The Interview: Lissa Evans on Old Baggage
Lissa Evans discusses middle-age, women's suffrage and telling a story of creating a meaningful present in the wake of a thrilling past in her latest novel Old Baggage.
What drew you to tell a story of suffragette lives long after the heyday of the movement?
Well there were a couple of reasons. One was that the height of the drama has been covered many, many times. Also - speaking as a middle aged woman myself, I’m roughly Mattie’s age at the beginning of the book - I really wanted to write about what it would be like after you’d done something dramatic, trying to make sense of your life after you’d done something extraordinary. Because by 1928, these women - especially slightly older women like Mattie - would have been regarded as absolute dinosaurs. The women getting the vote at twenty-one in 1928 would only have been born at the height of militancy and for them, Mattie and her encore were fossils. It’s a little bit like a feminist born in the 1960’s and how they’re viewed now and, for me, it was a way of exploring an aspect of this subject that hasn’t been covered before.
The other reason I wanted to set the book in 1928 was that I wanted to tell the story of how Noel ends up with Mattie in Crooked Heart. I wrote Crooked Heart as a one-off and Mattie just sort of came out of nowhere that just jumped off the page. I wanted Noel to be brought up by someone who would give him an unusual view of life and Mattie just emerged. Originally, I very much wanted to write a sequel to Crooked Heart but I couldn’t let go of Mattie, she was such an interesting person and I was very fond of her. We’d only seen her in her decline in Crooked Heart, so, Old Baggage is a standalone book but it was also a chance for me to allow readers to see Mattie in her sensational prime.
There’s always been a cachet to the idea of women’s youth and here you have a real sense of how you don’t stop being a passionate, engaged, vital person because you’ve reached a certain age. Even the title seems to consciously mock that stereotypical preconception of middle age in women. Was that something you were keen to explore in this novel from the outset?
Absolutely! And this cohort was amazing, they went on to do extraordinary things: they were social reformers, doctors, MP’s, workers, teachers, protestors of every description, writers. They had embraced their abilities early on and were able to carry on working in so many fields. The problem was that their energies were diffused, there wasn’t just one cause at this point, there were many and therefore there was no overall feminist movement at this point in history, there were lots of little movements. For example, there was the Freedom League who carried on wanting equality in all things and there was a whole branch who was looking more for domestic liberation for women, for child benefit etc. It split quite widely and because of that some of the energy seemed to have dissipated.
Do you think that’s a hurdle we still haven’t really got over; that we still are less good at recognising the contributions of women beyond a certain age?
Yes, I think so. I think the middle-aged woman is largely invisible. Things are changing a little but I do think women are lumped into a category over the age of fifty and yet people often, I think, gain perhaps a greater and deeper understanding of life and perhaps tolerance. I think people often mellow with age and achieve the ability to understand people’s perspectives in a way that you don’t necessarily have when you’re younger. I don’t think we always appreciate that age can bring a certain kind of wisdom.
It seemed like a really interesting examination of another side of the suffragette motto of ‘Deeds Not Words’. It struck me that it’s a manifesto for action that might be difficult to translate to a life beyond the militant movement – was that something you had in mind when you were writing the book?
I think that’s a really interesting point. Certainly I got a sense that for these women - fighting and striving in the suffragette movement - it was infused with that fantastic feeling you have when you’re part of a huge cohort and you feel that you can change the world and it’s wonderful. When that stops, you often feel helplessly impotent. Mattie is trying to carry on as though she still has this vast cohort around her and she doesn’t anymore. These women are no longer part of a vast army, they’re striking out on their own and Mattie has great mental and physical vigour but she’s not sure how to use it in this new world.
There’s a real sense of the importance of female friendship and camaraderie in this novel too.
I think that’s so important and reading about the suffragettes, what came across over and over again – particularly in the early years of the movement – was the excitement and the thrill of it; living together in flats and eating terrible food and having fun. For example on the day of the census, when they all piled together and spent the night away from home because they didn’t want to be part of the system because they weren’t paying tax. You can feel the absolute fun of it and the thrill of it, the feeling that comes from being part of a march when there are 100,000 people there and you can feel you can do anything.
These women were born into an era when very little was expected of women and they not only achieved a great deal but they achieved it with friendship. Elizabeth Crawford has written about this brilliantly and in her research she found out that a great many of the Suffragettes – 60% of whom were spinsters – left their money to other suffragettes; they never lost that friendship. I thought that was an enormously touching and so reflective of nowadays too. You ask any woman who the most important people in their life are and it may include their partner but friends are almost, if not just as, important.
Sibling relationships seem to be really important to this novel too, Mattie’s life seems to have been greatly shaped by her relationship with her brothers.
Yes, I read a book that I got out of The London Library of little first-person vignettes from various famous people about their middle class or upper class Victorian childhoods and what was so noticeable was that, in an era in which quite a lot of children didn’t go to school, sibling relationships were incredibly intense because these were the only other people you really knew. The intensity of those relationships puts many contemporary sibling relationships in the shade in many ways. Mattie would only have known Stephen and Angus and therefore it has shaped her whole life.
It struck me that you’ve a nation recovering from the First World War but for the Suffragettes they had already been fighting their own kind of civil war before that point as well.
