Thursday, 7 March 2013

Put Your Arms Around Me ... Romances with a Reluctant Arsonist

Some ten years ago a packet of private papers came into my hands, evidently the letters and sapphic-platonic love poems of a Suffragette from the Nineteen Twenties, and, moreover, the private thoughts of a former hunger-striker not infrequently imprisoned in English jails that included Holloway, with protests of conscience behind bars that took her to the point of fever and unconsciousness.

According to contemporaries, she was a reluctant arsonist. In Christabel Pankhurst’s severe view, this poetess lacked the incendiary passion to put the bastions of male privilege to the torch so Christabel dismissed her from her activist role in 1913. In the view of many sister Suffragettes who defended her, however, this poetess had real backbone, neither approving of stone throwing nor of running away.

So these poignant effusions are remarkable less for their direct action politics and more for their direct expressions of love in response to the tender loyalty of their dedicatees.

What is extraordinary is the fact that she lived just long enough to see the 50th Anniversary of Votes for Women in 1968, the year of Les √Čv√©nements in Paris, as her newspaper clippings reveal. And, despite Mrs Pankhurst’s daughter’s censures, she no doubt accepted the invitation (found among her papers) from the Suffragette Fellowship to attend Emmeline Pankhurst’s Birthday celebrations in Room A at the House of Commons on July 15th, 3.30 to 5.30 pm, tickets 6/6d.  According to my modest researches the reluctant arsonist died the following year in 1969, in her ninth decade.

In the packet of memorabilia I have a postcard of her arrest after a demonstration in Trafalgar Square against the prohibition of Free Speech, a testament to her stature in the Movement and her fortitude, for she is a powerless lone woman escorted by some ten policemen, mounted and on foot. The postcard’s caption is an ironic commentary on her plight.

The postcard and leaflet both feature a photograph of the Suffragette, a lone figure surrounded by an all-male posse of mounted and foot police. The postcard caption reads:
“Hustle them in and bustle them in,
Scoop up the shriekin’ mob.
Who says that ‘Justice’ is goin’ to win
When ‘The Law’ takes up the job?” 

The delicate poignancy of the reluctant firebrand’s verses is all the more intense when we consider Society’s other repressive interdicts against women, in its condign inhibiting of female homosexuality. 

The nature of those yearnings is evidenced here, in this heartfelt epigraph to her final, life-closing love affair.
You’re not my first love –
I loved before we met.
You are my last love –
The dearest, sweetest best –
My heart has shed its outer leaves –
I give you all the rest.

If we seek to get close to these intense secret passions from those first decades of the twentieth century we should look no further than that women’s liberationist of schoolgirl literature, Angela Brazil (1868-1947).

Her sapphic-platonic sentiments, shared I have no doubt by our Reluctant Arsonist from a similar generation, may be found in this passage, for instance, from The Luckiest Girl in the School. Winona is the schoolgirl heroine.
Winona walked across the room, hesitated for a moment but did not venture to follow her. Almost automatically she took up the book which Aunt Harriet had been reading. It was a little volume of extracts, and one had been marked with a pencilled cross:

Put your arms around me —
There, like that:
I want a little petting
At life's setting,
For tis harder to be brave
When feeble age comes creeping,
And finds me weeping,
Dear ones gone.
Just a little petting
At lifes setting:
For I'm old, alone and tired,
And my long lifes work is done.

The tears rushed to Winonas eyes. Did Aunt Harriet really feel like that? Oh, why could she not go and comfort her? She turned impulsively into the garden. The slow steps were coming back up the paved walk. She would have given worlds to walk up to her aunt and fling her arms round her, but the old sense of shyness and reserve held her back. Miss Beach was passing along the border, her dress brushing the flowers as she went by. It would surely be easy to join her, and at least to take her arm! Easy? No! She had never done such a thing in her life with her aunt. A peck of a kiss was the only mark of affection that they had hitherto exchanged. Winona looked and longed to express her sympathy, but the invisible barrier seemed strong as ever. Aunt Harriet turned aside and went towards the kitchen. The opportunity was lost.

The hem of Aunt Harriet’s dress brushed the flowers as she passed but it was an opportunity lost.  

Was not this the heart’s fate of so many sapphic-platonic women from the Lost Generation? 

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