Sex outside Downton Abbey – Cats and Mice.

Lots of things happen in that excellent TV show Downton Abbey, but there’s not a lot of reference to one major group of women who convulsed England in 1914 – the suffragettes. Yet these women were involved in some of the most dramatic activities any playwright could imagine – often heroic, sometimes comic, occasionally tragic on an almost Shakespearean scale.

Take the most famous of them all – Emmeline Pankhurst. In 1914 she was 56 years old, a widow with two grown up daughters. A pretty woman, frail and petite, by mid 1914 she was almost wasting away. She had been imprisoned ten times, and each time she had gone on hunger strike until she was released. Then, after she had recovered a little, she was rearrested again under the terms of the infamous Cat and Mouse Act.

So what was this Cat and Mouse Act? Officially called the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, it was designed by the Home Secretary, Mr McKenna, to deal with the increasingly embarrassing problem – for the government – of suffragette hunger strikes. Over the past few years suffragettes of Mrs Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had committed a bewildering variety of crimes. Apparently respectable ladies walked into Oxford Street with hammers concealed in their handbags, and smashed all the plate glass shop windows. Others set fire to post boxes, wrote VOTES FOR WOMEN in weedkiller on the greens of golf courses, attacked the Prime Minister with a horsewhip, or tried to set fire to the Home Secretary’s house.

It must have been tremendous fun. These women were having the time of their lives! But of course all these things are crimes and so they were sent to prison.

In prison, however, the story got worse, and darker. The women didn’t accept the justice of the court, so they refused to eat, starving themselves for days until, in common humanity, they were released; whereupon they went straight out and committed further offences. This made the government look ridiculous; and there is nothing men hate more than being laughed at by women.

So instead of releasing the women, the government decided to enforce the law. If the prisoners refused to eat, they must be made to eat. And the method for doing this, in 1914, was barbarous in the extreme. A female prisoner was held down, usually by four or five wardresses, while a doctor – almost always a man – inserted a feeding tube, like a long garden hose, down her throat. When several feet of this had gone through the struggling woman’s nose or mouth into her stomach, he put a funnel into the end of the tube, held it above her head, and poured soup into it.

It was messy, horrible and gruesome. Often, when the tube was removed, the woman promptly vomited up onto the floor. Her mouth and throat would be sore and bleeding. She would feel shocked, violated, raped. And the whole procedure would be repeated the next day.

This was shocking enough when applied to poor working and middle-class girls, but the real scandal erupted when it was applied to aristocratic ladies as well. In those days prisoners from different social classes were divided like train passengers: wealthy prisoners went to the First Division, with relatively comfortable conditions, middle-class prisoners to the Second Division, and the poorest to the Third.

But in 1909 one of the most aristocratic women in England, Lady Constance Lytton, daughter of the former Viceroy of India, threw a stone through a window in Liverpool. Because she had disguised herself as ‘a common ugly seamstress’ called Jane Warton, she was imprisoned in the Third Division. When she went on hunger strike, she was forcibly fed, like a common working class girl. When she was released, she threw another stone, and it happened all over again – four times in all. In 1914 she published a gripping book, Prisons and Prisoners, describing her terrible experiences.

It was to avoid embarrassing stories like these that the Home Secretary, Mr McKenna, introduced the Cat and Mouse Act. The idea was that if women damaged their health by refusing to eat in prison, the government could temporarily release them for a few weeks until their health had improved, but then rearrest them to serve the rest of their sentence. So a six-month sentence might eventually be dragged out over several years.

It was passed by a majority of 296 to 43. But it didn’t really help, because the Act was portrayed by the suffragettes as a new and equally barbaric form of torture. And anyway, force feeding continued, sometimes when prisoners were on remand, before they had even been convicted. Mrs Pankhurst lay on her back on the stone floor of her cell, all day for days until she was released. When her daughter Sylvia was released from Holloway after forcible feeding and hunger strike, her supporters carried her to Parliament and laid her, half–dead, like a sacrifice outside the chamber.

This wasn’t just a battle about politics; it was a war between men and women.  The men were the cats; the women, the mice. There were clear elements of sadism in it too. It wasn’t just about the Vote, it was a battle for power in sexual relationships.

Prostitution in London was rife, with all its attendant problems of ‘The White Slave Trade’ in under-age girls, and the transmission of sexual disease. Suffragettes were as angry about this as they were about the vote. Christabel Pankhurst wrote a pamphlet called The Great Scourge and How to End It, which contained the alarming quote:

‘Votes for Women … and Chastity for Men.’

No wonder the male politicians felt so threatened! Especially those who regularly visited ‘up-market’ brothels as a matter of course, before going home to their wives and children.

It was in the midst of all this that a suffragette called Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery and committed the dramatic crime which I have borrowed for the opening of my novel Cat and Mouse. With a large kitchen knife she slashed the naked back of one of the most beautiful and alluring portraits of female sexual beauty – the Rokeby Venus.

