Friday 4 October 2013

Reclaim the F Word ...
A week of New Writing and
Performance by Emergent Artists

Tron Flyer

An extract of a new play based on Elsie and Mairi Go To War will be shown at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow on October 7, 2013. Rosie Kellagher will direct and Clare Waugh, Pauline Lockhart, Brian James and Harry Ward will make up the cast.
For more information go to LITERARY EVENTS.


Friday 17 August 2012

Emily Wilding Davison ...
Suicide or Protest Gone Wrong

Emily Wilding DavidsonEmily Wilding Davison's deathly dash at the Derby on 4 June 1913 guaranteed her a place in history, something she craved ever since resigning her position as a governess to become a militant campaigner for votes for women. Her protest which was captured on a few jerky feet of silver nitrate film made her the most famous suffragette of all. When she stepped into the path of the King's horse Anmer thundering past Tattenham Corner for the home straight, two worlds collided and the jockey, Bertie 'Diamond' Jones was caught up in the militant campaign for the vote.

InjuredWhen Emily, who was forty-one, unfurled her purple, white and green suffragette flag and rushed onto the race course she was reminding the King, and the world's press, of the British government's callous injustice to women. She grabbed the bridle and was knocked over screaming: Anmer hit her in the chest and she received a horrible head wound and blood streamed out of her mouth and nose. The horse turned a complete somersault and landed on Bertie Jones who, amazingly, was not killed. People rushed towards her to attack her for her behaviour but were restrained by the police who quickly formed a cordon round her and she was taken to the cottage hospital in Epsom.

Emily Wilding Davison was too experienced around horses to have made a mistake that day. She knew the extreme danger in which she was placing herself but she did not mind or even care. Ever since she died on the 8th of June, her death was said to have been a dreadful accident and any suggestions it might have been a suicidal protest have been brushed to one side. After detailed day-by-day examination of her career within the Women's Social Political Union, I believe the intensely difficult last twelve months of her life had prepared her for martyrdom. She stepped in front of Anmer because she wanted to die in the ongoing struggle for votes for women.

Wilding Festival

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Friday 17 August 2012

News Flash ...
New picture of Mrs Norton as a
Facebook tease

self-portrait

On Thursday 26th July 2013 I talked with Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour about my new book. Two minutes after the end of the programme a message flew into my inbox from a Scottish gentleman who had heard the interview: with the attachment was an unknown picture of Caroline Norton. It shows her in yet another light.

It is a self-portrait in pen and watercolour probably made in September 1828, when she was twenty years-old, and staying with her in-laws, Sir Neil Menzies and his wife Grace (who was her husband’s elder sister), at Rannoch Lodge on the shores of Loch Rannoch. Caroline was a year into a marriage which had started with violence on the  honeymoon. This picture of Caroline looking at herself in a mirror suggests she was enjoying the attention of men. Given her reluctance to marry George – her mother had had no other offers for her, and allowed George Norton to marry her in 1827 - and the drunken beatings that followed, we must assume Caroline did not paint this for him.

Caroline described Rannoch Lodge as a ‘comfortless house’, and Grace Menzies as‘that most masculine of Scotch women’, finding her ‘haughty and intemperate’. Lady Menzies did not like her new in-law Caroline, or that her husband was clearly smitten by her. Many men who met Caroline and her sisters, Helen and Georgiana, widely known as ‘The Three Graces’, fell for them. The actress Fanny Kemble was charmed by Caroline who ‘looks as if she were made of precious stones, diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires; she is radiant with beauty… a splendid creature nobly endowed in every way.’ Not everyone was infatuated by Caroline, some found her language racy and her manner more masculine than ladylike.

There are a dozen surviving oil paintings and drawings of the gorgeous Mrs Norton but none which show this coquettish side of her character. Getting pictorial evidence of her beauty was easy, but evidence of her flirty sensuality proved elusive and I gave up hope of seeing her as her many admirers saw her, until now. The picture was painted a year after her wedding and a year before her first child, Fletcher, was born in 1829. She was bored with George and even though she had been on the wrong side of his fists she dared to mock and mimic him in company. The sheet of paper is three and a half inches square and at some point it was slipped into the Menzies’s commonplace book which spanned the late eighteenth century to the 1840s. She is scantily clad and, if not in the boudoir, surely heading in that direction. 

