If, like me, your perfect summer holiday read includes drama, excitement, kickass women, and will leave you mind blown – all without being too long and complicated to handle with numerous poolside proseccos (just me?), then you need to shove this right into your Amazon cart. This non-fiction gem is the culmination of years of research from Dr Fern Riddell, whose name may ring a bell if you’re a Twitter dweller. Last week Dr Riddell impressively stood up for women using their full academic title without being sneered at by others (in a way that male doctors never are). Checkout the #ImmodestWomen hashtag to see just how many people got involved in this fascinating debate, and all the articles that came from it. I’ve followed Fern for ages, she’s part of a group of young, cool historians always posting interesting, fun, saucy, and important snippets from a forgotten past. On the same internet where men are deleting historic women from Wikipedia, bellowing all kinds of misogynistic nonsense on social media, and in a world where women are still treated with shocking inequality today, people who continually remind us about obscured and marginalised women are much needed.
Death in Ten Minutes is rich in history, but not an academic book. The writing is chatty and unpretentious, you’re drawn in to Kitty Marion’s story like it’s being told to you by an old friend – a friend who doesn’t mess about; the first time we encounter Kitty she’s wielding a pipe bomb. It’s not always easy to get a full picture of the Suffragettes – in some representations they’re nobel, stoic middle class white women, in others they are diverse and desperate, breaking laws as they challenge them. This is probably the first book I’ve found that covers all dynamics of the brave and relentless group of women who changed history, including the fresh perspective that feminist history tends to discard women who are not seen as ‘pure’. Kitty Marion was a music hall singer who loudly protested the practice of music hall owners expecting sexual favours in return for work (hmm, how very Weinstein). She also advocated safe sex and birth control at a time in the early twentieth century when women were not expected to speak out out about sex, let alone demand control of their bodies. Dr Riddell helps us understand that Victorian and Edwardian women were not anti-sex, lying back thinking of England during the deed as history representations keep trying to tell us. They were as sexual or non-sexual as women are today, depending on individuals, but they had far less outlets from which to get sexual health advice and birth control help, and Kitty campaigned tirelessly for this. It’s sad that historians of the past discarded the stories of women deemed as promiscuous or somehow inappropriate, it’s something I’d not realised before.
This is a fascinating and fast-paced tale of how a working class woman became a violent political activist, a bomber and an arsonist. Skilfully weaving wider feminist and suffragette history with Kitty’s story, Death in Ten Minutes is hard to put down – every other page seems to reveal something jaw-dropping. As the author says, “this will challenge everything you know about the Suffragettes” – and boy will it leave you reeling.
Death in Ten Minutes is published by Hodder & Stoughton, order here