After reading Kate Parry Frye’s suffrage diary, I was keen to read The Convert, a novel about the suffrage movement adapted from her own play, Votes for Women, by Elizabeth Robins.
Vida Levering is an attractive woman in her early 30s who lives with her half-sister, Janet Fox-Moore, a flustered, timid woman married to an exasperated, overbearing husband. Vida’s upper middle-class social circle can’t understand why she hasn’t married but Vida isn’t interested in any of the men on offer & keeps her own counsel. In Edwardian England, the issue of women’s suffrage is becoming more prominent & one day, after hearing one of the men at a social gathering pouring scorn upon the suffragettes & calling them “sexless monstrosities“, she suddenly reacts against the prevailing opinion, “I’ve sat and listened to conversations like the one at tea for a week now, and I’ve said as much against those women as anybody. Only to-day, somehow, when I heard that boy – yes, I was conscious I didn’t like it.”
Vida goes along to several open-air meetings & listens to the speakers, becoming particularly interested in Ernestine Blunt, who can hold her own against the hecklers that make up the majority of the audience. Young, intelligent & very self-possessed, Ernestine & the other women impress Vida & she becomes converted to the cause. To the alarm & amusement of her friends, she becomes involved in a charity to provide shelter for homeless women (there’s already a similar scheme for homeless men but women aren’t admitted) & eventually takes her place on the platform as a speaker herself.
Geoffrey Stoner, one of the most influential & self-satisfied men in Parliament, is also on the fringes of Vida’s circle although she does her best to avoid him. Stoner has recently become engaged to Jean Dunbarton, a young, idealistic girl, who becomes interested in the suffragettes & this leads to the explosive final chapters of the book.
Reading The Convert just after Kate Parry Frye’s diary was fascinating as it showed the struggle that Kate & women like her went through in getting the message of women’s suffrage through to the ordinary man & woman in the street. It also emphasizes the perfidy of the politicians, mostly Liberal, who promised support when they needed the women in their election campaigns but then reneged once they were elected. Seeing the struggle through the medium of Vida’s awakening consciousness is very effective & the open air meetings seem to be virtually verbatim reconstructions of the real thing.
As a novel, The Convert isn’t perfect. The action sags in the middle as we get bogged down in the interminable meetings in Hyde Park where the speeches are given in full & every heckler & interjection is recorded. Apparently in the play that was the basis of the novel, these scenes were the highlight of the performance as the actors interacted with both the actors playing the hecklers & the audience as well. In Angela V John’s biography of Robins, she details the extensive research carried out for the play & the novel. The speeches & the heckling were based on reality & this does come through very strongly. I just felt that it went on too long & slowed down the plot. The final third of the book is terrific & I read it in one sitting. I don’t want to say more about the more personal aspects of the plot involving Vida’s past as the revelation is devastating to several characters & it deserves to be a surprise to the reader as well. If you’re at all interested in the suffrage movement, The Convert is a compelling story & certainly worth reading as a document of the times by a woman who was a witness. Among her many other talents, Robins was an actress & one of the founders of the Actresses’ Franchise League that Kate Parry Frye joined.
The Convert is the first title in the new imprint, Twentieth Century Vox, which is part of one of my favourite small publishers, Victorian Secrets. I’ve already bought the second title, The Good Comrade, by Una L Silberrad, edited by Kate Macdonald. I’m looking forward to reading it as a book about the theft of a rare blue daffodil has to be fascinating. Kate has podcasted about two other Silberrad novels, The Honest Man & Keren of Lowbole at her website, Why I Really Like This Book.