Forgotten Women: The Suffragists and the Fight for Enfranchisement (Part 2)

In part one we explored the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement and the divisions within it. By the 1910s the exploits of the suffragettes were overshadowing the efforts made by the suffragists and other non-militant groups. In addition, the government was grappling with various issues such as labour unrest, Ireland, the arms race with Germany and a in showdown with the House of Lords remained intransigent over the issue of women’s suffrage. Violence was met with violence as the suffragettes were met with police brutality and being force fed while in prison.

Despite the disproportionate attention given to the suffragettes, recent research has cast doubt over the centrality of militancy. In the second and last part we will see how the suffragists fought back, how the Great War put the campaign on hold and how the right to vote was finally secured.

PEOPLE’S FRONT OF JUDEA VS JUDEAN PEOPLE’S FRONT PART 2:

As mentioned earlier, many suffragists initially supported the WSPU, but by 1908 the growing militancy of the latter made many suffragists uncomfortable about any further association with the suffragettes. There were concerns that the work of the suffragists would be harmed by the suffragettes and could turn away those who had been converted to the cause of women’s suffrage, as well as law and order issues that could impact on the wider arguments for giving women the right to vote. In 1909, any moves to unite the NUWSS and the WSPU were doomed as even Millicent Garrett Fawcett rejected proposals that the two groups should be amalgamated. The NUWSS after a large majority passed a resolution that “strongly condemned the use of violence in political propaganda” but also condemned the Government’s response to the suffrage agitation. As Fawcett explained in her autobiography:

“In 1908 the NUWSS made a definite break with the WSPU on account of the latter having finally abandoned the policy which they had at first adopted of suffering violence but using none. Stone-throwing, window-breaking, and other forms of violence were organised by the WSPU, and we felt we had no choice but to publish protests against everything of this kind. We also had to take means to exclude the Militant Suffragists from membership in our societies……To put the whole matter in a sentence, we were convinced that our job was to win hearts and minds of our countrymen to the justice of our cause, and that this could never be done by force and violence.”  (p. 192)

Both the NUWSS and the WSPU did cooperate from time to time on a national level – such as through peaceful rallies held in the parks of London or large indoor spaces such as the Royal Albert Hall – however there were tensions between the two groups, and while Fawcett never openly criticised the suffragettes, many in the NUWSS leadership and members were not shy about voicing their criticisms. Equally many in the WSPU were disparaging of the NUWSS leadership and rank and file.

The failure of the Conciliation Bill to pass meant that the suffragettes stepped up their acts of militancy. By 1912, attacks by suffragettes on members of the public and property such as setting fire on crowded public spaces, breaking shop windows, damaging works of art, tampering with railway signals and injuries suffered by Post Office workers when handling parcels containing volatile chemicals sent to leading politicians either directly or indirectly hardened public opinion against them. As Jad Adams pointed out in a recent issue of BBC History magazine:

“Some things they did disgusted the public, such as the slashing of the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery. The suffragette who did this thought it would aid the cause, but the logic escaped art lovers. Starting fires in theatres and planting bombs in churches endangered lives. By the end of the campaign, the authorities feared that a suffragette would be seriously injured by members of the public outraged at their vandalism.”

It’s also important to note that despite the headlines, women’s suffrage did not attract widespread popular support. Trying to extrapolate data about how much support there was for or against female enfranchisement was always tricky as polls were never wholly reliable and both pros and antis produced their own polls which would highlight how much their position attracted support: but on the whole they were often contradictory and never one hundred percent trustworthy.

Fawcett and other suffragists were worried about the suffragettes playing into the hands of the anti-suffrage side, who pointed out that militancy simply crystallised the view that women were irrational and emotional and not to be trusted with the vote. As Julia Bush said, this made “even those politicians who favoured enfranchisement reluctant to respond to pressure exerted by suffragette extremists.”

Militancy was not to last long however, as it and the WSPU declined, the suffragists and the NUWSS experienced a revival and grew in strength as they attracted support from a wider and more diverse section of society. Unlike the WSPU whose membership solely consisted of women, the NUWSS also had male members, many of them fathers, brothers, husbands and other male relatives and friends of existing members. They provided much needed support through fund raising, making speeches, distributing literature and carrying banners during rallies.

