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Amber Hits Back

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I came to A Lady and Her Husband via H. G. Wells, which is all the wrong way round. I’d been seeking suffragettes. I wanted some fictional feminists in my life. Already on my team I had Mira Ward, from Marilyn French’s consciousness-raising epic The Women’s Room, and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying sexual adventuress Isadora Wing. But the Seventies feminists were so bleak. And post-feminists were so muddled. I wanted inspiration. I wanted clarity. I thought about the suffragettes. They’d had clear battle lines and actual victories; might their novels be more heartening?

Disconcertingly, the first suffragette novel I read was written by a man. Wells’s Ann Veronica was such a smash hit in 1909 that emancipated women got called ‘Ann Veronicas’. Ann is a 21-year-old bluestocking who runs away from home to study biology, gets swept up in politics, storms Parliament and spends a month in prison. So far, so thrilling. But then at the end, seemingly out of nowhere, she elopes with her older teacher, and becomes cringingly submissive.

It doesn’t ring true. Because it isn’t. Margaret Drabble’s introduction to a reissue of the book explains that Wells based Ann on Amber Reeves, a young woman he had seduced (according to other, shocked members of the Fabian Society) within the very walls of Newnham College, Cambridge, where she was studying moral sciences. She was uncompromising and brilliant; he nicknamed her ‘Dusa’, short for ‘Medusa’. But when Wells got her pregnant she had to rush into marriage to a man who would bring up her child.

In Ann Veronica, Wells didn’t just whitewash the truth; he also doused Reeves’s spark. Ann ends up dull and surrendered, gushing at her teacher/husband, ‘I say, you are rather the master, you know.’ I found this galling. So did Elizabeth Robins, the feminist, actress and writer of the barnstorming 1907 play Votes for Women! She was so outraged

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I came to A Lady and Her Husband via H. G. Wells, which is all the wrong way round. I’d been seeking suffragettes. I wanted some fictional feminists in my life. Already on my team I had Mira Ward, from Marilyn French’s consciousness-raising epic The Women’s Room, and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying sexual adventuress Isadora Wing. But the Seventies feminists were so bleak. And post-feminists were so muddled. I wanted inspiration. I wanted clarity. I thought about the suffragettes. They’d had clear battle lines and actual victories; might their novels be more heartening?

Disconcertingly, the first suffragette novel I read was written by a man. Wells’s Ann Veronica was such a smash hit in 1909 that emancipated women got called ‘Ann Veronicas’. Ann is a 21-year-old bluestocking who runs away from home to study biology, gets swept up in politics, storms Parliament and spends a month in prison. So far, so thrilling. But then at the end, seemingly out of nowhere, she elopes with her older teacher, and becomes cringingly submissive. It doesn’t ring true. Because it isn’t. Margaret Drabble’s introduction to a reissue of the book explains that Wells based Ann on Amber Reeves, a young woman he had seduced (according to other, shocked members of the Fabian Society) within the very walls of Newnham College, Cambridge, where she was studying moral sciences. She was uncompromising and brilliant; he nicknamed her ‘Dusa’, short for ‘Medusa’. But when Wells got her pregnant she had to rush into marriage to a man who would bring up her child. In Ann Veronica, Wells didn’t just whitewash the truth; he also doused Reeves’s spark. Ann ends up dull and surrendered, gushing at her teacher/husband, ‘I say, you are rather the master, you know.’ I found this galling. So did Elizabeth Robins, the feminist, actress and writer of the barnstorming 1907 play Votes for Women! She was so outraged that she sheltered Reeves during her pregnancy, wrote to Wells to tell him she found his novel deeply cynical and got him blacklisted by the Women’s Social and Political Union. But Reeves, who had been betrayed twice, in life and then in print, and who had her story stolen before she could tell it herself, was not crushed. She had two more children, campaigned tirelessly for every socialist and feminist cause going, became a gifted adult education lecturer, and wrote eight books. The range of her concerns was dazzling; in 1941, struck by the way that war was affecting women, she sat down and wrote a pragmatic pop psychology book, with the fantastic title Worry in Women, which covered everything from the fear of bombing to marital discord. And her 1914 novel A Lady and Her Husband is a quiet but brilliant retort to Ann Veronica. Its heroine, Mary, is about as far from Ann as it’s possible to get: middle-class, middle-aged, chilly, prim and proper. Her children are leaving home and Mary is at a loss – until her free-thinking daughter suggests that she get involved in her husband James’s business. Reluctantly she agrees to visit his chain of tea-rooms and see if she can do anything to help his employees. At first she wafts about like a lady philanthropist, finding everything perfectly satisfactory. But then she starts seeing what the employees’ lives are really like, and starts asking more, and more important, questions. Reeves knew all about this kind of survey: her mother Maud Pember Reeves wrote Round about a Pound a Week, a 1913 study of working-class families in Lambeth that exposed their desperate poverty, and paved the way for reform. It’s still a pertinent and devastating read. And A Lady and Her Husband is in many ways its fictional counterpart. As Mary’s eyes start to open, so do ours. At first she lets smug, patronizing James fob her off, claiming, for example, that he pays starvation wages because his ‘girls’ come from nice, comfortable homes and only need ‘pocket money’. When she visits one of them, she sees this is patently untrue. She is shocked by the squalor, and when she discovers that the woman has been fired because of the machinations of a predatory man, she rages to herself, ‘Why did men exist? Why couldn’t they be trusted? Why couldn’t they keep away from girls?’ As the Spectator’s appalled critic said, this sort of tirade ‘might have appeared in the most advanced socialistic newspaper over the signature of a militant suffragette’. Mary lobbies James for change but he refuses to act. She realizes he only wants power and success. He’s exploited the poor. And she’s complicit; she’s lived off the profits, after all. She fantasizes about getting free of it all:

