No Surrender is a novel about the struggle of the suffragettes to get the vote for women in England in the early 20th century. It’s a passionately told story of almost documentary realism reprinted by Persephone Books 100 years after its first publication in 1911.
The story focuses on two women, working class mill girl, Jenny Clegg, & upper class Mary O’Neil. Jenny’s experiences in a Northern mill town fire her determination to join the fight as she witnesses & experiences appalling working conditions for women doing the same jobs as men but being paid much less. She also sees how helpless women are in marriage when a husband has the right to all her wages as well as total authority over her life & the life of her children. Jenny’s sister, Liz, is married to a bully who leaves her for another woman & sends two of their children to Australia without consulting or even telling the children’s mother. Jenny is walking out with Joe Hopton, a man who is scornful of her interest in the Suffragette cause & assumes the right to interfere in her life & how she spends her few leisure hours. Jenny is quietly supported by her brother, who has been injured at work, & her mother, cowed by marriage to a man who would take any money she saves for drink.
Mary O’Neil’s devotion to the Cause is more intellectual but no less committed. Mary’s life may be easier than Jenny’s but it’s just as circumscribed. Her family would like her to marry a rich, boring man but she has no interest in marriage & spends her time visiting factories & enquiring into the working conditions of the women working there.
Jenny & Mary are arrested when they go to London as part of a deputation of women campaigning for the vote. Jenny soon appreciates that she’s one of a great army of like-minded women.
That welcome, with the sense it brought to the North Country girl of being one of a great united sisterhood, an army of mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters, bound together for the noblest of all human achievements, the freeing of the human being from bondage, the breaking down of false barriers, the loosening of chains, the letting in of the light, for this is what the raising of woman means to the race, and for the first time Jenny had realised it in all its fullness.
The scenes of the suffragettes in court & in prison are wonderfully detailed & full of passionate indignation. The women are treated as second-class rather than first-class prisoners as they believe they should be as they consider themselves political prisoners. Their protests range from breaking the windows of their cells to the desperation of the hunger strike. Mary’s hunger strike & the horrifying forced feeding that follows was closely based on the experiences of Lady Constance Lytton who had written an account of her suffering. Like Lady Constance, Mary is released from prison when her well-connected family apply for mercy on the grounds of her ill health. Working class women were not treated so favourably and Lady Constance later proved this by disguising herself as a working class woman & courting arrest. She underwent forcible feeding on that occasion without anyone worrying about her weak heart. The book ends with the great Suffragette Procession where thousands of women marched in support of the Cause
The strengths of No Surrender are the realism of the scenes in the prison & the humour of some of the scenes. The scene where three women dressed in suffragette colours attempt to bail up a couple of Cabinet ministers at a country church service is very funny. The contrast between the demure young girls & the horror of the Ministers as they slink out of church to avoid the women & their petition is very amusing. One of the men doesn’t escape & the women attach themselves to him & virtually frogmarch him down the lane. The chapter where Jenny infiltrates herself into an upper-class household as a maid & tries to present a petition to a politician during a dinner party is also very well-done. The patronising, leering butler is contrasted with a couple of pro-Suffrage footmen who are there to help Jenny.
The main drawback of the book as a novel is that the characters declaim speeches rather than have conversations. The characters represent a predictable spectrum of belief from the contemptuous men to the heroic women. Every scene is turned into an opportunity for an argument between the mostly male opponents of suffrage & the determined suffragettes. I also found the love story of Jenny & Joe pretty unbelievable & unnecessary. The value of the book is in the portrayal of the Cause not the characters & as it’s one of the few novels about Suffragettes, it’s worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the struggle for the vote or women’s history of the period.