Death In Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

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When we look back at the fight to enfranchise women and allow equal representation, our memory tends to conjure images of Edwardian women in big skirts shaking fists at an awkward politician or policeman.  Then we may remember Emily Wilding Davison stepping out in front of Anmer at the Derby. Finally, in deep recesses of our mind we will remember tales of smashed windows, sit ins and other deeds. The image of the Suffragette is one that has been honed for a century so that a very specific image is presented.  It is one of proper women, the ideal of the Englishwoman, fighting for her rights, in the right way. “Deeds, Not Words” but, just like in Mary Poppins, home in time for tea. What has been “forgotten” though, are the women who undertook “danger duty” in the name of the cause. Kitty Marion, one of these determined and incredibly brave women, is the subject of Fern Riddell’s remarkable biography, Death In Ten Minutes.

Born in Germany, Kitty moved to England where she found a love for the Music Hall stage.  Kitty became a reasonably in demand performer. Her voice, coupled to her flowing red locks and beauty meant that while her audiences loved her, the attention she received from booking agents and others are terribly familiar to us today.  The abuse at home and the attacks by those in positions of power over a woman’s right to work, meant that Kitty’s spirit was fanned to flame and she struck out against it all. Kitty joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), lead by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters.  Taking a role on the frontlines, selling the Union’s newspaper, Votes for Women, her spirit made her a remarkable force to be reckoned with. Arrested time and again, Kitty would be forced fed over the course of her activism hundreds of times, but she kept going, never wavering, especially when she joined “The Young Hot Bloods”.

“The Young Hot Bloods” were shock troops of the Suffragette movement.  Organised from the safety of Paris by Christabel Pankhurst, these women carried out arson, chemical attacks and bombings, all things we never hear of when the campaign the Pankhursts led is regaled today.  Riddell wonderfully teases out the actions of WSPU from the open protests, the window smashing, to the darker deeds carried out at night. The chemical attacks that left postmen terribly burnt seem remarkable, but pale next to the arson and the placing of sophisticated bombs in very public places.  Each attack would have Suffragette literature and graffiti spread about so that no one was in any doubt as to whom carried it out. Into this battle, Kitty went open eyed and of full, undaunted, heart.

Kitty was a truly remarkable woman.  While her unpublished autobiography and letters that Riddell draws upon show her conviction, the past of this woman and what brought her here, the abuse at the hands of father, family and men in power, all draw a line on her journey to militancy.  She was used to training to be perfect on the night, so she did the same when burning things down or blowing them up. The outbreak of war changed everything. The Pankhursts threw the support of the WSPU behind the Government’s war effort and the likes of Kitty were an embarrassment to the new, aligned, direction of the movement.  Being of German birth, Kitty soon found herself cast out from England, the only home she knew, and landed in New York. There she found a new cause, that of Birth Control and the cause that would become Planned Parenthood. You could never keep Kitty Marion down.

 Kitty Marion selling the  Birth Control Review  in New York c1915

Kitty Marion selling the Birth Control Review in New York c1915

Fern Riddell writes writes with a power and passion that matches the indomitable spirit of her subject.  Riddell also returns sex to its proper place the conversation. Our view of Victorian and Edwardian sexuality is so sanitised that frankly if this view were true, it is surprising the we didn’t die out.  Putting sex back into the context of the lives of the Suffragettes, we see these women not as prim and proper Mrs Bankses, but of totally recognisable, relatable and real women. The passion and fire they brought to their politics was not the only area that they allowed passion.  Riddell rightly shows us that the lives led by the Music Hall women and their contemporaries were so very relatable to us today. Their lives were hard and in vivid colour, not the black and white we can so easily find ourselves remembering them in.

I was astonished by Death In Ten Minutes.  Not only was meeting Kitty Marion a true delight, Fern Riddell writes with an ease and passion that is so evocative that her words brings to life so much that has been forcibly forgotten.  I found myself eagerly turning each page. And then, when you run out of pages, you are left with the image of a woman, standing tall, never to be cowed, a true, proud, Militant Suffragette.

Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell is out on 19th April and published by Hodder & Stoughton.