Creative Writing

Suffer Little Women – a story

votes for women poster

A fictionalised account of the final days of Mary Jane Clarke (1862-1910)

 

18th November 1910, London, England: Parliament Square

Mary marched proudly towards the square, a colourful sash striped in purple, green and white adorned her bodice, its tail flirted with the ribbon from her bonnet, both jostling for freedom.  She stepped in time with the others, booted, skirted-warriors marching to war, bandoliers stuffed with dignity, purity and hope. They held no weapons, save their tongues, their notions.

Their deputation was a wave of indignation storming the House of Men, House of Cards, House of Parliament, old stones wrapped around old ideas.  The streets were lined with spectators, the gates of Parliament blocked by rank upon rank of policemen.  They met in solemn confrontation.

‘Let us pass.’  Elizabeth Garrett Anderson demanded at the head of the deputation, ‘we have come to speak to Herbert Asquith.’

The ranks stood fast and silent.

‘We are here in peace, we demand to be heard.’  Emmeline Pankhurst added.  A ripple of agreement from the deputation. ‘Move aside, let us pass.’ The front line of women edged forward, determined.

‘Push them back – we’ve our orders.’ The police ranks held together, like a shield-wall and marched forwards, edging the women backwards.  Somewhere along the frontline, war erupted.  Shouts of indignation and fear heralded a wave of assault as truncheons rose and fell, fists pummelled and boots kicked.

Mary cowered, should she hide behind the others?  Should she run, should she fight?  She caught sight of Ada on the floor, shielding her face from a torrent of abuse.  She saw, through the throng, Rosa May in her invalid chair, crutches raised in a joust, charging the brutal ranks, ramming the enemy.  Mary saw her thrown from her chair, tyres let down.  Run?  Cower?  FIGHT!  Mary reeled as a stony-faced policeman punched her in the face.  Blood dripped from her nose, she wiped it from her lips.

Mary looked around her at a sea of sisters united in dispute, at their defiant, beautiful faces, her heart sang of ancient warrior souls and she raised her voice above the hum.  ‘Freedom from oppression!’ she cried, ‘Give women a voice!’ She aimed her words at Parliament, hoping to catch Asquith’s hidden ear.

Cries all around rose up “We want votes for women in the King’s speeches!”  “The Bill, the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill!” “Carry the Bill!”  “Votes for Women!”

Spectators stared.  They offered no support.  ‘Votes for Women!’ She yelled at them.  Their eyes flicked away. ‘Get back home to your children!’  they cried, ‘Harridans!  Harlots!’.  Were they female voices?

Politicians stared down from lofty balconies, dainty drinks in crystal glasses, disdain set hard on their cold faces.  Mary watched a police helmet roll past her boot, flattening a deputation rosette, hopeful colours smeared with mud.

A leering, angry face appeared before her, rude hands grabbed her breasts, pinched and twisted.  Mary cried out in pain, around her, male hands groped female flesh, lifted skirts and tweaked nipples.  What was this fight?  How could women win against manmade law and manmade aggression?

Long skirts bustled round blue trouser legs as women were marched away, arrested for boldness.  The crowds turned away, spectacle observed but unwitnessed.

The press called it Black Friday.  Yes, it was.  Black for its implications:  Black for fear; black for aggression; black for repression and suppression of progression and equality; black for the gender war; black for the shadows male leaders cowered in and black for the shame on their cheeks as they turned away; black for brutality and black for a hundred innocent women marched to jail.

 

23rd November 1910, Brighton, England:  Mary Clarke’s residence

‘You must rest Mary, don’t go out tonight.  They can manage without you.’  Sylvia fussed around Mary, adjusting her hat, re-tying the ribbons.

‘Fiddlesticks, Sylvia, it’s my party, my women.  I won’t send them out on their own.  There will be arrests tonight, mark my words.  Pass me that toffee hammer, would you?’

‘What if you get caught Mary?  You’re not well enough for prison now, not after Friday’s march.’