The most crucial development, however, was bringing working class women into the suffragist fold. During the 19th and the early years of the 20th century, the suffragists were more an upper and middle class movement but by the 1910s, the suffragists had reached out to the lower middle and working class groups. By this point, working class women had entered the work force in greater numbers and several sectors such as retail and service were female dominated. Although membership in several trade unions was barred to them, there was the Women’s Co-operative Guild which ironically many working women preferred to join instead of the unions.

Initially working class women and organisations that represented them never had female enfranchisement on their agenda. Working class organisations either only nominally supported women’s suffrage or were indifferent or antagonistic. They preferred to focus their efforts and energies into improving the conditions of women workers and to secure that the rights given to male workers were also extended to women. The Women’s Co-operative Guild specifically focused more on the importance of the woman’s moral influence in the home but also encouraged them to develop their own interests beyond that of mother and homemaker. By the 20th century however, some working class women began to take an active interest in female enfranchisement with one of their unlikely allies being the Labour MP Keir Hardie. But Hardie was in the minority, as the vast majority of the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement were hostile not only to women’s suffrage but even to women – especially married ones – working.

Arguably the most prominent female trade unionist who joined the suffragists was Selina Cooper (1864-1946). Born in Lancashire, she went to work in the mills then later became active in the trade unions, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. She was later elected as a Poor Law Guardian and by the 1890s was drawn to the suffrage movement after meeting a group of suffragists who were in her hometown (Burnley) to attract more members to their cause. Eventually she attracted the attention of Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS due to her oratory and organisational abilities.  Her efforts ensured that her local Labour party became a supporter for women’s suffrage and the Women’s Co-operative Guild became allies with the NUWSS through finally adapting a stance supporting the enfranchisement of women through peaceful means.

Cooper and the Guild were prominent examples of working class members of the NUWSS and initially too some working class women did join the WSPU. However as militancy reached its peak, they began questioning their support as they recoiled from the militancy of the WSPU. Working class members felt that militancy for its own sake was counterproductive and objected to the WSPU’s martyrdom stance; increasingly too they began to feel out of place within an organisation which increasingly drew its membership and support from the upper and middle classes.

The gradual alienation of working class members from the WSPU was also mirrored by the Pankhurst family’s attitude towards the working class. Christabel particularly felt that the organisation was too reliant on working class support and moved to exclude them, which also echoed Emmeline’s quarrels and break with Hardie’s Independent Labour Party. As Liddington again pointed out, “working class women…..were useful to give substance to the WSPU’s claim to demand the vote for all women but were never admitted to the WSPU’s inner councils.” This is in direct contrast to the NUWSS where several of their working class members held positions of responsibility within the organisation. The increase in number of the NUWSS membership made it harder for the government to ignore them and while there is on-going debate about the effectively of militancy, it ensured that women’s suffrage remained on the agenda when it could have quickly faded under the weight of other domestic and foreign issues.

 

THE SUFFRAGISTS STRIKE BACK:

As a reaction against the charge that they were too complacent and lacking passion, as well as to counter the perception that all those who were calling for the enfranchisement of women were all like Emily Davison, the NUWSS and their allied organisations decided on a more radical approach. Not for them throwing stones or heckling politicians or chaining themselves to railings: but rather they would set out by road “not in a spirit of defiance,” in Jane Robinson’s words “but of evangelism.” It was decided that they would take to the road by caravans to help spread their message in various parts of the country.

The idea of using caravans wasn’t new as this was one of the WFL’s preferred strategies as they distributed suffrage literature and made speeches in various parts of the country. The first was organised by WFL member Muriel Matters and travelled through the south-east of England. Several NUWSS activists also did the same; such as Helen Fraser who did a caravan journey from Selkirk in Scotland to Tynemouth in the north east of England, making speeches in favour of women’s suffrage along the way. Another example was a trip undertaken by students from Newham College, which again began in Scotland and made its way south via West Yorkshire, the Lake District and finally ended at Oxford. These trips were characterised by a group of women travelling in a caravan filled with the necessities for the journey such as food and clothing, as well as facilities for eating, cooking and sleeping; stopping by places to make speeches, distribute literature and raise funds. Caravan trips also led into networking between and assistance from local NUWSS branches and allied organisations. They also resulted into some new recruits to the cause.

