This week marks the centenary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, an activist who fought for women’s suffrage in Britain, famously stepping in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Author Julie Hearn joins us to talk about Emily, the suffragettes, and the inspiration behind her novel Hazel.
For a while, years ago, I lived in a bedsit down The Old Kent Road. The walls were the faded mauve of wisteria. I bought a green silk throw for the bed and a junk shop chair and chest of drawers, which I painted toothpaste white.
‘Suffragette colours,’ my mother said.
I hadn’t ‘done’ the suffragettes at school. I don’t think they had crossed my radar at all. I was nineteen years old and taking everything for granted. Further education. Independence. My right to speak as I found and do as I pleased. Everything.
Older now, and more enlightened, I recently went all out on eBay to secure, for myself, an Edwardian shoe buckle of green and white enamel set with purple stones. And it pleases me to know the facts behind the fact that Carlisle Park in Morpeth, Northumberland, has been planted, this summer, with Purpleicious Veronica, White Bell Campanula, and the variegated greens and whites of carefully chosen hostas.
This year marks the centenary of Morpeth suffragette Emily Wilding Davison’s death. Hence the colours in the park. And the flurry of commemorative events being held, this month, across the country. And the new edition of my fourth novel, Hazel, which begins with the ill-fated action that ended Emily’s life.
Emily Wilding Davison was a leading militant in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She believed that deeds, not words, would get women in this country the vote. On June 4th, 1913, she joined a crowd of spectators at the Epsom Derby with two suffrage banners concealed beneath her coat. Grainy newsreel footage shows her stepping onto the racecourse, and raising her hands, as horses thunder past. She is kicked and sent flying by Anmer, a thoroughbred owned by King George V. She died in hospital four days later, without regaining consciousness. She was 40 years old.
‘In her mind she saw, again, the kick and the fall. The woman had resembled an ungainly bird flying through the air like that with her black coat billowing. A stoned crow. A smashed rook. A blackbird hit by a pea-shooter.’ (Hazel, p. 10)
I never set out to put real people in my books. They turn up, like actors with no pre-arranged audition, while I’m researching a time or a place. It started with a few poor souls who were shown as ‘monsters’ at Bartholomew Fair at the beginning of the eighteenth century (Follow Me Down). Then Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General swaggered into The Merrybegot, followed by a young and utterly charming Charles II. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is ‘The Italian’ in Ivy. And in my seventh novel, Dance of the Dark Heart (to be published by OUP in April 2014) fantasy and history do a fairly resounding ‘high five’ when the Devil’s son plays the fiddle for the fifth wife of Henry VIII.
Emily Wilding Davison got into my notebook, and my head, very soon after I began researching Hazel. At that point, I knew a lot about Hazel’s mother, Ivy (the protagonist of my third novel) but nothing at all about Hazel herself. The story needed to be set at a time when Ivy might, conceivably, have had a teenage daughter, so I’d written 1910-1915? in big red letters, on the first page of my notebook.
I didn’t want to write a war story. I didn’t think I could. So 1913 became the year I looked at first—and that’s where I found Emily, slipping under the railing at the Epsom Derby.
As usual, following one thread led to another. Before long, my notebook was filling up nicely and my head buzzing with questions. I saw Hazel and her father watching the race and knew, at once, that Hazel was a ‘little princess’—a pampered, naive girl knowing even less than I did, at her age, about the ways of the world.
And I thought: what if Hazel’s father turns out to be a serious gambler? What if he loses money—a LOT of money—at this race and has some kind of a breakdown as a result? What might the repercussions of that be for Hazel?
It was enough. I began to write.
Recently, I gave a talk about Emily Wilding Davison and Hazel at a girls’ school in Bristol. I wore my Edwardian shoe buckle on a velvet choker; a purple skirt, white blouse, and dark green boots and cardigan.
‘I didn’t just throw myself together this morning, girls,’ I said to a group of year eights. ‘What do I mean by that?’
‘Suffragette colours!’ chorused around fifty young, female, voices.
Emily would have been proud.
Julie Hearn used to be a journalist. After her daughter was born she began a degree in Education but switched to English after suffering a panic attack while attempting to teach maths to year six.
She went on to complete a Masters Degree in women’s studies at Oxford University, where something she read about a young girl who was shown as a fairground ‘monster’ in the 17th century inspired her first novel, Follow Me Down.
Since then Julie has written many novels. She has been nominated four times for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, and shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, the UKLA Children’s Book Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize.
Julie lives in Oxfordshire where she writes full time (most mornings anyway) in a pink and green office in her garden.
Hazel is out now.