‘Well, if I’m caught this time, I may just pay the fine.’  Mary shifted in her chair, wincing as her corset rubbed her ribs, bruised deep blue and purple as they were, yellowing at the edges, black along her arms.  Mary thought the black days were far from over, something had shifted in the campaign, something dark had been unleashed and a shadow hovered over them all.  A portent of storms to come.

‘What time is it?’  Mary asked as she fastened the lightweight hammer to her belt.

‘Oh please Mary, just this once, don’t go.’

‘Nonsense Sylvia.  Deeds, not words, remember?  We can’t back down now, a hundred more of our number are in prison!  They beat us and threaten us, take our freedom!  But we are not weak and feeble, we will not be silenced.’

Mary accepted help with her coat and she and Sylvia stepped out into the bracing Brighton evening.  A salty, seaweed-tanged wind whipped at their faces.  Mary and Sylvia marched arm-in-arm to the Royal Pavilion, exotic minarets soaring into the starry night.  Moonlight filtered down through trees and dappled flickering shadows on a crowd of eager, defiant faces.

‘Well met, ladies!’  Mary positioned herself carefully under the boughs of an ancient elder tree and faced her party.  ‘For those of you who survived Black Friday; for those of you who were there in spirit; for those behind bars tonight; for those on hunger strikes – let us raise our voices higher still!  We have a natural right to equal say in our society!  We are humans, we bear men, suckle men and raise men, we love them and nurse them and nurture them and they say SILENCE! We will not hear you!  And we say YES YOU WILL!  Who put them in charge?  They granted themselves the right to govern – we let them build a society that we are denied a voice in.  We are in this world together.  We will be heard!’

‘Hear, hear!’ Chorused a Parliament of Amazons.

‘Let us not surrender our will, let us not be forced into submission!  If they’re going to send us to jail, let us not be mauled and manhandled first!  Who’s ready to fight back?’

A rousing cheer.

‘Deeds not words ladies, deeds not words!’  Mary flourished her small toffee hammer, holding it aloft so it caught a shaft of moonlight and glinted in the darkness.

Relays of women streamed out from the shelter of the elder, hammers neatly hidden along their sleeves.  Their mission was simple, make the government hear them, consider the Bill, allow them the vote.  Allow them!  As if women needed permission to vote!  This inequality had gone on long enough.  They walked through the streets of Brighton, silent in the shadows until Mary gave the order.

‘Now!’

Flick, tinkle, crash.  Toffee hammers on window glass.  Angry righteousness, genteel fury.  So many women injured and brutalised on a peaceful march, a hundred imprisoned!  Those men must truly be scared to have responded so violently.  The suffragettes had agreed to stop the hunger strikes and window-smashing campaigns in exchange for the Conciliation Bill.  Tinkle, tinkle, crash.  A Bill that Parliament wouldn’t hear – one point to government, stakes-raised.  All down Western Road they marched, hammers and stones smashing shop fronts, window panes, door panes.  Tinkle, crash, crash.  If militancy was all that would get them noticed then this was their war-cry!

‘Votes for women!’

Lights blinked on in upper windows, house by house, dark silhouettes loomed and rough voices cursed down at them.  Mary bent to pick up another stone and hurled it through a haberdasher’s window.  She was triumphant.

A hand grabbed Mary’s shoulder, she spun around to find a policeman staring down at her, chin strap cutting into the baggy flesh of his jaw.  ‘You’re coming with me, love.’

Love?  What did love have to do with this?

‘Constable’, Mary complained, ‘you have arrived so swiftly!  We have barely made an impact.’

 

27th November 1910, London, England: Holloway Prison

Mary clutched the coarse, itchy blanket to her thin shoulders and shivered.  Physical fortitude eluded her.  Her sisters called her frail, her mum had called her resilient.  Mary knew how to endure – she was tougher on the inside.  She sat on a thin mattress on a cold metal bed-frame in a cold, empty room where iron bars covered a tiny, high window grimed with decades of dirt.  This was Second Division:  Solitary confinement; no access to reading or writing materials; no visitors for a month.  She was on her own with nothing to distract her, save her thoughts.