By 1912, the idea of using caravans to take the message of women’s enfranchisement was gaining ground and the NUWSS were persuaded of its merits. But they pointed out that they would be unable to support caravan tours on a massive scale so instead the idea of walking was mooted, taking inspiration from the medieval pilgrimages to Rome, Canterbury and Santiago de Compostela. Such pilgrimages were undertaken by foot or horseback (or atop a donkey) and in the spirit of self-sacrifice, which for many suffragists was appealing and would help counter the suffragettes’ accusation that the suffragists lacked passion and conviction for the cause.

The idea of the Great Pilgrimage was the brainchild of Katherine Harley (1855-1917), president of the Shropshire Women’s Suffrage Society and a NUWSS member since 1910. Her brother was Sir John French who would go on to command the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War, while her sister was Charlotte Despard former WSPU member turned founder of the WFL – the use of caravans to spread the message of women’s suffrage was a main fixture of the WFL’s activity. Harley was a devout Christian and saw the fight for women’s enfranchisement not just in political terms but in spiritual terms too.

In early 1913, the NUWSS leadership gave Harley the green light to roll out her idea of a Great Pilgrimage. A born organiser and an indefatigable one at that, she and other fellow NUWSS members worked out on the itinerary – the idea was to begin the Pilgrimage in Carlisle on June 18 stopping along major towns and cities such as Rhyl, Liverpool, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Oxford and culminating in a huge rally at London’s Hyde Park on July 26. Once the itinerary was set, Harley turned to the practicalities of organising the other details of the Pilgrimage – participants were required to wear sensible clothing consisting of jacket, skirts that were not too long, a white shirt and sturdy shoes. The clothing was to be accessorised with a white cockleshell (inspired by pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela) and ribbons or cockades in the suffragist colours of green, red and white. In addition they were only allowed one item of luggage together with a rucksack provided by the NUWSS; and they were also advised to bring with them umbrellas and mackintoshes in the event of rain.

pilgrimagenotice

Behind Harley and her organising committee was the full weight of the NUWSS machinery and their allied organisations. As mentioned above, the caravan tours were one way to network and get to know fellow activists in other parts of the country, and the Great Pilgrimage would provide an opportunity for the various local NUWSS groups and allied organisations to come together and help. Those who were taking part were given tips and lists of places to obtain board and lodging, food and drink, where to replenish supplies and contact details of the local NUWSS group and that of allied organisations. These local groups were crucial to the success of the Pilgrimage; not only did they provide practical and logistical support but also did their part through hosting rallies, fundraising and selling and distributing literature and assorted paraphernalia.

Two key aspects of the Great Pilgrimage are worth mentioning here. First, it was very much a collective effort, in the words of a famous supermarket advert that “every little helps”. Mindful that not everyone could and would want to undertake the full route, participants were encouraged to do varying distances dependent on their inclination and circumstances. Others participated by giving their time, skills and money to the cause – sewing banners, creating posters, offering the use of their cars for those unable to walk but who still wished to take part. The participants came from a wide stratum of society: from upper and middle class women such as Lady Rochdale, Maud Lady Parry (wife of the composer Sir Hubert Parry himself a noted supporter of women’s suffrage), Sara Lees and her daughter Marjory to working class women such as Selina Cooper. Secondly was the presence of men walking alongside women. As mentioned earlier, men who were sympathetic to women’s suffrage also had their own organisations but crucially they were also admitted as members of NUWSS. Just as in previous campaigns, men were also active participants in the Great Pilgrimage not only with providing practical but also moral support.

