“Splendid Non-Conformity”: Lissa Evans, Old Baggage

baggage‘I have no party affiliation, merely the aim of encouraging the girls to take their rightful places in the modern world. Knowledge, confidence, ready laughter and a strong overarm throw will equip them for many arenas.’

She was watching the teams as she spoke: why on earth Jacko had chosen to clothe the League in garments the colour of a municipal drainpipe was quite beyond her. By contrast, the Amazons, aligning themselves for a photograph, were a frieze of splendid non-conformity.

I enjoyed Old Baggage quite a bit. It is tighter and swifter than Their Finest, its focus and, I would say, its strength much more the depiction of character than the construction of plot. In fact, overall I liked the ‘old baggage’ herself, Mattie Simpkin, better than Old Baggage. She is splendid: unapologetically unconventional, proud of her suffragist past and determined not just to continue living up to her principles but to find some way to pass them on to a new generation already losing the sense of urgency that drove Mattie and her colleagues to violence and personal sacrifice in the fight for equality. Her supporting cast is good too, especially her close companion Florrie, nicknamed ‘The Flea,’ and her protege Ida, a smart working-class girl who joins the girls’ club Mattie establishes to promote mental and physical agility, called with apt grandiosity ‘The Amazons.’

old-baggageEvans does a wonderful job delineating Mattie’s world, from its domestic apparatus to its politics. The novel takes place mostly in 1928 and 1929, and while like Mattie herself this world is full of energy and change, it is also shot through with pathos from the aftereffects and memories of the war, in which Mattie’s brother Angus was terribly injured:

Shrapnel had sheared away a triangle of Angus’s skull and a wedge of brain matter beneath: a mortal wound that had nonetheless taken almost two years to kill him. He had lost his speech and his ability to walk, and most of his sight, but his charm had remained intact …

Like the war, the militant suffrage movement is now part of Mattie’s past, though both are also (as the title hints) baggage she cannot leave behind. The novel’s central question is what Mattie can and should be doing in the present–who she is now that the causes she fought for have (more or less) been won. This personal question merges with political ones as Mattie becomes increasingly aware that a new force is rising that threatens those hard-won victories: fascism. As her Amazons train, so too does the Empire Youth League; the two organizations neatly embody two profoundly opposed sets of value, one ruthlessly regimented, the other vigorous, wayward, and unruly, like freedom itself.

baggage-2This is all really good material, and the novel is well told start to finish, but my initial enthusiasm was somewhat deflated by the way its story eventually played out. Mattie compromises her own mission for reasons that seemed to me both out of character and insufficiently dramatic to create a genuine crisis of either conscience or story. The potential for significant conflict between the youth organizations, their leaders, and (most importantly) the larger political stakes they represent was not realized–perhaps because it would have been incompatible with the novel’s overall lightness of tone and touch–and the novel’s final twist not only seemed weirdly random but was a disappointing relegation of Mattie’s fighting spirit to a form of caretaking retirement. Perhaps the ending was meant to signal that the torch has finally been passed: that the best thing Mattie can do for the next generation of activists, or for the women (such as Ida) who are making new lives based on their achievements, is to free them from domestic responsibilities–to look after their baggage?–so that they can carry on. Still, I thought Mattie deserved better, though I suppose I should not underestimate the radicalism of the doctorate she earns. And as she says, quoting its subject, “All things are difficult before they are easy”: Mattie’s fighting life, which has certainly been difficult, has maybe earned her a future a bit out of the fray, away from the front lines of what we know too well would be an ongoing war.

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