It had been four days since any food had passed her lips, four days since she had demanded First Division status as a political prisoner.  No, they’d said.   Churchill’s rules.  Pah!  Pompous little man, scared of propaganda.  Mary smiled.  Their campaign was working, she was sure of it.  Why else go to such lengths to silence protestors?  She must go on with the sacrifice.  Four days of quiet torment and strengthening resolve were taking their toll.  Her lips were cracked and bled when she stretched them, her eyelids were heavy and her thoughts tumbled one into the other.

Second time in Holloway, second hunger strike.  She knew what to expect.  The harder they fought for their rights, the harder the government fought back, it was a game of surrender now.  Who would give up first?  The male leaders thought they would win, that it’d be easy to silence a dissident group of angry females but they couldn’t find the right woman to break.  The cause wasn’t rooted in a person or a class, it was not to be found in a house or town.  It was rooted in the hearts of enlightened women and unbreakable.

Mary hugged her legs and rocked herself, reminded of her mother comforting her on the rocking chair as a child.  So strong, her mother had been, so passionate and righteous.  She remembered walking hand in hand with her mother into suffrage meetings, ten years old and scared of the crowds.  She understood those women now.  Understood her mother, too – now it was too late to tell her so.

The cell door swung open so fiercely it banged against the wall, showering plaster to the floor.  The warder marched in, some strangers, one dressed as a doctor.  She had wondered when they would come.

‘No.’  Mary said, determined.  ‘No!  I will not eat.  No!’

They grabbed Mary’s arms and wrists, pulled her off the bed by her hair and shoved her roughly onto a chair.  Helpless as a lunatic, Mary struggled for freedom but her frail, starving body was no match for those brutish arms.

‘No!’  Mary wailed.  Pain ripped through Mary’s skull as they forced a tube up her nostril, jabbing it relentlessly, the tube scraped her nostrils, the soft space at the top of her nose, below her eyes.  Her brain exploded with pain as the tube jabbed at the back of her mouth, scraped her throat, jabbing, peeling, burning.  Mary tasted blood and bile, she retched and retched as inch after inch of tube filled her throat.  Acid rose from Mary’s stomach and bitter vomit filled her mouth.  They held her tight, pinned to the chair.

I am strong, she thought, I am woman.  I am Mary Jane Clarke, daughter of Robert Gould and Sophia Crane, sister of Emmeline, aunt of Sylvia and Christabel, leader of women, voice of a generation.  I shall endure.

They wiggled the tube, flicked it, pinched her nostrils shut to speed the liquid flow along.  Suffer little suffragette.  Blood, bile, acid and milk churned in her stomach, her throat, her nostrils.  They wrenched the tube back out, inch by painful inch and left her there, crumpled.  She slipped to the floor.  Mary vomited over and over, until dry heaves took over and exhausted she fell asleep where she lay.

 

30th November 1910, London, England: Holloway Prison

Would they come today?  Mary looked fearfully at the door and listened to the sounds of Holloway; moans and cries; distant clatters; bangs and scrapes.  It was better than silence, she supposed, but still – each layer of sound thumped new horror into her heart.  Was that the squeak of a feeding cart?  Was that the tread of a warder?  Something savoury and sulphuric irritated her nostrils and tugged at her stomach.

A spider scuttled busily across the cell-wall and up to the window frame.  It walked easily past the iron bars and set about building itself a trap in the corner of the window.  Silk flowed freely from its dark little body, shimmering and flowing in an intricately woven web.

Marriage had been like that for her – a beautiful trap that had promised so much and delivered nothing but misery.  John had been a brute and a lousy husband, he blamed her for their lack of children, she blamed not wanting to share his bed.  She’d bought her freedom from him with a legal divorce but had to live with family to get by.  She could have settled with any of her relations, she supposed, but none of them were so close to her as darling Sylvia.  Some trials held hidden rewards.

