Published: 30th October 2020
Publisher: Silverwood Books
‘Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand’.
Renascence by Edna St Vincent Millay
Fiona Graph’s novel is an interesting and well- researched piece of historical fiction, set in a period of history that I’m particularly interested in. Graph’s story writes back, both to a different time but also to a different element of society, one that hasn’t been well represented in fiction of the time. In the same way that Sarah Waters has written lesbian experience back into the Victorian period, here we visit a brother and sister post WWI who both describe themselves as ‘queer’. Freddie fought in the war, but now runs a women’s fashion boutique in London with his sister Ellen. Freddie is a designer, whereas Ellen tends to work with the passing customers selling off the peg clothes and accessories. Ellen is a woman who was somewhat emancipated through the war, due to working in jobs previously the preserve of men and from her activism in the suffragette movement. Brother and sister live together above the shop and are at a point where they’re both single. Freddie was in love with a fellow soldier who was lost in the war, and his most recent relationship with a young solicitor called Alec broke down. Ellen is seeing a woman called Myra, one of a string of married women that have allowed her to keep real love at a distance. Fate is now going to bring people into their lives that may challenge the lives they’ve built, that’s if all concerned can shrug off the ties that bind them to the past.
I fell in love with Freddie. He’s a lovely brother and incredibly talented, very keen to create clothes that are beautiful but that real women can wear. He needs to live quietly since his experiences in the war and has bravely been ‘out’ for years. It’s amazing that in such recent history he finds that people spit at his feet in the street. While he’s made a brave choice to live openly, his relationships are not easy. We learn that he pushed Alec away by behaving badly, in much the same way that Ellen has pushed real relationships away with secret liaisons with women who will never be free. It’s the reappearance of Ellen’s friend Kate that is the catalyst bringing these four people together. At a suffragette funeral, Ellen spies Kate who has been living in Paris. They had an easy going friendship before she left, even though their activism took different paths. Ellen supported peaceful protest, leafleting and was even known to throw the odd brick through a shop window. However, Kate had favoured more direct action such as Emily Davison’s jump in front of the King’s horse at the Grand National. Kate has been in self-imposed exile, after burning down a church. To her horror, in the aftermath a body was found in the wreckage. Kate had scrupulously checked all of the pews and the vestry, but it appeared in a newspaper that police had found the body of a man, possibly a rough sleeper. In fear, Kate fled the country and has lived the last few years in Paris. Will the women be able to pick up the friendship that was in its infancy back then? Even more importantly, will Kate ever be able to forgive herself for what happened. Ellen has always thought this newspaper account of Kate’s direct action, was a little bit fishy. There’s never been any other account that mentions this man, so Ellen suggests they investigate, enlisting the help of Freddie’s ex-boyfriend Alec. The investigation, and what they discover, could change the course of all their lives and break the ties that bind them to the past.
I remember reading Sarah Waters’ book The Paying Guests, set at a similar point in history to this novel and also depicting women trying to break free of social constraints and live their authentic lives. I remember being astonished by the bravery of characters trying to live as openly gay women in the early 20th Century. I felt the same when reading this, but what it confirms is how far certain lifestyles have been erased from history. As a disabled woman, I feel the same way about experiences of disability and I get so excited when a character has a disability. It shows me how much we need books that write these histories, it gives us context, broadens our understanding and represents the true diversity of a society and time. This novel did that for me, but also showed the struggle of people trying to live in the aftermath of such a turbulent time. Post WWI everything changed and the ordered Edwardian society of the turn of the century had been turned on its head. Instead of being largely in the home, women had experienced the freedoms that men had been enjoying for decades. More women had to take up jobs to make up the labour shortfall, bringing them out of the home for the first time. Many didn’t want to go back to the domestic sphere. The aristocracy were crumbling, many had lost the heads of their family, and their heirs too. With estates crippled by multiple death duties many sold up, or sent their sons to America to find a rich heiress to change their fortunes. Different loyalties had been formed across class boundaries, between men who had fought side by side. After the horror of war, the collective grief and upheaval, I can understand people wanting to live their truth and stop hiding. That’s what our characters are doing here, simply trying to live as who they are – something a lot of people take for granted. That was why I found both love stories very moving. I was rooting for both relationships. All they wanted was the ordinary things heterosexual couples would take for granted – to walk down the street together, to hold hands or hug in public, to eat dinner together and come home to each other.
I’ve read a lot about the suffragettes, and some of the treatment they were subjected to. I still found myself shocked by how Ellen responded to sexual assault. When she walks home at night from Kate’s flat, two men accost her and one gropes her breasts. Thanks to her activism she is trained in martial arts, so is able to overcome both of them and run back to Piccadilly where there are lights and people. When she relates the story back to her brother she doesn’t mention the sexual aspect of the assault at all. However, when we flash back to her suffragette days we remember that this was a daily occurrence, an actual police tactic. We see the police hatred of the movement when the group track down the police officer who found the body in the church after Kate’s arson. He’s now older, more frail, but his hatred of suffragettes and women in general is strong. I found this whole scene horrifying, but hilarious too. The fact that this man who considers himself so strong and dominant over women, is in fact defied and controlled by his own wife, really did make me laugh. However, it’s also a pivotal scene because here Kate may find the truth of what happened years ago and Ellen is hoping that this truth will set them both free and allow them to move forward. I think this shows us that often the ties that bind us, and hold us in place are of our own making. We are as free as we perceive ourselves to be. Here I’d like to return to the poem that inspires the title of the novel – Edna St Vincent Millay’s Renascence.
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.
I love the final stanza of this poem, because it says exactly what I have taken away from the book. The world can be as wide as our heart is willing to accept. The sky is as endless as our soul allows it to be, in fact we can see beyond the physicality of our world to imagine a God and have a strong faith in some thing we can’t even see. All of this is achievable through the power of the mind. Yet if our heart is not open to experience our world becomes narrow and pinched, and if our soul cannot dream or believe then our opportunities and achievements come to nothing. We have the strength to break those ties that bind us, no matter how strong they may be, we can break beyond them and move into a better future.
Meet The Author
Fiona Graph was born in Sydney. Once she had obtained a degree in Psychology and Ancient History, she travelled before settling in north London. She worked variously as a psychologist, for an LGBT organisation and as a librarian, before ending up at the Foreign Office. Her youthful interest in writing came back strongly about five years ago. ‘Things That Bounded’ is her first novel to be published. A second novel will come out in 2021. You can find Fiona on Twitter at: @fiona_graph