Great Pilgrimage 1913

Great Pilgrimage 1913 2

Great Pilgrimage 1913 3

The Great Pilgrimage attracted support and derision as well as indifference and apathy. In some places, they were greeted with applause, a receptive audience and new converts to the cause while in others they were subjected to attacks, jeers, abuse and heckling. An example was in High Wycombe as described by Jane Robinson where a group of suffragists had parked two of their caravans in the town centre and the day started with promise – more than enough money was raised through the selling of literature and there were people who seemed genuinely interested. Trouble began as soon as Lady Rochdale and Katherine Harley mounted the platform and began to speak when:

“As usual, the majority of the crowd consisted of young men, who immediately started shouting and singing at the tops of their voices…..then [they] devised a game of British bulldog, rushing en masse from one platform to the other until each wagon in turn was hit by a tsunami of people. This was extraordinarily dangerous. After some time the police managed to break up the meeting, extract the shocked platform speakers and order all the suffragists to their rooms around the town without delay but they couldn’t control the crowd, some of whom were now making for the caravans.”

Order was only restored with the help of the local doctor and more police reinforcements. There was some damage to the caravans but by some miracle, the funds they had raised during that day were intact and safe. They spent the rest of their time in High Wycombe under police protection and the pilgrims were informed of the cause of the violence, mostly due to the influence of the antis who warned the locals that the “approaching pilgrims…were completely deranged and a danger to life and limb.”

Another main factor for violence such as the one described above was the confusion between suffragist and suffragette as they were one and the same in the eyes of the public. Any nuance and difference was eliminated under newspaper headlines and photographs. The banners carried by the pilgrims didn’t exactly help either; it’s easy to forget that despite basic education becoming compulsory, large swathes of the population were still illiterate. People failed to note that the NUWSS slogan of “Law Abiding and Non-Militant” and either misread or did not understand. Photographs and illustrations in newspapers then were in black and white and it wasn’t easy to distinguish between the WSPU colours of white, purple and green and the NUWSS colours of green, red and white. The antics of the suffragettes were blamed on the pilgrims, and speakers devoted much time to pointing out that the suffragists and suffragettes were different and that while militancy was in the minority the vast majority wanted to obtain the right to vote through peaceful and legal means.

The Pilgrimage culminated in a rally at Hyde Park on July 26 which was attended by 50,000 people. They had come from various parts of the country and the rally provided an opportunity for several selected pilgrims to address the crowd about their experiences on the road, while Fawcett voiced the view that the Great Pilgrimage would mark the “turning of the tide” and the optimism that enfranchisement for women would become a reality.

Suffrage-page-banner-Millicent-Fawcet

Pilgrimage map

Jane Robinson in her latest book Hearts and Minds held that the Great Pilgrimage also went beyond women’s enfranchisement. As many of the pilgrims during the rally at Hyde Park mentioned, being on the road opened their eyes to the poverty, the “need for a ‘mother spirit’ to come into the community and the redemptive powers of political enfranchisement.” What they also achieved was to show their opponents that no way were they passive and meek, “[t]he Pilgrimage changed all that. They were fully engaged now, having made sacrifices, faced danger and learned at first hand the effects of inequality, not just on disenfranchised women, but on working people and their families across the country.” Women had showed that they could organise themselves politically to find a voice and demonstrate the depths of their sincerity and commitment to a cause – in this case their enfranchisement and that of the millions of men who also lacked voting rights.

Soon after the Great Pilgrimage, the NUWSS met with the government with another petition and a transcript of the resolution passed during the rally at Hyde Park. But in less than a year later, a major conflict would erupt and unwittingly aid the cause of not only female enfranchisement but also universal male suffrage.

 

THE WAR YEARS AND VICTORY AT LAST?

The outbreak of the First World War diverted the government and the country from prevailing domestic issues and the whole country swung behind the war machine that would consume everyone’s efforts for the next four years. While the fight for women’s enfranchisement did not exactly go away many of the activists drastically scaled back on their campaign, as they turned their attention to doing their share for the war effort.

The WSPU officially disbanded as Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst directed their energies and organisational skills to help men enlist and women to take on work that the men had left behind. Their most successful campaign came in 1916 when during the aftermath of the “shells scandal”, they led a deputation to petition David Lloyd George (by this time Minister for Munitions) to allow women to work in munitions factories thereby freeing up more men to be sent to the front. Cynics pointed out that the deputation was not a surprise as the Lloyd George already had prior knowledge of the march but it led to women entering the work force in greater numbers than ever before.

