- 4 May, 2018
To celebrate the centenary of Votes for Women, social historian and author, Jane Robinson will be giving a talk at this year’s Dulwich Festival on her latest book “Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and how Women won the vote’’
This is the astonishing and uplifting story of the nationwide ‘Great Suffrage Pilgrimage’ of 1913, one of the most significant but neglected episodes in twentieth-century history. Jane sets the Pilgrimage in the context of the whole Suffrage campaign, introducing a cast of unforgettable characters who came together to change the world – step by step.
We interviewed Jane about her writing process and the inspiration behind the book.
Your writing combines social history with a more personal look at the human spirit, what process led you to this?
I love social history because it’s about the day-to-day reality of our lives. I’ve never been particularly drawn to the big names of the past, to lists of dates and grand strategies and celebrities – not just because that sort of history is usually all about men, but because I prefer to know about ‘ordinary’ people like you and me. In order to bring stories alive, you need to invest them with emotion, with feeling. That’s why I love writing about women so much. Their stories are so often about the everyday strength of the human spirit.
The title of your latest book is, “The UNTOLD Story”. Why do you think this is indeed such a neglected episode in British history?
Few people have heard of the Suffragists and their extraordinary women’s march of 1913 simply because the militant Suffragettes were so good at their job, aiming to shock, to be sensational, to grab the headlines; the trouble was that their militancy did not always help in the struggle for women’s votes. It was the non-militant Suffragists – the vast majority of campaigners – who were left to get the job done. This they did with elegance, good humour, incredible perseverance and great courage. They deserve their moment in the sun!
What inspired you to tell the story of the Suffragistes?
I was inspired by the pioneers of a few of my previous books, many of whom turned out to be Suffragists themselves. When I wrote ‘Bluestockings’ about the fight for university access for women, those activists who fought for the cause were also campaigners for women’s suffrage. It was the same with the founders of the Women’s Institute in ‘A Force to be Reckoned With’ and the social campaigners involved in the welfare of single mothers and their illegitimate children in ‘In the Family Way’.
Explain the process of writing such a book.
The process is quite straight forward. I have an idea; research it; if I think it might work as a book I talk to my agent about it and if she agrees, I then work up a lengthy and detailed proposal which she pitches to my editor. Then, if I’m fortunate enough to be commissioned by my editor, the contract is drawn up and signed; I disappear for a year to do more research, then write and redraft and sort out the illustrations during the next year, and then it’s published. It takes about two-and-a-half to three years from initial idea to finished book.
You describe your literature as trying to shatter stereotypes, in what way does this reflect in Hearts and Minds?
The stereotype I wanted to shatter in ‘Hearts and Minds’ was the one we’ve already referred to: that most people think the fight for the Vote was all about the Suffragettes. Once I had discovered the astonishing story of the Great Pilgrimage, and come to know some of the inspirational and highly-spirited people involved in the long, non-militant campaign – virtually ignored by history – I knew I had the perfect subject.
How have you captured such a ‘visual’ legacy as the Women’s March would have been, through literature?
That’s what a writer does: paint pictures with words. The women’s march is a gift in this respect – it was a spectacularly visual event ( think of modern women’s protest marches, with all their banners and colour). And I have photographic and eye-witness accounts to work from as my source material.
Your writing approach with this book is both personal and comprehensive, how do you combine the two?
Every writer develops their own style. As this is my 10th book, I’ve had time to find my voice, which is always a personal one. It’s very important to me that the history I describe is accessible to the reader; equally important is the need to put what I write about in a sound historical context. That’s just the way I roll!
Did you feel emotionally involved in this work, more so than others?
I couldn’t write about something that didn’t involve me emotionally. All my books are rooted in an emotional response to something. That’s not to say they’re not ‘proper’ history books, but it’s important to me that they have real heart. What drove this book about the fight for the Vote is my strong identification with the ‘ordinary’ people within it – people who belong to us, our passionate great grandmothers, eccentric great aunts, lads and dads and women and workers – who came together to change the world, literally, and were then ignored by history in favour of the Suffragettes.
The theme of the Dulwich Festival this year is ‘Celebration’, which also ties in with the celebration of the centenary of votes for women, how will you personally be celebrating this?
I have already been celebrating long and hard by telling their story – I have more than 50 talks and festivals booked, and have done more TV and radio than ever before – and by joining in anniversary parties whenever possible!
What appeals to you about taking part in the Dulwich Festival?
I know I’ll meet an interested and informed audience at Dulwich – a neighbourhood with a fascinating history of its own – and who wouldn’t want an excuse for another visit to the wonderful Picture Gallery? I can’t wait!
To book tickets for ‘Hearts & Minds’ at the Linbury Room, Dulwich Picture Gallery on May 11th, 7.30pm, please visit eventbrite.co.uk/o/dulwich-festival-16885742548