Did Caroline slip herself between the sheets of the bland collection of romantic Highland poetry to titillate Sir Neil and provoke his horrid wife? It is tempting to think so. 

Fast forward three years and George Norton will prevail on Caroline to exert her considerable charm on Lord Melbourne, then Home Secretary and soon to be Prime Minister, to get George a cushy job. During the many afternoons Mrs Norton and Lord Melbourne spent together in the Norton’s drawing-room in Storey’s Gate, a short walk from 10 Downing Street, she fell head-over-heels in love with one of the louchest of Whig lounge lizards. Although they both denied they were lovers – they had to – there is plenty of evidence in Caroline’s letters to Melbourne to suggest they were more than good friends, and this picture of Caroline is how she would have wanted a lover to see her.

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Friday 11 May 2012

Why I wrote ...
The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton

portrait

A few years ago I was panning for gold – looking for a biographical subject. I read the last will and testament of a possible nugget who had got caught in my pan and discovered that the person in question had bequeathed ‘Caroline Norton’s desk, or Lord Melbourne’s Cabinet,’ to her niece in 1954. Distant memories stirred when
I read those two names, of a vivid and messy chapter of Caroline and William’s lives which stretched from one end of the 1830s to the other. Their romantic and ultimately disastrous relationship would have been written up on, sobbed over, and seeped into that piece of Regency furniture. I felt a bit light-headed with a jumble of disjointed and distant recollections of Caroline Norton: her appearance as the conceptual author of the 1839 Infant Custody Act, the first piece of English feminist legislation. And I remembered the louche old roué of a Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, he swam from the bottom of my memory pond to the surface. I discarded my first nugget and went in hot but fruitless pursuit of that memory-soaked desk, but I found biographical gold in the vivid and moving journey that ‘Norty Mrs Norton’ took me on.   
 
We have a great deal to be thankful to Caroline Norton for. In 1839, for the first time, mothers with ‘unblemished characters’ were legally entitled to have access to and custody of their children if they were separated from their husbands. Caroline did not stop there but carried on raising awareness about wives’ invisibility before the law, the extraordinary fact they had no separate legal identity. When a woman married her identity was subsumed into that of her husband: wives did not exist in the eyes of the law. In 1855 Caroline Norton took her fight to Queen Victoria in the shape of a thirty-thousand word pamphlet, A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor’s Cranworth’s Marriage and Divorce Bill, reminding Victoria of some shocking facts, not least that unless a woman’s family were wealthy enough to set up a trust to protect her property, she lost everything she owned on her wedding day, all her possessions became the property of her husband. A wife could not keep her own earnings, make a will, sign a contract, or inherit money and Caroline Norton pointed out the contradiction that this was the law in a country and empire ruled by a woman who was also a mother and a wife. Caroline’s writings influenced the 1857 Matrimonial Causes (Divorce) Act, and the Married Women’s Property Act (1870) which for the first time allowed a wife to keep some of her earnings.   

Where Caroline Norton is concerned I have to admit to being a heroine addict. To write this biography I read more than fifteen hundred of the letters she wrote to her family and friends and strangers and there is not one in which she does not impress me with her passion and poise, honesty and generosity of spirit and purse, humanity and humour and hilarious self-deprecation. She performed many unsolicited acts of kindness to people she had never met. Caroline’s letters are scattered all over the world, their recipients read and re-read them, treasured them and donated them to archives and libraries so others could enjoy them too. Almost a hundred and fifty years after she last picked up her pen, Caroline Norton’s letters feel very modern: the legal battles she waged to see her children and leave her wretched marriage feel contemporary; hers is a universal story. I hope Fathers For Justice read this book. Mrs Norton is a nineteenth-century heroine for the twenty-first century, an inspiration to every woman who has had a problem being married to a man; she turned herself from victim to victor. The child custody laws we enjoy today derive from Caroline Norton’s wretched marriage, and her love for her three boys to whom she was lost for six years and then found again. Mothers, single or married, now owe their status as parents of their own children to Caroline Norton, for taking that first step which put them within the law and changed the rules of patriarchy for ever.

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