What I hadn’t realised before I started researching the book was the huge division that occurred at the onset of the Great War; the movement was really split apart. Emmeline Pankhurst was an extraordinary woman - I don’t want to denigrate her - but she was also an egoist and had tremendous power over her followers. She told them that they should be supporting the war and, in fact, there was a great deal of distress in that. There were many women who were pacifists within the movement and who were suddenly supposed to be urging women to work towards the war effort and urging young men to go to war. There was a tremendous split, there were women who went to The Hague to sue for peace and there were women who went to be nurses but there were also ex-suffragettes who were handing out white feathers to young men on the streets. It really broke the movement into pieces.
In the novel, I projected what I thought the attitudes would be of people at Mrs Pankhurst’s funeral because I imagine there were people who felt they didn’t want to go, who felt they had been betrayed at the beginning of the First World War. I haven’t found specific instances but I’m sure the view must have been split. By the time the war finished, the mass movement had gone and it was all in pieces. It must have been very shocking and very difficult to start again.
In the novel Mattie sets up the Hampstead Heath Girls club, were there any real groups for young women that inspired the Heath club?
I know Hampstead Heath relatively well and in some ways Old Baggage is a love letter to the Heath. I was also thinking about Woodcraft Folk which was set up in the 1920’s and is still going strong and that’s very much a cooperative, pacifist movement. So I had this idea of the Woodcraft Folk but with weapons. A sort of militant Woodcraft Folk! It’s a group that stands for friendship and camaraderie but also fighting for what is right. I loved the idea of this mixed class, motley bunch standing in complete contrast to the uniformed fascists.
The group is set up as an alternative to the establishment of a British fascist group for children. How much of your portrayal of that was taken from historical research?
Some of these groups did exist, some of them I made up. If you start looking at British fascism in the 1920’s, there were about forty different groups, faction after faction. What I always like is finding a piece of history you can slot another piece of history into and with the history of fascism at this time it’s such a mess, I could easily slot in another invented group into the mix. I have absolute confidence that the Empire Fascisti could and would have existed. I never came across any evidence that the New Guard formed links over here but it struck me that it wouldn’t have been unlikely. It’s always about what’s believable to me. It might not have happened, but it could have happened.
There’s a real sense too, of the many ways in which people’s lives - and women’s lives in particular - were hampered and derailed by all manner of obstacles: lack of access to contraception, class restrictions, poor housing, poor sanitation, lack of access to education etc. but what I really liked was that these details formed part of a layered background fabric of the book, was that intentional on your part?
Mattie is very privileged and very aware, for her time, but what you can never forget when you are writing a novel set in England is class, and again and again and again there are things that Mattie and her ilk can do that working class people can’t. This is a time pre-benefits, pre-NHS and there’s a huge chunk of the population for whom running about on the Heath would have been very unlikely because they would have been too busy working. I was very concerned to show the different layers of society because Mattie’s experience – although in some ways universal to a middle-aged woman – in other ways isn’t universal at all. She can always get out of it because she has money. She has a very privileged existence - albeit frustrating - and I wanted to be able to show that.
I was wondering what to make of the character of the Flea and I stumbled across a fabulous PhD about health visitors in the Twenties and I read that and used some of that background when I was writing her character. Reading about those experiences, it was desperate, terrible rooms and terrible sanitation and no money; you were on a tightrope the entire time.
There’s so much good humour in this novel, it’s a delight to read. Is it important to you, as a novelist, to create characters you enjoy spending time with?
Oh yes, for me it’s all about that really. Sometimes I have a broad sense of the shape of the book but it all depends on the characters and what the characters do and I often change the shape of the story because I’m living through that character and it needs to be something the character would do, or a reaction the character would have. Often that takes you in quite a different direction from the one that you intended going in.
The dialogue is fantastic too, it zips along at such a pace and it’s such a pleasure to read that back-and-forth, tennis-match dialogue.
I love writing dialogue, that’s sort of my background in a way, I come from radio and television and I didn’t write scripts but I edited them for many years. I find dialogue much easier to write than the prose sections, they take a lot longer. It’s all about making it sing and making it seem completely natural.
I particularly enjoyed the way you set up the very tender, very believable relationship between Mattie and the Flea. As a reader I’m always interested in fiction that deals with relationships that don’t fit into a neatly defined categorisation. How important was it for you, in this novel, to get inside a relationship that is long-lasting and loving, perhaps even passionately so, but not conventional?
Yes, absolutely. I do try totally to avoid cliché because as soon as you find yourself slipping into cliché as a writer, I think you lose your grip on the character. I knew that I wanted Mattie to live with a companion but I didn’t know what she would be like and The Flea just felt right as I wrote her. They’re two pieces of a very old jigsaw, they fit together but they’re not conventional pieces, you wouldn’t look at them and think “ah yes, they’re the perfect pairing”. I think as I write I shape those characters and I don’t necessarily get it right first time but I never want the reader to be able to guess what happens. The plot emerges as I write and I can’t guess in advance what happens either, so I always hope that readers won’t know what’s going to happen because real life isn’t like that and in the book events change because people are complex.
What I’ve Been Reading...
The new Kate Atkinson - I expected to love it and I did - and the new Stephen King which I enjoyed thoroughly. I’ve also just read a lovely book by Lev Parikian which is about being a middle-aged birdwatcher and it’s an absolute joy, a book for anyone who has ever not been able to identify that small brown bird.