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Giants and Geniuses by Lucienne Boyce

Who do we remember and recover? In our latest wonderful blog, Lucienne Boyce reflects on recuperative histories and ‘ordinary lives’.

I recently read Jo Vellacott’s biography of Catherine Marshall, a women’s suffrage campaigner with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) (From Liberal to Labour with Women’s Suffrage: The Story of Catherine Marshall). I thought it was a wonderful book, well written, meticulously researched, and packed with valuable insights.

By the time Vellacott wrote her book Marshall had long been forgotten. She was written out of history by patriarchal historians who consign the history of women’s suffrage (and much else pertaining to women) to the footnotes. She was also, for personal and political reasons, omitted from accounts of the campaign by former NUWSS colleagues.

In addition, the suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had got there first with their version of events, which gave the credit for the women’s franchise to the militants. Their stories dominate the narratives still, as we witnessed in 2018 during the commemorations of the one hundredth anniversary of votes for (some) women. Overwhelmingly, the media, event organisers, curators, and politicians waved the purple, white and green flag of the WSPU, ignoring the red, white and green of the NUWSS.

Reading Vellacott’s book gave me much to think about, not least the question of who gets to have a biography written about them. Catherine Marshall is not the only suffrage campaigner to have been forgotten. Hers is not a household name; few people outside suffrage or peace-historian circles know anything about her. Nevertheless, Vellacott thought that she was worth the huge effort and expenditure of time that writing a biography entails. So what was it about Catherine Marshall that made her worth writing about?

Marshall, we learn, was a significant figure. As Vellacott explains in her preface, she was “a remarkable woman” whose “work was essential to an understanding of feminist history of the period”. Further, “a study of her work is not only a vital part of women’s history, but locates the policy and activity of the nonmilitant organization squarely where they belong…”[1]

I don’t dispute any of this. But I’m struck by the language, the use of words like “remarkable”, “essential” and “vital”. In fairness, compared to the claims of some biographers, this is restrained. I pulled a few biographies from my shelves and read in the blurbs that the subject is “one of the most fascinating and controversial thinkers of her time”,[2] “one of the very first showbiz superstars”,[3] “genius”,[4] “one of the giants of the nineteenth century”,[5] “one of the twentieth century’s true geniuses”.[6]  The most, the first, the genius…

It’s not that I think these people aren’t fascinating. These marvellous biographies wouldn’t be on my shelves if I did. On the other hand, there are plenty of people I don’t think deserve these epitaphs, and yet they get them too.

Just publisher’s hype? Perhaps. Or maybe I just don’t like hyperbole? Very likely. Perhaps, too, no one takes such over-inflated stuff seriously. If we did, we’d all be rushing to read a biography about the “most boring person in the world” or “one of the nineteenth-century’s greatest under-achievers”.

But still the question remains: who gets to have a biography written about them? It’s something I pondered when I decided I wanted to extend my research into the women’s suffrage movement by writing about a woman connected with the campaign. I knew I wanted her to have a Bristol connection. Should I go for the well-known option? The obvious choice is Bristol-born Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. She and her husband Frederick were described in a recent book as “an extraordinary couple” with “an extraordinary political and personal story”.[7]

But the pressure of all these hyperboles weighs heavily on me. I’m exhausted by all these “mosts” and “greatests” and giants and geniuses. And if I choose someone less well known, I don’t want to have to justify my choice of subject by making grandiose claims for them, though this is what many biographers seem to think they should do. Tracey Arklay realised that in writing the life of Arthur Fadden, someone who was “often largely unnoticed or at best regarded as a bit player in history”, [8] part of her task was to explore why he was worth writing a biography about. At the same time, she was aware that there’s always a danger that biography can exaggerate the importance of the subject.

There must be a middle way between the “mosts” and exaggerating the subject’s importance.  I have decided to write about Millicent Price (née Browne) whose husband, Charles, was a conscientious objector during the First World War. It’s possible that anyone who has studied suffrage history will have heard of Millicent Browne. There’s a copy of her unpublished autobiography in the Women’s Library, as well as a recording of Professor Brian Harrison’s conversation with Charles in 1975, and these are occasionally referred to by other researchers.

On the whole, though, Millicent is not well known, and if she is remembered it is for her militant rather than non-militant activity. As is the case with many of those involved in the campaign, her life beyond suffrage has excited next to no interest at all. She married an artist, but he didn’t turn out to be a very famous one. He worked as a college lecturer for thirty years: as he told Professor Harrison, “My art career went in training other people”.

Yet their lives touched many different circles, including women’s suffrage, socialism, pacifism, the Garden City movement, art, drama, literature, Quakerism, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. And I can’t think of a single “most” or “greatest” to say about them. Like Fadden, they can be dismissed as “bit players” – now there’s E P Thompson’s “enormous condescension” for you! But the fact is that the suffrage movement – any movement – is made up of so-called bit players.

So that’s why I’m not writing about the most, the first, the genius.

Lucienne Boyce is the author of The Bristol Suffragettes and is currently working on a biography of suffrage campaigner Millicent Price. Her latest historical novel, Death Makes No Distinction: A Dan Foster Mystery, is available in paperback and ebook on Amazon and through other retailers – for details see her website

[1]From Liberal to Labour with Women’s Suffrage: The Story of Catherine Marshall, pp. xii – xiii.

[2] Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life, Janet Todd

[3] Marie Lloyd: The One and Only, Midge Gillies

[4] Coleridge: Early Visions, Richard Holmes

[5] William Morris: A Life for Our Time, Fiona MacCarthy.

[6] Life in the Writings of Storm Jameson: A Biography, Elizabeth Maslen

[7] Suffragette Planners and Plotters: The Pankhurst, Pethick-Lawrence Story, Kathryn Atherton.

[8] Political Biography: Its Contribution to Political Science, Tracey Arklay, in Australian Political Lives: Chronicling Political Careers and Administrative Histories, Australian National University,

Image of Millicent Price taken from wikimedia commons.