Why did she do this? To get Votes for Women? Well, yes. But there was more to it than that; and that is what I have tried to explore in my story, Cat and Mouse.

A Dramatic Evening

It was because of a play that I wrote The Monmouth Summer. Not a famous play in a West End theatre, though; this was just a play in a school hall, performed by kids. But it was a fantastic play for all that, brilliantly acted, overwhelmingly effective, and it inspired me to write a novel.

The play was so effective because there was no stage. There were a few seats and benches here and there around the edges of the school hall, but other than that, the audience had to stand or walk about.  At the start of the play we milled around, rather confused at first, like people in a market place, while people in seventeenth century costume tried to sell us things – pies, sweetmeats, mulled wine. But then, suddenly, the actors appeared amongst us.  They were part of the crowd, too, but acting out scenes. Sometimes in front of us, sometimes behind; at other times distant, across the room. As the actors moved, so did we, trying to get a good view, guess what would happen next. It sounds chaotic but it was tremendously effective: the play was all around us, we were in it, part of it, it was happening to US!

And it was a play about what had happened to ordinary people just like us, in that town, 300 years ago. The town was Colyton, in East Devon, and the play was about the Monmouth Rebellion. In 1685, the lives of people in Colyton were transformed – many of them ruined – when James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, landed from a Dutch ship, the Hereldenburg, in nearby Lyme Regis.  Who was Monmouth? He was the gallant, proud, dashing, spoilt illegitimate son of King Charles II, who had just died. But Monmouth refused to believe he was illegitimate. Despite his father’s persistent, stubborn denial, Monmouth claimed that King Charles had secretly married his mother, Lucy Walter, long before he married Catherine of Braganza. There were secret letters, Monmouth said, in a casket, which would prove this. And therefore he, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth was the rightful heir to the throne.

Why did this matter, to the ordinary, everyday folk of the town of Colyton? It mattered because the new king, James II – Charles II’s brother and Monmouth’s uncle – was openly Catholic. And that was something that most West Country folk could not abide. Colyton was a small town grown prosperous on the cloth trade, and many of its small merchants and artisans were fiercely Protestant dissenters. Their conventicles were already banned by the Church of England. A Catholic King, they thought, could only make things worse.  Whereas Monmouth, at least, was Protestant – ‘the Protestant Duke.’ He was also young, handsome, and dashing, and had been cheered by crowds everywhere when he had toured the West Country five years before.

So the first bit of news which electrified the crowd in that school hall was that the Duke of Monmouth had landed in Lyme. The gossip spread from mouth to mouth – first whispered, then shouted, then earnestly discussed. What did it mean? Was it true? Did he have soldiers, men, arms?  What should we do? Join his army, welcome him, risk our lives? Or ignore him? What if he failed? What would the punishment be then? How if we did nothing,  and were afraid to help?

It all came vividly alive, in short sketches around the hall. Not two feet in front me, a wife tugged tearfully at her husband, begging him not to go, not to leave her and their children to fight in a futile war, a rebellion which would leave them all ruined, destitute if it failed. And if they lost, how would the King punish them? What would he do? Against which her husband – just a sixth-form boy really, but totally absorbed in his role – spoke of duty, and religion, and his loyalty to the other men of the town, a few of whom had even fought for Cromwell in their youth. How could he desert his friends at this time? In that school hall it seemed so real, so shocking. Such terrible, impossible choices; and of course we all knew, how could we not, that the wife was right, it could only turn out badly in the end.

Monmouth’s men were brave, but badly led. They had their chances, even at Sedgemoor – the last battle to be fought on English soil – but they lost, as we all knew they would. Monmouth was captured and executed, and Judge Jeffreys – surely one of the cruellest, most vindictive men ever to disgrace an English courtroom, was sent by King James to punish the rebels. Jeffreys’ appearance in the school hall was utterly terrifying. He called Colyton ‘the most rebellious town in England.’ Towering above us on a dias which we had not noticed before, wincing and sipping brandy to ease the pain of the stone, he mocked the chained, bloodied prisoners who were dragged limping before him. And because these prisoners came out of the crowd – they were US – his sadistic jokes hit home even harder.

The play didn’t show them being hanged, drawn and quartered, of course – that’s too much – but it brought the horror home to us nonetheless. Staging the play like that brought home the fact that it really happened, to ordinary people like us; if we’d been born earlier, it could have been us.  Of course, not all the men died – some hid, some were transported, some escaped, and the women survived and kept life going. Three years later, King James was gone too, chased away by another, larger army brought to Devon from Holland. And a few surviving rebels crept secretly home, to put their lives together and begin again, as best as they could.

I left that school hall feeling sober, but not sad – it was exhilarating, in a way, to be purged of pity and terror like this, and to see a bunch of school kids and a talented teacher bring English history so dramatically to life. I learned a lot, too. And on the way home, I thought, ‘I should write a book about this.’

So I did.

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