It’s my second night in a row heading for the High Mill at Verdant Works, Scotland’s Jute Museum, and it’s good to a be a little more familiar with my surroundings on this occasion. At the wooden gateway I am greeted by Anna Murray, Learning & Audiences Officer for Dundee Heritage Trust, who has been heavily involved with the High Mill Project and the wonderful programme of events over the coming months as well as those planned for the coming year.
She is resplendent in full Suffragette costume. Bedecked with flags, banner and sash, she helpfully guides me to our starting point for the event, up the outside stairway into the Verdant Works Museum. Other staff members are also fully engaged with the evening’s theme and appropriately dressed in the clothing of suffragettes. We are offered refreshments and encouraged to wander round the fascinating exhibits at our leisure for a while, before we are summoned downstairs into High Mill for Suffrage pies (Vegetarian option thoughtfully also provided).
The atmosphere of the Suffragette era has been skillfully recreated and it spins through the High Mill like microscopic fragments of linen and jute dancing on the chilled air. As we settle into our seats, I read that, as well as hearing more from Lucy Ribchester, debut author of “The Hourglass Factory”, the conversation will be shared with Dr Clare Gill and Professor Gill Plain (try saying that after a couple of Suffrage Ales) of St Andrews University, and, as introductions are made, another panellist, Sasha de Buyl, Reader Development Co-ordinator at the The Scottish Book Trust joins us.
Before I continue, I must offer an apology. The venue was to have been provided with a PA System, which unfortunately did not materialise. This meant that there were general issues with hearing the questions which were put to Lucy from some of the panelists, and I know this was felt by everyone who was seated further back than the first two rows. It also meant that I missed some of what was said, although Lucy herself was always loud and clear in her delivery, so I hope that the following review doesn’t fail to mention anything important due to the acoustic issues!
I haven’t read “The Hourglass Factory”, so I sought a helpful description of the novel which the conversation was to encompass on Lucy Ribchester‘s excellent website:
“1912 and London is in turmoil
The suffragette movement is reaching fever pitch, but for broke Fleet Street tomboy Frankie George, just getting by in the cut-throat world of newspapers is hard enough. Sent to interview trapeze artist Ebony Diamond, Frankie finds herself fascinated by the tightly laced acrobat and follows her across London to a Mayfair corset shop that hides more than one dark secret.”
After some brief introductions, Lucy stood to read (in her beautiful, clear voice) an excerpt from her novel, which was a finely-constructed parallel tale of Suffragettes (Mrs Pankhurst amongst them) going to hardware shops in different parts of the country to purchase a specific number of hammers (25) and being mistaken for teachers at boys’ schools. Who else, dressed as modestly as they were, would possibly want so many such items, supposed the initially perplexed shopkeepers? Lucy later told us that this was based on a true story she had read in a newspaper article during her extensive research.
After her reading, during questions from the panel, we heard more about how the novel had started as a play, and how, as a dance journalist (amongst other titles), Lucy wanted to explore the physicality of the musical/circus angle and link it in to the physicality of the protest actions of The Suffragette Movement itself, which was the inspiration for one of the main characters in the novel, Ebony Diamond, a trapeze artist. Lucy went on to explain how she had spent time looking at research material about a Suffragette-gymnast who had been active in Dundee – for a publicity stunt the young woman had hidden in the roofspace of the old Kinnaird Hall in Bank Street for many hours, and had descended into the hall to disrupt an event on the end of a 24 foot rope.
We heard more about Lucy’s literary inspirations, from reading Christopher Pike as a child and young adult to the works of Agatha Christie, Jed Rubenfeld and CJ Sansom, and more direct influence from Tracy Chevalier’s “Fallen Angels” and Sally Heathcote’s Graphic Novel “Suffragette” (the rest of the panel also made approving noises at this point).
Many interesting questions and points of discussion followed; Professor Plain talked about the many new technologies which were coming alive in the time period the novel was set in, and Lucy talked some more about the detailed research she had undertaken, including hours of poring over Sylvia Pankhurst’s The suffragette; the history of the women’s militant suffrage movement, 1905-1910, and looking at The Times Digital Archive for 1912, to decide in which month she might set the novel.
Other research included reading GK Chesterton’s The man who was Thursday, and Sam Bourne’s The Righteous Men – this latter, interestingly to analyse the plot and chapter structure, in order to tighten her own – a helpful tip for other would-be novelists! Having said that, Lucy later mentioned that she had produced a meticulous chapter plan which was actually dispensed with before she came to the final version!
At one point the conversation turned to the Police, and their involvement in the way Suffragettes were treated. Dr Gill talked of the number of sympathetic Police Officers who gave anonymous reports of brutalities and violent and inhumane acts meted out by the Constabulary and by other authorities on the Suffragettes. Of course the main Police character in The Hourglass Factory is sympathetic, despite what his duty requires him to do; Lucy admitted that her Dad’s influence was a decisive factor in this – he told her that if she was going to write a feminist novel, there had better be a sympathetic man in it!
Amongst the other points raised for discussion were Victorian female detectives created in the time period itself, always having to have very good (and thoroughly sexist) reasons to exist at all, and always being called into play when expertise at dealing with servants, fashion, the emotions and the management of domestic situations was required. Common sense in women was valued, but intelligence was the sole preserve of men!
The Suffragist (non-violent) vs Suffragette (physical and sometimes violent protest) movements were also discussed, and the practical failure of the former over the eventual success of the latter.
Questions from the audience at the end of the event revealed that Lucy had started writing her novel in 2009, and after working with a number of agents and through a number of drafts, it had taken years of work and rework before eventual publication at the start of this year – a hopeful story of evolution for all budding novelists! Finally, Lucy was asked about her next novel, which she confirmed is entitled Amber Shadows, and is set at Bletchley Park, to be released in early 2016. Sounds like a must-buy!
This was a great evening, a combination of fun, education, historical immersion and lively and interesting conversation about the realities and fictions of the Victorian/early Edwardian period linked to a wonderful debut novel – now at the top spot on my extensive “to read” list!
I would like to finish with a big thanks to the stunning venue for this event, and for Dundee’s Four Marys. Despite having lived in Dundee for many years, these are my first visits to Verdant Works, but they definitely won’t be the last. The beautifully preserved and reconstructed architecture in the Mills, the photos and interactive displays and the way history is brought to life combine to make a unique and fascinating visitor experience. I can’t say enough good things about Anna and the team at Scotland’s Jute Museum; here, history, and the people long gone who made it are a living, breathing entity are part of the heart and soul of Dundee.