It’s rare that I read a book that actually makes me angry. Like, exclaim-out-loud angry.
It’s very rare that this happens with a history book.
This book had that impact on me.
The book bills itself as “A history of the suffragette movement and the ideas behind it,” which sounded perfect for me – I was convinced there was a rich 19th century tradition of ideas and activity in Britain for the women’s suffrage movement to spring out of so, naturally, I was dead keen to read about it. And, truly, the first few chapters do do that. Phillips goes right back to the very awesome Mary Wollstonecraft and her writing around the French Revolution, like A Vindication of the Rights of Women (suck it, Edmund Burke, you got ripped). She discusses women’s involvement in the campaigns against ‘vice’ and other social reforms, and all of that was quite interesting. Middle class, but perhaps that’s where the information is mostly to be found? And, yeh, a lot of this sort of campaigning required free time, which women in the working classes did not have because they were, you know, working. So I could move past that (a bit).
Anyway, well and good. Then she got up to the 20th century and the really focussed suffrage stuff, and then… well, there were gasps and strangled cried and the savage use of pencil to underline unbelievable passages. There may have been mutterings not entirely under the breath. It’s fair to say that my husband expressed concern a few times.
Now, I had just read a biography of Emmeline Pankhurst, so that didn’t help matters, because Phillip is really, really anti-Pankhursts – both Emmeline and Christabel (Sylvia seems to get a pass). She makes wild claims about them and provides quite vicious descriptions such that – I’m sorry – I had to go back and check that this was written by a woman. I can’t believe this was written by a woman. They are described as having “pathological self-importance and [the] urge to martyrdom” (p236); Christabel had “histrionics” and was “the queen of melodrama” (p240); their relationship is described as “unhealthily close and introverted” (p254). I just… what? Seriously? In a book that would quite like to be passing itself off as a readable but serious history?
And this is where another of my frustrations came in. Phillips does use a number of primary sources, and has some extensive quotes from them, which is awesome. Tick! However – and this is a really huge problem for me – there is little consideration of the perspective being brought by those sources, and whether they might be problematic. Peeps, this is the sort of thing I teach my students at high school to consider. Consider: Phillips quotes from Teresa Billington-Greig, whose book Phillips herself describes as “coruscating and merciless” (p246). Phillips draws on this book until p250, but nowhere at all does she consider whether Billington-Greig might be bitter after splitting from the WSPU (run by the Pankhursts), or that it might have been intended to discredit the WSPU in favour of the Women’s Freedom League, which she founded after the split. This is poor, poor historical work. I don’t care that she is apparently “wearing her scholarship lightly,” as a review from the Irish Sunday Independent described it; that’s shoddy scholarship.
And then… ah, then. The conclusion. One of the things she’d pointed out throughout the book is the double standard that women were both too inferior to vote, because they’re women, but also too good and pure to be sullied by politics. Nasty. Anyway, in the Epilogue she says this:
The same double standard persists to this day, with women claiming ‘equality’ and yet insisting, for example, that mothers have prior claim over fathers to their children after divorce; or that women must be economically independent of their husbands, unless they separate, in which case men must turn back into breadwinners; or that if a man is violent to a woman or child, he is an irredeemable savage, but if a woman is violent towards a man or a child, she must be suffering from an emotional problem. (p316)
It’s fair to say that I still have trouble believing that paragraph.
So. Yeh. I learnt a few things about the context of the suffrage movement, so that’s good. I was also reminded just how important it is to demand a consideration of why something was written in the first place.
ETA: ooookay… thanks to Niall Harrison on Twitter, I now have a better understanding of Melanie Phillips. He directed me to this post, and I will not read any more on her blog than that for fear of heart and/or brain malfunctions. Right then.
Truly you are one of the most brutal women in fiction. No – scratch that – you are one of the most brutal people in fiction.
