Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

I had a feeling that this would be an excellent book and I wasn’t disappointed. It was funny and historical and educational as well as being about people and friendship. Mattie Simpkin, in particular, is one of my favourite heroines ever with her no-nonsense approach and her courage. She is a figure who truly represents another time in British history.

Mattie is a former Suffragette who was very much at the forefront of the cause for women to gain the vote, having been to prison for her views. She lives with Florrie Lee, affectionately known as The Flea in a house near to Hampstead Heath called The Mousehole by Mattie. Both spinsters, Mattie and Florrie live in what might be deemed a strange companionable state, a friendship where Mattie provides Florrie with a comfortable place to live and Florrie works to pay her way to a degree and also gives valuable support to Mattie in her endeavours. They share an outlook on life although they are very different people.

Florrie is a staunch supporter of Mattie and has an understanding of her from their many years of friendship which others may not understand, Florrie being a quiet and constant plodder in comparison to Mattie’s more effusive and rambunctious personality. However, they complement each other perfectly and there is a sense when seeing their interaction that apart, they would not be as strong and certainly, Mattie would feel The Flea’s absence keenly.

Mattie is concerned that now that her suffragette days are over that she is languishing and so when she has the idea to start a group for girls on the Heath called the Amazons, she feels like she is leading the girls towards an idea what they could be; of the strengths that women have if they would only have the courage to explore them, and for them not be limited by preconceived roles. However, this not as easy a task as it would seem as men are still keen to have women allotted to certain roles.

When a former close colleague sets up an opposing youth group with more prescribed views, with suggestions of fascism, Mattie is determined to illustrate that her way is better. Her group is varied: Ida is a girl who Florrie spotted and who has great potential but is limited in what she can achieve as she has to help her aunt; Avril and Winnie, twins whose nanny is keen to use the time that the girls are on the Heath to meet her beau and who are totally contrasting characters; and Inez, the daughter of another Suffragette who passed away and with whom Mattie feels a connection and a keenness to “bring her on” although Inez remains despite her pedigree, very difficult to reach. The group is a mixture of classes and attitudes and abilities, a true representation of society.

Mattie’s singlemindedness is one of her strengths but it is also a quality that, if not tempered, results in behaviour which can be narrow, possibly even obsessive and this causes tension within the book.

However, Lissa Evans’ creation of Mattie Simpkin is excellent – she is determined and erudite but not a snob. Her drive to educate and expand women’s views is wonderfully depicted. I like the fact that she is flawed and that, despite having a great deal of conviction in her perspective, she has no problem saying sorry when necessary. She is a strong woman but not unflinching. Evans also brought an important time in political history alive for me and, like Simpkin, has made me want to delve deeper into the Suffragette movement and what they hoped to achieve.

An excellent novel all round.

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