Where was Sylvia now?  Mary hoped that Sylvia had escaped in time from the window-smashing campaign in Brighton – she’d asked her to return home as soon as any policemen appeared, but the trouble with the Pankhurst’s was that they were so single-minded.  Please, oh please don’t let Sylvia be locked up in here!  Mary thought grimly, I can bear this for both of us.  I must.

 

9th December 1910, London, England: Holloway Prison

A loud blue-black fly protested its innocence as its legs stuck fast to the spider’s web.  It struggled furiously and shouted vociferously in its angry-fly voice.  The spider looked on, still and patient.  He could wait for the fly to exhaust itself.  Mary was exhausted.  Not once had she consented to eat as she sat trapped in her cell yet no ears had heard her pleas or granted her reprieve. Over and over again, Mary endured the tube, the chalky, eggy milk, the vomit.  She grew weaker than she’d ever felt before, her body betrayed her, it was so needy and broken.

Mary longed for her sisters to gather round her and boost her spirit with their tales of freedom and justice.  Mary burned like her sisters but her body was consumed faster than theirs, perhaps her fervour burned brighter.  Poor, old militant Mary!  Fever burned on her brow, she shivered, though her blood boiled.  Mary imagined Emmeline’s cool hand on her forehead, soothing and inspiring.  ‘Is that you, Emmeline?’ she called to an empty room, ‘Our tactics are working on them, Emmy-dear!  We have proven how determined we are!  Effie?  Did you come too?’  Mary sat up and looked blearily around the lonely cell.  Confused, she lay back and closed her heavy eyes.  Dreams and memories dragged her down to blackness.

 

24th December 2010, London, England:  Mary’s brother’s residence

Happy Christmas, Mary!  Freedom for a gift.

Mary had walked out through the open doors of Holloway prison two days before, free but not a little broken.  The sun had welcomed her with a weak winter smile.  Two days before Christmas Eve and a festive fever had burned in her like hope.  Helpful hands had helped her walk to a waiting car and escorted her to a welcome luncheon in the capital.  Kind, of course, to celebrate her freedom but standing had been an effort and talking had drained her.  Food, of course, not the enemy now, had been impossible to swallow.  Those same kind, well-meaning hands escorted Mary to Brighton straight from the luncheon, she’d rested in her chair at home for barely an hour before helpful hands propelled her frail being to an evening meeting with her peers – so proud of her, so admiring.

Yesterday, Mary had arrived back in London at the heart of her family, they gathered round her in protection.  Mary had survived political torture, again!  The fight burned in her, she could feel it hot behind her temples, burning in her throat.  Mary was angry and overwhelmingly tired.

She picked at her lunch, dry and hard to swallow with her ravaged throat, she sipped her wine.  Perhaps she’d had over-much.  Her vision swam and blurred.  She dabbed her mouth with her napkin, pressed it into the table as she stood, heavily.  She swayed a little as she stood.  Mary excused herself and walked out to the hallway, relishing the cool draught she found there.  She climbed the stairs heavily, frail as an old, old lady.  Her bed, when she found it was soft and inviting.  Mary lay down, her head throbbing fiercely, she pressed her eyes tight shut, massaged her brow.  Her arms felt heavy, she let them go, surprised at how quickly they descended to the bed.  A flash of red flame shot across her eyes.

*

Emmeline excused herself from the table and followed her sister upstairs.  She found her sprawled on the bed, palms open like a supplicant, her face a blank mask of relief.  Emmeline clutched her heart and howled.

‘My dearest sister! My poor, dear sister!  Oh Mary, they have torn you from me.’

Emmeline closed her sister’s eyes with a gentle finger and thumb and bent her own head forward to pray and weep.  As she knelt there, sorrow dragged her down, she thought of her sister, her mother, her son, all gone in this Black year.

‘How many more will have to die for the cause?’  she asked.

Emmeline resolved to campaign harder.  The fight had gained a martyr and a flaming sword.

Not the End

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