23 January 2019

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Mattie Simpkin and her home in Hampstead have stayed with me since 2015, when I read Crooked Heart.  The creaking floorboards and windfalls in the garden, Mattie`s feisty spirit and wealth of knowledge blended with a sparkling wit ticked so many boxes.  Needless to say, I was thrilled to have Mattie back in Old Baggage.  It`s 1928.....

`Mattie always carried a club in her handbag - just a small one, of polished ash.  That was the most infuriating aspect of the whole episode: she`d actually been armed when it happened.`

Walking through the Heath on her way to the Underground, Mattie`s purse is ripped from her hands.  A small bottle of whiskey that had fallen out of the bag is purposefully aimed at the thief but hits a fifteen year-old girl in the face.  This is Ida`s introduction to the story and she becomes a pivotal character in the story.

Through the tireless work and suffering of Mattie and her fellow suffragettes, women now have the vote.  Mattie continues to express her political views in a column in the Hampstead & Highgate Express, but at nearly 60 years of age she bristles at a creeping feeling that she is now part of a group of invisible women.  Her sense of self is too sharp for any such nonsense.

The plight of many young women sentenced by penury or ignorance to a life of housekeeping doesn`t sit well with Mattie.  Starting with a small group of girls, she decides to teach lessons in mild martial arts, the natural world and the odd literary quote is thrown in for good measure.  Her classroom is Kite Hill in Hampstead and the girls are given stars to sew on their sash.  Mattie chooses a name for the group, they are The Amazons.  Then Inez appears at Mattie`s door, encouraged by her stepmother to find a hobby.

   `What are your wider interests?  Is there an ambition you cherish?`   `An ambition?`   `Yes.  An achievement or career that you aspire to.`   Inez appeared to give the question though thought, using her shoes as inspiration.   `Well, in the shorter term, I`ve never been to Harrods, and in the longer term, I`d rather like to go on a sea cruise.`   Mattie felt as if she were trying to sharpen an India-rubber pencil.

Inez bears a strong resemblance to someone connected to Mattie.  Once on her own, Mattie reflects on the past and plans the move forward.

With a light touch, Lissa Evans has added to my knowledge of the suffragette movement.  Mattie`s home is referred to as The Mousehole, and as she explains to The Amazons one day on the Heath....

`....the house was being used as a convalescent home for hunger strikers.  Who remembers the Cat and Mouse Act?`

After being force-fed and extremely ill, hunger strikers were released for a specified time to improve their health before returning to prison.  The name of the Act implies a mouse being toyed with by a cat until its eventual death, and makes this barbaric treatment of women all the more despicable.

The layers of laugh out loud moments, touching friendship and Mattie`s background before she`s introduced to Noel make Old Baggage another `hug to your chest` book in Evans` oeuvre.  And I would like to wrap up this post with a passage in Mattie`s memoir....

   `In a mighty industrial and scientific power, where every means was harnessed to the pursuit of progress, the brains of fully half the population were allowed to wither.  It is hard to think of a more terrible accusation to level against those in power.` 

Well done, Lissa Evans.

Cottages at Burghclere by Sir Stanley Spencer (1930)

4 comments:

  1. You've sent me right to the library in search of these books!

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  2. Crooked Heart was spectacular and I am so looking forward to this! My library just got a copy so I'm firmly in the queue. Sounds like it will be worth the wait.

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    1. My guess is that you`re going to love Mattie`s feisty spirit, Claire. And then there`s The Flea...the best of supporting characters. Hope your wait isn`t a long one!

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