The NUWSS and the WFL on the other hand kept up with its fight to enfranchise women but quickly realised that the war would show that women had what it took to become a full citizen and provide a compelling reason to enfranchise them. Fawcett and the rest of the NUWSS leadership campaigned tirelessly to get women to do their bit and offer them assistance in order to do so. As Fawcett’s biographer David Rubinstein observed:

“The war had not lasted long before she realised that the unprecedented economic activity of women, particularly in heavy industry, provided excellent ammunition for the attempt to improve their political and industrial status. Women’s opportunities for industrial employment, previously hampered by the fourfold barrier of employers’ tyranny, trade union hostility, government indifference and their own weakness had been significantly improved by war time conditions. In January 1916, she wrote an article for The Englishwoman on themes she was to elaborate in other articles and speeches. After taking the opportunity to tilt the inclination of ‘the “intellectuals”’ to criticise support for the war she claimed that ‘the matchless spirit, the undaunted courage and confidence’ of men in the armed forces had been paralleled by the ‘magnificent adaptability, the industrial efficiency, and the patriotism of women.’ It had taken a European war to break down old prejudices about the capacities of women – not least on the part of the Prime Minister, she pointed out in an earlier article. Women were now ‘pouring in thousands into trades and occupations from which hitherto they have been excluded,’ including the transport industry and above all munitions. She added to her account of new opportunities and achievements a demand that ‘as far as possible’ women should be paid the same wages as men for the same work, both for their own sake and so that the achievements of trade unions to which, she added uncharacteristically, ‘the whole nation owes a deep debt of gratitude,’ should not be destroyed.” (p. 233)

Other suffragettes and suffragists threw themselves into war work – fundraising, knitting and sewing for the troops, taking on work in factories and other male dominated jobs as well as supporting women and families left behind by the men. The majority however went into nursing whether at home or abroad. Suffragettes such Sophia Duleep Singh served in military hospitals while suffragists such as Katherine Harley and Elsie Inglis opened hospitals at the front where they were exposed to constant bombardment and danger. Harley and Inglis’s exploits were all the more remarkable considering that the British government and army had turned down their offer of setting up a field hospital. Instead they offered their assistance to the Serbian government who promptly accepted their offer and the women set up their hospital close to where the fighting was taking place.

With the suffragettes disbanded, the suffragists diverted into war work and the antis insignificant, the government was, in Martin Pugh’s words “freed by this….to exercise their own judgement in settling the question by methods nowhere envisaged by the extra-parliamentary activists before 1914: through an age-restricted female franchise accompanied by further franchise extension to men.” This came about during 1915 to 1916 as more men enlisted and with the introduction of conscription, there was the question of the electoral register and the observation that these men in uniform would lose their eligibility to vote in the event of a General Election as they were not domiciled where they were registered as voters.

In addition there was a growing campaign in Parliament to reorganise the electoral register to include servicemen without the vote. Asquith’s resignation in 1916 and the arrival of a coalition government under David Lloyd George as Prime Minister helped set in motion a new reform bill that would supersede the 1886 Act. Many of those in the new government were much more sympathetic to the cause of women’s suffrage. The war years had strengthened the cause not just for women’s suffrage but for universal suffrage – that all citizens of a minimum age, regardless of property qualifications, could vote.

By 1917, a bill was introduced to extend the vote to all men (except for those in prisons or in mental institutions) from the age of 21 onwards and abolishing the property and educational qualifications set out in the earlier 1886 Act. As for the women, it was proposed to enfranchise all women from the age of 30 onwards. The MPs and peers who were in favour of enfranchising women thought it would be better to add the clause for women’s vote to the existing bill rather than proposing a separate one for women’s vote on the grounds that it stood a better chance of winning and its eventual passage in 1918 proved these politicians to be right.

What of the activists? Many of the suffragists were not prepared to accept that women would not be given the right to vote on equal terms with the men, especially as it would mean that majority of those munitionettes, nurses, bus conductors, police constables and many others would not benefit. But yet again, Fawcett proved to be the voice of reason – while she admitted that she was hoping for enfranchisement on equal terms this was the best they could expect for at this time. It was better; she said there is “an imperfect scheme that can pass to the most perfect scheme in the world that could not pass. We want the living child, and not the dead child.”

