to get free entertainment, as everyone was busy writing reviews about the theatre, but no-one else seemed to want to review those fields, so she started writing for websites.

What I like about fiction is that you don’t have to come out with a standpoint, it’s a place you can go to explore different ideas.

Then the conversation moved on to corsets. In the book, Ebony wears one that brings her waist down to about 14 inches, as does another character (I had to find a tape measure to work out just how small that would be), and the corset shop plays pivotal roles in the plot several times. “Is it a metaphor for constraints on women?” asked Randall.

“What I like about fiction is that you don’t have to come out with a standpoint, it’s a place you can go to explore different ideas. The corset as an instrument of constraint but also instrument of great beauty was not clear in my mind, so I wanted to throw it in there and mash it around. If you threw away your corsets, during the late Victorian era, the era of dress reform, then you were seen as being a bit subversive, but also if you were a tight-lacer you were also seen as subversive. It still happens today, you have to be balanced in the middle and either extreme is weird.

“There was corsetry for men, and male fetishists who had been in the army, and it got me interested in the idea that the corset was not necessarily an object of feminine repression, it can be an object of beauty or gratification.”

At this point Randall mentioned modern-day corsetier Mr Pearl, noting that “it does permanently deform your body.”

“I think people get addicted to it. That interests me because you’re not going for the aesthetic, people get addicted to the sensation of wearing the corset. It became apparent that it was about the feeling of wearing the corset rather than the look that it gave you. It’s probably also related to ideas of control.

“There was one really fantastic book called Fashion and Fetishism by David Kunzle. He talks about how corset fetishism in the Victorian era was closely related to equine language, such as restraining your horses on tight martingale reins, that bridling your horse will give great control over them.

“Some people have made the connection that dieting is the new corsetry in terms of restraint, us putting a cultural restraint on women’s bodies. We are still supposed to contain our bodies in a perfect shape, doing crazy diets or doing loads of exercise. It’s still the same idea, it comes from the same principle.”

You can’t put her in a box the way some people might want to.

The lead character in The Hourglass Factory, Frankie, is a young woman who wears men’s clothes and keeps her hair short, but it’s not entirely clear whether it’s a political, practical or gender statement. At one point another character upbraids her for calling corset fetishists as “deviants” and points out how others might regard her. There are also numerous innuendos flung her way that she ignores or seems not to notice. Ribchester said that she has had some criticism that she should have explored Frankie’s sexuality more deeply.

“I don’t think you should. Maybe she doesn’t have a binary gender or you can’t put her in a box the way that some people might want to, but I think the decision I made not to go down that route of exploration was that I thought she should just be normal, and she is normal to me. That’s just the way she is.”

Although Frankie seems ambivalent about the suffrage movement, it’s clear she’s fighting against the sexism inherent in the newspaper industry. She’s not expected to write about anything other than gossip and fashion, and her main male rival is a terrible journalist who gets everything wrong just to have a scoop. Ribchester explained how she had read guides for women journalists at the time, but was more inspired by Elizabeth Banks, whose work Frankie has also read. “She got into doing these daring exposés, she found herself a niche, for instance going undercover in a laundry to expose how harsh and cruel the conditions were. Editors liked her because she was doing something a little bit different.

“That fed into what I wanted Frankie to be, I wanted her to be striving for something more.”

An early attempt to set up a newspaper with a women-only staff was cut short when the Daily Mirror was closed after six months by its owner Lord Northcliffe, who said: “Women can’t write and don’t want to read.” Ribchester said that she had originally written quite a bit on the Mirror but it “had to get cut from a draft because my editor said it was too history-heavy it didn’t add anything to the narrative”. Then she described being challenged why it was ‘wrong’ for women to be interested in and write about fashion. It’s not the fashion she objects to, but “the idea of being restricted to focusing on anything, it’s the restriction that’s the thing.”

As the book shows, there were men who campaigned in support of women’s suffrage. The character of William Reynolds was based on William Ball, who was imprisoned and force-fed and then sent to Colney Hatch asylum. “I wanted a character who was a little more complex and ambiguous whether he was a goodie or a baddie, William Ball was certainly a goodie in real life.” George Lansbury, who raised Ball’s case in Parliament was another prominent supporter, as was Hugh Franklin, who took a whip to Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, over his treatment of protestors on Black Friday. She then also read a great excerpt from Christabel Pankhurst’s Unshackled describing how a man climbed 15 feet up a pillar at one meeting to heckle cabinet ministers.

Passages like these caused her problems, though, as she found she wanted to share them all, but couldn’t. “It can be quite gutting realising that you can’t put everything in, every anecdote that you’ve enjoyed, like that one. I really wanted George Lansbury to be in the book but it just didn’t work, his thread went nowhere, he’d just be popping up to say, ‘Hi, I’m a historical figure.’ But you can’t do it, you have to serve the main story.”

One character, though, who is central to the plot, is Twinkle, a (probably) retired courtesan whose column Frankie writes for her paper. She’s based on a woman known as Skittles who was supposedly the last great Victorian courtesan.

We think of gossip as being tawdry, but it could be knowledge, and knowledge is power.

“I was thinking of ways in which women were making an independent living for themselves, that was one of them. It really interested me to think of what happened after retirement to someone in that profession. How much gossip she would know and how much empathy she would have: there’s a strong psychological element there that you must develop, and understanding of human psychology and behaviour.

“We think of gossip as being tawdry, but it could be knowledge, and knowledge is power and is useful, and she knows everything that happened in society circles then she is the person you go to when you need to solve a crime. I think that’s a very powerful thing for her to have. She is a comedic character, she has an old-fashioned view of the position of women, but on the flipside she’s forward-thinking in other aspects.”

An audience question focused on whether she thought the violence of the suffrage movement ultimately helped or hindered the cause.

They spent the entire session talking about whether cars should have headlights.

“It’s difficult, I don’t know where I stand on the violence. I can understand the frustrations, certainly, of the suffragettes. One particular anecdote sticks in my mind about how there had been loads of non-millitant, nonviolent protests, lobbying parliament.

“The Government had promised to give time for talking about votes for women on the last day of parliament before the summer, and the gallery and lobby was packed and in the end they spent the entire session talking about whether cars should have headlights. To feel that slap in the face, that sense of being pushed down, must have felt so humiliating, so I understand why they turned to violence. But at what point that should have stopped or whether that helped or hindered, I’m not sure.”

She also referred to the fact that as soon as the First World War broke out, Emmeline Pankhurst threw her support behind the Order of the White Feather, which shamed men into signing up for the trenches. This brings to mind, for me, the hugely affecting closing pages of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot, which covers roughly the same ground from a different angle.

The Hourglass Factory is an entertaining, compelling debut and shows promise of a great career. Her next book, she reluctantly revealed (superstitiously worried), is about Bletchley Park. Here’s hoping she has as much success second time around.

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