Death in Ten Minutes, by Fern Riddell – review

Death in Ten Minutes is an extremely readable book. It’s compelling, engaging and extremely informative. More than that, it’s an important book, and it’s an seriously important one at this moment in time.

Fern Riddell’s biography of the music hall performer, suffragette, and birth control campaigner Kitty Marion manages to walk the difficult line between presenting an historical subject firmly in the context of the time while presenting the relevance of that subject to today’s discourse with perfect balance. The source materials are Marion’s own words from an account, never published, that Marion wrote in the 1930s, and a wealth of archive materials. Marion’s voice comes through powerfully. As the author of a recent biography myself, I can attest how hard it is to capture the character of an historical figure, even one about whom much has been written. Dr Riddell succeeds admirably, and while her own authorial voice is clear and engaging, it is Marion’s voice that is front and centre.

And it is an important voice from one of the most significant players in the suffrage movement, and the movement to put women in control of their sexual destiny. It’s not just the fact that 100 years after the first women were able to vote, they still make up less than a third of MPs and only just over a quarter of government ministers. Death in Ten Minutes is unflinching about the sexual power over women that this legal and social influence conferred on men and in some respects still does.

In these days of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the story of a woman who made her name on the stage at a time when theatrical agents and other influential figures expected to be able to obtain sexual favours from performers with impunity shows that there is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, the fact that little seems to have changed in over 100 years despite the success of the women’s suffrage movement shows the urgency of change, and reinforces the necessity to strike while the iron is hot. These conversations have been had before, and many times. A moment in Chapter Five where Kitty finally snaps at a meeting of the Variety Artists’ Federation and reveals the litany of abuse attempts she had faced for simply seeking work, is inspirational in the context of the time – she is cheered and encouraged to make a complaint to London County Council. It could have been a moment when things started to change for women in showbusiness. As Dr Riddell presents it, it is heartbreaking – LCC decides there is no case worth pursuing, and the recent history of the Weinstein affair is a stark indicator of how much and how long women have suffered at the hands of men who hold all the cards.

It’s not hard to see how women at the time became ever more militant in their efforts to obtain equal influence in society. Marion is shown going from regarding the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) as ‘hooligans’ to a most committed member of their ranks in a short space of time. And the nature of that militancy, Dr Riddell restoring the unvarnished and sometimes brutal facts, is crucial to Kitty Marion’s story. The campaign of violence of which Marion was at the forefront carried out by the WSPU, especially the ‘Young Hot Bloods’, was undoubtedly extreme. Today it would be considered terrorism – and in some quarters it was at the time, too, even in those days of Irish Republican violence and not long after the ‘anarchist outrages’ of the 1880s and 90s. While property was overwhelmingly the focus of the WSPU’s destructive effort, there were direct attacks on people too, and many of the bomb and arson attacks could be said to have recklessly endangered life. Indeed, several of the bombs described in the book seem to have been designed to disperse shrapnel like an anti-personnel mine. The arson attack Marion carried out on Hurst Park Racecourse (hours after the death of Emily Wilding Davison at Epsom) she only narrowly escaped with her own life and that of her companion, Clara Giveen. Houses were destroyed, churches and government buildings damaged, railway carriages incinerated, postboxes sabotaged, letterbombs sent, and countless windows smashed. Guns loaded with blank rounds were fired at public events. The intent was to terrify and destabilise. Nevertheless, the political resistance and physical violence brought to bear against the suffrage movement presented in the book – the descriptions of force-feeding are brutal – leads me to the conclusion (perhaps different from Dr Riddell’s) that the extremism of the WSPU’s campaign was necessary to its success, and could even be argued to be proportionate.

Marion arrested at a protest against David Lloyd George in 1912

Dr Riddell does not gloss over the violence of the campaign, which the subsequent generations have sought to sanitise and even ‘feminise’ (where even the early accounts written by the suffragettes themselves are shown to deliberately leave out the worst of the violence). Instead she argues that it is necessary to emphasise this to restore the agency of the women who carried out the campaign. Moreover, Riddell does not put the suffragettes on a pedestal – the WSPU leadership of Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst is shown here warts and all. Most distressingly, the willingness of the WSPU leadership to marginalise, even cut off those such as Marion and Wilding Davison who had put their lives on the line and given utter commitment to the cause.

The story does not end with the Representation of the People Act, 1918. Indeed, by this time Marion is no longer in the UK, having been shamefully treated as an alien due to her German birth and even investigated as an enemy spy during the First World War. She had been packed off to the USA in 1915, where she was treated with suspicion by the US suffrage movement, which eschewed the militancy of the UK campaign. Instead, she found a home with the burgeoning birth control movement – a campaign demonstrated to be in many ways every bit as important to the fight for women’s ownership of their identities as the struggle for the vote. This again drove a wedge between her and the increasingly conservative WSPU leadership, and the moment that Marion is spurned by Emmeline Pankhurst in New York is another moment of shock and pathos.

Marion selling the newspaper Birth Control Review in the US in 1915

Marion is revealed as a fascinating and inspirational figure, of her time and yet pointing determinedly to the future – hers and ours. It’s somewhat shameful that her story has not been fully told before, but Death in Ten Minutes restores this crucial figure to her rightful place as one of the leading architects of women’s rights and equality.

Death in Ten Minutes is published by Hodder and Stoughton, 19 April 2018

Dr Fern Riddell can be found on Twitter at @FernRiddell

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