she longed suddenly to change her dress, to be rid of her satin and lace and to go out into the echoing streets. She would walk quickly along in the night, a shadow passing unnoticed under the lamps, until she came to the country, to some great open space where only a passing cloud could shut her out from the black sky and the stars. The wind would blow round her, blowing clean air from the uplands and the sea. There in the cold and the loneliness her soul would be free; it would not be the soul of a rich woman, nor of an ageing woman, nor the soul of James’s wife. All these weary things would have slipped from it, discarded, put aside, and she would rejoice in her nakedness, a voice crying out to God.

After this flight into lyricism, Reeves brings us back to earth with a bump. Mary can’t talk to God because ‘she had never loved Him! She had loved James, served James . . .’ Now everything has changed. James loves his work more than he loves her. What’s more, he hasn’t even been faithful. And the revelation of his affair comes at a very inconvenient time for him. He’s been secretly planning to float the company so he can open a chain of cinemas. But he can’t do it without Mary’s vote. When I first read this bit, I punched the air in delight. A Lady and Her Husband is a suffragette novel after all! Reeves is asking a question that Wells’s showier, angrier novel never bothers to address; what happens after women get the vote? Mary has power; but how will she use it? First she needs a room of her own. She runs away, covering her tracks, to a furnished flat in Chelsea, to the kind of place where another heroine would take a lover or discover herself as an artist. Instead, pragmatic, meticulous Mary studies The Shareholder’s Guide to Company Law. And she thinks about the French Revolution and realizes she is rebelling too. At first I was disappointed by what happens next. She returns home to vile James. She forgives his infidelity. I’d wanted fireworks. I’d wanted a raid on Parliament, I’d wanted a ruckus. I’d wanted James to get his comeuppance. Maybe I’d even wanted Wells to get his. But this is not that kind of novel. Mary wins the battle she has fought; she refuses to let the company go public and forces James to agree that he will make things better for their employees. And right at the end, Reeves takes another of her rare, hard-earned leaps into poetry. Mary is gazing out of her window, and suddenly feels connected to the people on the streets.

Close to her were millions of her fellow-men . . . the great violent city, and beyond it, beyond the downs and the dark sea, down the curve of the world its other cities rang with the pain, the defiance, the glory of man. Now she too was to share man’s task and his inheritance. She had left her ordered house for the clamour and promise of life . . . Behind her the lights burned steadily in the big gay room. Outside a man laughed and the wind lifted the branches in the square.

It’s a fabulous ending; liberating, empowering and profound. Without smashing any actual walls, Reeves tears down the barriers between people. She’s writing in 1914. She knows, or hopes, that women will get the vote soon. And she’s urging us to use our power wisely, to be altruists, to understand. Maybe that’s why Reeves took time out of her campaigning, teaching and non-fiction to write her novels; because she believed that only by empathizing, by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, can we ever start to change the world.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 46 © Samantha Ellis 2015


About the contributor

Samantha Ellis has written a memoir about reading, How to Be a Heroine, and several plays, including Cling to Me like Ivy.

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