The fact that you are a woman has an impact, I guess, because for all the Ripleys and River Tams, seeing women kick butt is still a bit exceptional. And of course, you don’t just kick butt. You actively seek out mercenary jobs that are likely to involve very large amounts of death and gore. You may not always relish inflicting pain, but neither do you beat yourself up about it. I think this is one of the things that makes you seem quite so brutal. Other violent actors tend to fall into two categories: the mindless thug, usually a lackey; or the somewhat tragic hero, forced to violence by circumstances.** You fit neither mould. By no means a thug, if not exactly burdened by overthinking situations, you’re such as heck no lackey. And while it might be difficult for you to change your circumstances now, with all your skills being tied up in your bel dame training, you both chose that life originally and are making no attempt to change things anyway. Quite to the contrary – you’re working as hard as you can, or can be bothered, to get back in with bel dames, so you can continue on with your violent lifestyle legitimately rather than taking shadow jobs. You are good at this job (as witnessed by the fact that you’re still alive, fourteen or so years after being kicked out of the bel dames and still pursuing the mercenary scene), so why not keep doing it while it keeps doing it?
A psychologist or psychiatrist would no doubt have a field day analysing and investigating you. Upbringing? One of a litter born to a woman who made her living, as far as I can tell, bearing children for Nasheen – men for the ongoing war with Chenja, women to keep society still running. Not a whole lot of familial love going on there I imagine, although you do seem to have felt some affection for your siblings at various points. Work history? Joined the bel dames to be trained as a government assassin. Jobs including finding boys who don’t want to go to the front and making them go; stopping people who are trying to do nasty, nasty things with biological weapons, sometimes involving the bodies of dead soldiers. Plus assassinations when they’re required. Oh, and the odd black job on the side… like carrying illegal bug tech in your womb… I mean, What the hell, lady?? Then you’re kicked out and you go on the market as a freelancer. Sure, why not.
Plus, your planet relies on bug tech. That’s surely enough to send anyone over the edge… although obviously you’re used to it, so the idea of bugs as medicine and bugs as furniture-producers and bug juice as fuel isn’t strange to you in the least. But it’s sure strange to me and it’s one of the more off-putting sides of your story. That and the lots of death as people try to kill you and you kill them back.
And it must be said that you’re not just brutal in your work, you’re also brutal in your relationships. You don’t really seem to believe in friendship. Perhaps it’s just too annoying and too much of a demand on your energy. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that you have good working relationships – your crew in Infidel, Suha and Eshe, are fine and seem generally committed to you, but let’s be honest here – they’re not exactly a top quality crew. A kid and an addict? What does that say about you? And what happened to your crew from God’s War? Yeh, maybe it’s best not to talk about that. Maybe a bit too raw still, since they’re all gone a long, long way away from you, for a variety of reasons but all at least partly because you are dangerous and unpleasant to be around.
So… why then do I keep reading? Why am I so excited that Rapture has been published so I can maybe get some closure? Hmm, perhaps that’s exactly the reason. Perhaps I’m hoping for some redemption for you, although what that would look like I don’t know and now that I write that, actually perhaps redemption would be a betrayal of everything you’ve stood for. You sure can’t be sent off to pasture, to grow bugs or something. I can’t imagine there will be marriage or a steady partnership in your future, and definitely no babies. Restoration to the bel dames perhaps? Going on a killing spree and killing all of the bel dames? Now that would be interesting. Maybe you could be responsible for stopping the war with Chenja! – although that would leave you totally at a loss. Maybe that would be appropriate.
Perhaps you will die. That would make a brutal sort of sense.
I keep reading your stories because for all you’re brutal, you’re also magnetic. Your brutality is part of that magnetism – and I might have done you a disservice in describing you as brutal all the time, because it’s not like you go around randomly kicking puppies or cuffing children or belting your crew. You only use violence where it’s necessary… if sometimes you’re a bit enthusiastic. But you are also a good boss, or try to be; you’re loyal, even if sometimes that comes across (sorry) a bit brutally – especially when it comes to being patriotic. And you’re unpredictable, which is an entertaining trait in a character (it can be damn terrifying in a real friend, though).
So… thanks. Thanks for keeping on trying even when it’s really hard. Thanks for keeping on. And thanks, Kameron Hurley, for this amazing character. I can’t imagine she was easy to write, and I imagine she was also pretty hard to sell to a publisher – bug tech! irredeemably tough chick! – so thanks, too, Night Shade Books. You rock.
*Nyx is a character created by Kameron Hurley, featured in God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture.
** Yes, this is a generalisation. It’s my letter, go away.