The Representation of the People Act was finally passed in February 1918 and a victory celebration was later held at the Queen’s Hall. For Fawcett and the suffragists, the new act was a hard fought victory and enfranchised millions more women than they had originally suggested. However, women still were not on equal terms with men and the suffragists were aware that the war was not yet over; it would take another decade before women would receive parity with men when it came to voting. There was also a new front – tackling barriers and discrimination that prevented women from seeking out opportunities for better work, better pay – in short to live a fully independent life as citizens.

 

DRAMATIS PERSONAE AND LEADING ORGANISATIONS:

Millicent Garrett Fawcett – https://janerobinsonauthor.wordpress.com/2017/04/02/millicent-fawcett-suffrage-heroine-consummate-politician/

Selina Cooper – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selina_Cooper

Katherine Harley – https://sheroesofhistory.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/katherine-harley/

Elsie Inglis – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsie_Inglis

H.H. Asquith – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._H._Asquith

David Lloyd George – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Lloyd_George

Emmeline Pankhurst – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmeline_Pankhurst

Christabel Pankhurst – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christabel_Pankhurst

Charlotte Despard – http://spartacus-educational.com/Wdespard.htm

Muriel Matters – https://murielmatterssociety.com.au/

National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Union_of_Women%27s_Suffrage_Societies

Women’s Social and Political Union – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Union_of_Women%27s_Suffrage_Societies

Women’s Freedom League – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Freedom_League

 

FURTHER READING:

Martin Pugh. March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage (Oxford, 2002)

Sandra Stanley Holton. Feminism & Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain (Cambridge, 1986)

David Rubinstein. A Different World for Women: The Life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (London, 1991)

Millicent Garrett Fawcett. What I Remember (London, 1924)

Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement (London, 1912)

Jill Liddington & Jill Norris. One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (London, 1978)

Jill Liddington. Selina Cooper, 1864-1946: The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel (London, 1984)

Constance Rover. Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain 1866-1914 (London, 1967)

Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census (Manchester, 2014)

Lucinda Hawksley. March, Women, March (London, 2013)

Susie Steinbach. Women in England 1760-1914 (London, 2004)

Jane Robinson. Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women won the Vote (London, 2018)

Brian Harrison. ‘Women’s Suffrage at Westmister 1866-1928’ in Michael Bentley and John Stevenson (eds) High and Low Politics in Modern Britain (Oxford, 1983), pp. 80-122.

Martin Pugh. ‘Politicians and the Women’s Vote 1914-1918’ History, vol 59, no. 197 (1974), pp. 358-374.

“How the Battle was Won”, BBC History magazine, February 2018, pp. 26-31.

http://spartacus-educational.com/Wpilgimage.htm

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/britain1906to1918/g4/cs2/g4cs2s6b.htm

https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/womens-suffrage-and-the-first-world-war/

https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/why-did-british-women-fail-to-get-the-vote-by-1914/

https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2017/09/15/suffragettes-and-the-census-the-1911-protest/

https://www.spectator.co.uk/2014/05/did-most-women-want-the-vote/

How the vote was won

Advertisements

Some thoughts on Iolanthe

On the 24th of February, my husband and I went to the London Coliseum to watch the English National Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Iolanthe, which the press release and programme notes mention is the first after 40 years. It was a packed matinee performance and it didn’t disappoint as the audience laughed along to the witty dialogue, physical comedy and catchy tunes with a bit of audience participation thrown in.

Iolanthe

Iolanthe or The Peer and Peri is one of many collaborations between composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and writer Sir W.S. Gilbert which included The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and Patience. In Iolanthe, the title character is a fairy recalled from her exile after breaking the law that forbade a fairy from consorting with a mortal. The sentence was originally death but the Fairy Queen had this commuted to exile on condition that she never sees her husband again. Iolanthe and her husband part but not before they manage to have a son – Strephon – who becomes a shepherd and who has no idea who his father is.

