Nothing happens by chance
The publication of Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary brings together in a most satisfying manner the two main strands of my working life. I have been selling women-related second-hand books and ephemera for nearly 30 years and have been researching and writing on aspects of women’s history for nearly two-thirds of that time. Initially it was the necessity to research material bought for resale that led to the idea of writing my first book, a reference guide to the women’s suffrage movement. I was extremely fortunate that an academic publisher was sufficiently trusting as to give me a contract – and the scope to develop my ideas. The resulting massive tome – The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide (Routledge) – comprises 785-pp double-columned pages. Routledge then commissioned a companion volume, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: a regional survey.
However my next idea for a book was not the kind to appeal to an academic publisher. For, while researching the Reference Guide, I had been struck how the various aspects of the burgeoning 19th-century women’s movement had at their head a member of the Garrett family. I toyed with the idea of writing a group biography – an idea that crystallized one evening when, as a bookseller, I was searching for items in my field on an internet book-selling site and came across a letter from Millicent Garrett Fawcett that opened up a whole new area of Garrett-related enterprise that I had not, until then, known existed. That letter provided me with a link to the first woman professional landscape gardener – so that my vague idea for a book covering the Garretts’ work in the fields of ‘Medicine’, ‘Education’, ‘The Home’, and ‘Citizenship’ was extended to include the irresistible concept of ‘The Land’ and a book was born. I was extremely fortunate that Francis Boutle Publishers was prepared to take a chance on the idea and to publish Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle, a beautifully-designed book, packed with illustrations.
My fourth book, Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary, had a similarly serendipitous book-selling-related beginning. For back in 2009, in a dripping north-London cellar, I came across a voluminous diary, written by a woman, Kate Parry Frye (later Collins) every day for almost her entire life. There is an argument to say that nothing happens by chance and although, when I acquired the diaries, I had not the faintest thought that they would provide material for a book, I did not actually stumble into that cellar uninvited. The diaries had been offered, c 2007, to the Women’s Library, one of whose archivists had subsequently viewed the collection and had written a report, recommending acceptance while commenting on the very poor condition of many of the volumes and associated ephemera. With reluctance the Library decided that it was unable to accept the offer, the expensive of conserving the collection to archival standards being too great.
It was two years after the initial offer that, in my capacity as a bookseller specializing in women’s history, I was alerted by the Women’s Library archivist to the diary’s existence. Thus it was as a bookseller that I viewed the soaking-wet, mildewed volumes. They did not look appealing, but I was loath to reject out-of-hand this record of one woman’s entire life. Moreover, glancing inside some volumes I could see that the diarist had laid in quantities of ephemera. Just as history has its ‘turns’ – be they imperial, linguistic, cultural, postmodern, or digital - so bookselling, thanks to digitization, internet selling and printing-on-demand, is experiencing an ‘ephemeral’ turn and, at one with the zeitgeist, I find ephemera – suffrage or otherwise – increasingly appealing. Curiosity got the better of commonsense and the soaking volumes were purchased.
Once the volumes had dried, the reading began. Recognizing that what Kate Frye had to tell us of her suffrage days was both invaluable and engaging, the idea of publishing her experiences took hold. Once again Francis Boutle Publishers saw the merit in the proposal, which provides, quite unusually nowadays, a book packed with completely new primary material on the suffrage movement. In addition, because Kate had laid between the pages of her handwritten diary an unrivalled assortment of suffrage ephemera, acquired by her as her interest in the movement developed, we were able to put these to good use in her fully-illustrated published diary. Francis Boutle were also most co-operative in allowing me to place notes giving, for instance, fuller details about the people that Kate met, in the book’s wide margins – designed to accommodate them – rather than relegating them in bulk to the rear of the book. Although it was more time-consuming for the publisher to deal with notes in this way, I am convinced that the reader will appreciate the effort.
Kate Frye worked for one of the smaller, non-militant, suffrage societies about which Campaigning for the Vote provides vastly more material than exists anywhere else. She also gives us a clear view into the work of an organizer for a suffrage society travelling from town to town attempting to interest the inhabitants in the cause of ‘votes for women’. While doing so she provides us with amusing glimpses into what it was like to be a woman living in digs or commercial hotels, or being ‘put up’ in the homes of suffrage sympathizers. It was not a life into which she had been born but her father’s business had failed and the leisured life of boating on the Thames and garden parties was now a thing of the past. Packed with details, Kate’s view of the world in general and her everyday experience of trains, buses, theatres, cafés, department stores, means that the readership of the books is in no way confined to ‘suffrage scholars’ but will appeal to those interested more generally in early-20th- century social history.
Elizabeth Crawford is the editor of
Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye's Suffrage Diary ISBN 978 1 903427 75 0 Paperback 226 pages with black and white illustrations £14.99
Enterprising Women: The Garretts and their Circle ISBN 978 1 903427 18 7 Paperback 338 pages with 75 illustrations in black and white £25
Also in the Pioneering Women series
Octavia Hill: Social reformer and founder of the National Trust by Gillian Darley ISBN 978 1 903427 53 8 Paperback 362 pages £14.99
Yes Papa! Mrs Chapone and the Bluestocking Circle by Barbara Eaton ISBN 978 1903427 705 Paperback 270 pages with black and white illustrations £14.99