A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Vida Levering is a society beauty who finds herself at dinner party after social function where one of the hot topics of conversation is the rise of the Suffragettes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her friends, acquaintances, and even her sister are wholly disapproving:
In the midst of an obscuring dust of discussion, floated fragments of condemnation: ‘Sexless creatures!’ ‘The Shrieking Sisterhood!’ etc., in which the kindest phrase was Lord John’s repeated, ‘Touched, you know,’ as he tapped his forehead–‘not really responsible, poor wretches. Touched.’
‘Still, everybody doesn’t know that. It must give men a quite horrid idea of women,’ said Hermione, delicately.
‘No’–Lord Borrodaile spoke with a wise forbearance–‘we don’t confound a handful of half-insane females with the whole sex.’
Originally published in 1907, and last year reissued in a new critical edition by Twentieth Century Vox (an imprint of Victorian Secrets), Elizabeth Robins’ The Convert follows Vida as she uses her formidable intellect to navigate the new political landscape that is unfolding in the early years of the century. After persuading her sister to semi-secretly accompany her to a Suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square, she surprises herself by being fascinated by the fearlessness of the speakers and their strident calls for militancy as they campaign for women’s rights to vote.
At the same time she has to regularly confront attitudes among her peers like the ones in the above quote. It’s one thing for a working class women to start shouting about equality of the sexes, but for someone of Vida Levering’s social standing? Well, that’s just not cricket. It’s just as well she has good reason for her ex-lover, the politician Geoffrey Stonor, to be on side with her…
The Convert is a beguiling mixture of fact and fiction, as Vida and her friends encounter real figures from the Suffragettes’ fight. Robins was herself a Suffragette activist and involved with the WSPU, but if the novel occasionally verges on propaganda, she manages to pull it back from the edge with her wry humour on display throughout (as I think the quotation above demonstrates).
This critical edition is full of very useful textual apparatus: Emelyne Godfrey’s fine introduction does an excellent job of setting the novel in its historical, cultural, and political context, and there are also extensive notes and a chronology of Elizabeth Robins’ life and career. Most interesting of all are the contemporary reviews of the novel and of Votes for Women, the play on which it was based.
A final thought: at one point a character refers to the Suffragettes as ‘the disorderly women’. Anyone else think this would be an excellent name for a band?
Elizabeth Robins, ed. Emelyne Godfrey: The Convert (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2014) ISBN 9781906469498 RRP £10 (print). Also available as an ebook.