Twenty five years later, Strephon has fallen in love with Phyllis, a shepherdess, and proposed marriage to her but she is ward of the Chancery under the Lord Chancellor  and he has forbidden the match: declaring that Strephon is not a suitable match for Phyllis. There is also the added complication that the Lord Chancellor wants to make Phyllis his wife and further complicating matters is that several members of the House of Lords are also smitten with the young shepherdess. Strephon asks his mother for help and due to mistaken identity, an angry Phyllis breaks off the engagement and declares that she will consider marrying either Lord Tolloller or Lord Mountararat.

More chaos ensures as the Fairy Queen causes the election of Strephon as a Member of Parliament with his proposed bills passing through Parliament. One bill particularly alarms the House of Lords – a bill that would open the upper house based on merit to those who pass a competitive examination. The peers plead with the fairies to lift the curse but love is in the air as the fairies fall in love with the peers. Meanwhile Strephon learns that his father is the Lord Chancellor and Iolanthe risks death by revealing herself to the Lord Chancellor who is surprised to learn to his wife is still alive and that he has a son. The Fairy Queen arrives to carry out the punishment on Iolanthe for having violated the terms of her exile and then realises that she will have to carry out the same punishment on all the fairies. Everyone is saved by the Lord Chancellor who makes a legal intervention by adding a single word to existing fairy law –  “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal.” With this, the Fairy Queen agrees and the peers rush off to join the fairies in fairy land.

Gilbert and Sullivan used their operas to poke fun at anyone and everyone in British society and there were no sacred cows for this duo. Everyone was fair game – politicians, the army, the aristocracy, the royals, civil servants, the law, fads and ideologies. With Iolanthe, both men returned to two targets that they had previously lampooned; the aristocracy and the law. One main theme that recurs time and again in Iolanthe is the absurdity of the hereditary system as embodied in the House of Lords. As one of the main characters, Lord Mountararat sings:

When Britain really ruled the waves –

(In good Queen Bess’s time)

The House of Peers made no pretence

To intellectual eminence,

Or scholarship sublime;

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

The song itself belies Lord Mountararat’s self-awareness that he has reached where he is due to accident of birth. Not through hard work or pluck but simply because of who his antecedents were. By this point in real life the House of Commons was slowly opening up to men who had reached Parliament due to hard work and merit but the House of Lords remained entrenched in their ways and were resistant to any attempts at reform. When Strephon proposes to open the House of Lords to competitive examination, the number between the peers and Strephon seems to read as a premonition of the showdown between the Lords and the Commons that resulted into the Parliament Act of 1911:

PEERS:

Young Strephon is the kind of lout

We do not care a fig about!

We cannot say

What evils may

Result in consequence

But lordly vengeance will pursue

All kinds of common people who

Oppose our views,

Or boldly choose

To offer us offence.

FAIRIES, PHYLLIS, and STREPHON:

With Strephon for your foe, no doubt,

A fearful prospect opens out,

And who shall say

What evils may

Result in consequence?

A hideous vengeance will pursue

All noblemen who venture to

Oppose his views,

Or boldly choose

To offer him offence.

Of course in the opera, love conquers all as a change in the law allows the fairies and the mortals to marry each other without any fear of death. In real life, the peerage itself – already under assault by financial crises – would be dealt with more blows that perhaps not even Gilbert and Sullivan could have ever foreseen. However if both men were alive during the first half of the twentieth century, they would have certainly have found more material to lampoon the aristocracy and perhaps even P.G. Wodehouse would struggle to compete with Gilbert’s dialogue and Sullivan’s music.

However back to the ENO’s production – the acting and singing were spot on and under the direction of Cal MacCrystal who recently directed last year’s film hit Paddington 2, the acting and singing were anchored by touches of physical comedy, just enough but not overdoing it. This production has also remained faithful to how Gilbert and Sullivan envisioned it and mercifully, we have been spared any references to current events. Instead what we have is simply over two hours of sublime music and comedy. I hope that we won’t have to wait another 40 years for another staging of this classic.

 

The English National Opera’s porduction of Iolanthe is on at the London Coliseum until 7 April. For more information, please click on this link: https://www.eno.org/operas/iolanthe/ and https://www.eno.org/whats-on/iolanthe/