’The Call’ by Edith Ayrton Zangwill follows the personal story of a young woman scientist, through the course of historical events that dominated the women’s suffrage movement in England, leading up to the outbreak and onset of the First World War.
Although the story is one of fiction, the series of events that pervade the novel, come across as remarkably real, no doubt drawing from the personal experience of Edith Ayrton Zangwill – a member of the WSPU herself.
The ‘Call’ refers to the call to action experienced by Ursula Winfield. A call to shun and relinquish everything she held dear, in order to enable the progress of the women’s suffrage movement.
However, as the novel progresses, we discover that this call to action is experienced by other people and for other causes- be they women’s suffrage, the call to do one’s duty in the war, or the call of a more personal nature- that of all-consuming love.
Ursula Winfield is an unusual young woman born before the turn of the twentieth century. Born in a fairly well-to-do English family, her Father has died but she has an affable stepfather, Colonel Hibbert, and a loving but seemingly frivolous socialite mother, who has her head caught up in the unending outings and soirées of the elite London circle. Rather than join the fashionable set, Ursula remains locked up in the chemistry laboratory she has painstakingly set up in the attic of 57 Lowndes Square- the Hibbert family residence. It is a time when women have not been accorded the respect of being allowed to accept a university degree.
We witness the seeds of Ursula’s discontentment during various scientific meetings- meetings at which she sometimes puts forward her scientific ideas. However, for the most part Ursula’s ideas are not taken as seriously as she would like. A certain Professor Smee, champions Ursula’s cause – invites her to speak out at a particular meeting and later on, invites her to practice her experiments at his laboratory in London.
Middle-aged and slightly disenchanted with his romantic lot in life, Professor Smee develops a deep infatuation for the intelligent beautiful Ursula, which she completely fails to recognize.
At the time of these events, echoes of the women’s suffrage movement are to be heard all over Britain. The movement, headed by a group known as the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) were a militant organization that used demonstrations, marches, actions leading to incarceration and in certain cases- hunger-strikes.
Ursula finds herself interested and drawn to the women who form the backbone of the party but for the most part- she remains disapproving of their militant methods. Ursula meets and falls in love with a young man, a man from a respectable, well-to-do family, who later goes on to work for the civil service. When Ursula gets engaged to Tony, Professor Smee is dismayed and has to quietly nurse his wounds.
One day, Ursula happens to save a destitute old woman from drowning, in an attempted suicide. Whilst she is at the court hearing of the old woman’s trial (suicide being a punishable offence), Ursula hears about the case of a prostitute and the sexual assault of a minor. Ursula has been so shrouded in a life of science, and so distant from the reality of living on the London streets that she is shocked to the core.
Was it only this morning? Then the world had been a clean and pleasant place of healthy men and women. Now it had become rotten, crawling with obscene abomination. These suffragettes talked as if the vote would help! If people were so vile and bestial, nothing could help, nothing! It was all horrible. She did not want to live. Science was dead, futile. Everything was tainted- even Tony
After this event (unfair treatment of the woman and child at the trial) and despite her reservations regarding militant actions, Ursula finds herself drawn to the cause of the WSPU. Tony’s absence in distant India, results in her joining the group without his knowledge (or indeed consent) and when he realizes the fact- he is very disapproving. Ursula finds herself drawn more and more into WSPU activities and at a point – she must make the painful decision of deciding whether to answer to ‘The Call’ of social justice for women or heeding to the emotions of her heart.
Much later, when the Great War breaks out in Europe, sweeping the rest of the world into the upheaval, men who were disapproving of the militant tactics of women suffragettes are ironically called to militant action as well. There is a dissolution of social classes, standards, prejudices and men and women work together in the war effort. It is an effort that accords women (over the age of 30) with the right to vote after the war ends.
’The Call’ is an extraordinary story that sweeps the entirety of this very interesting but trying time in the history of men and women and their relative status in society. The story is about millitancy and pacifism and in the course of the novel we witness how the lines between these opposing ideals can get blurred to a certain extent. A man who opposes militant methods adopted by women is called upon to take up arms in War. A woman who has embraced pacifism her entire life is goaded on to take up the cudgels of millitantcy in the face of extreme opposition. The times are trying and it is very interesting to see how societal balance is restored, at least to a certain extent, at the end of the story.
Do read ‘The Call’ if you get a chance. It is a story about an incredible group of women, who went to extraordinary ends to achieve women’s suffrage.
I was sent a review copy of ‘The Call’ by Persephone Books, but as always all my views are entirely my own.