It’s 1928 and the fight for women’s suffrage has faded from its revolutionary ardour in the 1900s into a muted movement, its core of fierce women gradually dropping off. All that remains are nostalgic talks and lectures which, all too often, preach to the converted or to those who’ve come for shocking tales of riots and hunger strikes. The world has moved on. A whole generation of young men has been wiped out in the War. There are other things to worry about than the political ambitions of a group of uppity women. Former suffragettes have married and had children, emigrated, or surrendered to personal demons. But, for Mattie Simpkin, the struggle never ended. This robust, good-hearted, forceful woman lives in a cottage (‘the Mousehole’) just off Hampstead Heath with her companion, meek Florrie Lee (who is, inevitably, nicknamed ‘the Flea’). Mattie is almost sixty, but is determined not to settle down and give up the good fight. Instead, galvanised by the discovery that young women no longer seem to have any kind of gumption or political engagement, she comes up with a plan to correct this – a plan which works wonderfully, except for one tiny, unforeseeable detail.
Mattie is a wonderful character: brusque and no-nonsense, like the games mistress at a girls’ school, and yet with deep vulnerabilities within, hidden so deeply, indeed, that even she isn’t aware of them half the time. She acts from a strong desire to do good and, in setting up a vibrant girls’ club on the Heath – swiftly christened The Amazons – she does, for a while, inspire the new generation with the thrilling realisation that girls, too, can do treasure hunts and archery, throw javelins, learn semaphore and have political debates. But Mattie has such strong ideals that she can’t always see how the world actually is and, crucially, she can’t understand that not everyone is going to fit into her ideal model of what a healthy, inquiring girl should be like. Nor is Mattie particularly sensitive. Despite her long friendship with the Flea, she lacks Florrie’s instinctive understanding of the human condition – and also Florrie’s capacity for selflessness.
This is a delicious story of self-fashioning (albeit with a bittersweet sting in the tale) and it’s delightful to see the girls romping over the Heath, getting muddy and having fun. But it’s also a story very much of its time. Mattie and her generation are still scarred by memories of the First World War and those who were lost – Mattie is particularly haunted by the memory of her little brother Angus, condemned to a long and painful death in an invalids’ hospital. But the potential for a new conflict is already on the horizon. Times are changing in Europe; a new ‘patriotism’ is arising; and soon the girls of the Amazons discover competitors on the Heath: the smartly-uniformed members of The Empire Youth League, with their flags and marching and white nationalism. It’s an age of ideological change, not only in the fate of women as political beings, but also in the way that everyone suddenly has to think seriously about what they stand for.
I’ve seen Old Baggage in numerous bookshops – its London setting has obviously made it something of a local favourite – and it is a lovely book, warm-hearted and often very funny, laced with poignancy. It invites its readers to think about issues that are still hugely relevant (and often contentious) today: gender equality, political agency and the role of unmarried women in society. I didn’t realise until I got to the end that it forms a kind of prequel to another of Evans’s books, Crooked Heart, in which Mattie has a cameo role, and so the end of Old Baggage slightly clumsily shoehorns in a link between the two (not one that I felt was strictly necessary, and one that made me wonder exactly how responsible it was for a woman of Mattie’s age, at over sixty in the 1930s, to take on the task that she does). But this is a rare misstep.
For the most part, it’s engaging, diverting and full of London colour, and Mattie is such a glorious character that she positively leaps off the page (she reminds me a bit of Sybil Ramkin in the Discworld novels, as well as of a similarly no-nonsense family friend). Evans is especially good at negotiating that tricky boundary between light-heartedness and foreboding, as in the case of the League. Recommended for a boisterous spring read that will leave you keen to tug on your walking boots, take up a nice strong stick, and go out for a long jaunt over the Heath.