books monthly march 2017

This month Jerry Dowlen looks at Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins...

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Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins


Emmeline Pankhurst: scorched earth suffragette; Florence Foster Jenkins: determined diva.


When there is a new big hit film at the cinema, there is usually a new book, too. Thus for the film Suffragette (2015) the Vintage publishing house brought out a full reprint of Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography My Own Story originally penned in 1914. And with the film Florence Foster Jenkins (starring Meryl Streep, 2016) there came a very thoroughly researched new biography authored by feature writer and music historian Darryl W Bullock.


At first sight you mightn’t imagine much in common between Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928) and Florence Foster Jenkins (1868 – 1944). But their lives had some similarities. For example, both ladies had the benefit of family wealth to fund their respective political and musical ambitions. And both of them were stung, early in life, with a zeal for female emancipation after deciding that they weren’t willing to grow up as downtrodden citizens.


My Own Story – Emmeline Pankhurst (Vintage, 2015)


This book is presented as a pure reprint of the original, published by Eveleigh Nash in 1914, without new intervention by Vintage save for a modern front cover showing the lead actress Carey Mulligan in a scene from the film Suffragette (2015). She played the imaginary lead character Maud Watts, an ordinary factory girl who is swept into the suffrage cause during the 1910s.The role of Mrs Pankhurst was played by Meryl Streep and was only a cameo appearance during the film.


EP launches straight into her story and we meet a young child with brothers and a sister in a politically active family living in Manchester. If we think today in 2017 that the Brexit issue has caused a deeply sour division between opposing camps of British public opinion, let us be reminded that the issue of slavery was no less stormy and divisive in the 1860s when the young EP overheard grown-ups arguing about the American Civil War. EP recalled that her favourite and most impressionable bedtime story was Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


In the book’s opening section The Making of a Militant it is quickly established that the course of EP’s life was shaped by her early perceptions of injustice – most especially the discrimination against women. One night she heard her father whispering ‘What a pity she wasn’t born a lad.’ The penny dropped that men were valued above women: this explained why her parents significantly valued the education of her brothers but took little interest in she or her sister learning anything of educational value at the small private school that they attended.


Many historians have analysed and researched the women’s suffrage movement in Britain during the latter part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. Historians have generally accepted that the 1914 – 1918 war was instrumental in women finally being granted the vote. For Emmeline Pankhurst personally the bitter campaign had brought humiliation, prison, hunger strikes and notoriety.


EP describes in her story how she became a confirmed suffragist by age 14 having accompanied her mother to one of the branch meetings in Manchester. At age 15 she went to Paris as a pupil in one of the pioneer institutions in Europe for the higher education of girls. From this we can see that her social scale was much loftier than that of the fictional Maud Watts in the Suffragette film of 2015; nevertheless the film accurately highlights the key role played by working class women in pursuing the right to vote. The author and researcher Frank Meeres records that in 1901 a petition from 29,000 women working in mills in Lancashire was brought to London. Annie Kenney a factory lass from Lancashire became one of the leaders of the suffragette movement, as did the higher-born Emmeline Pankhurst from Manchester.


Florence Foster Jenkins: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer - Darryl W Bullock (Duckworth, 2016)


We are introduced early to the young Narcissa Florence Foster as a precocious and restless child who chafes against Victorian social convention and gender discrimination. Born to a well-to-do family in small town Pennsylvania, USA she refused to accept that women were not supposed to seek educational qualifications and employment. Fortunately by mid-19th century a few private schools for girls, known in the USA as seminaries, were springing up. FFJ persuaded her parents to send her to boarding school in Philadelphia. It was America’s third largest city at that time, and FFJ eagerly lapped up the cosmopolitan life and culture that she found there.


Darryl W Bullock rapidly sets out his stall that he is going to give us in this 144-page biography very thorough background detail of FFJ’s life story, with extra pages providing a timeline and appendices. He has garnered a most impressive array of photographs, press cuttings and musical memorabilia. And Mr Bullock is diligent in distinguishing fact from supposition: FFJ was a woman of some eccentricity and her private life had some hard-to-explain circumstances. For example: her short marriage to Frank Thornton Jenkins was a failure, but she afterwards kept his surname. Conversely she never took the name of St Clair Bayfield who in 1909 became her second husband and remained her devoted partner until her death. They lived the high life together in New York.


Alas, FFJ was an awful singer. Mr Bullock has authenticated several contemporary descriptions of her voice effect: ‘caterwauling’; ‘couldn’t carry a song in a bucket’; ‘Tom and Jerry fighting over a bowl of milk’. Mr Bullock finds that on the balance of probability the delusional lady never realised that people were laughing at her. Her recitals gained a mass cult following: she became a gay icon; her concerts were sell-outs: tickets changed hands at vastly inflated prices on the black market.


The book and film coincide in building up to the grand and some would say tragic climax to the Florence Foster Jenkins story. Having entered a recording studio for the first time in 1941 – her infamous 1940s gramophone records are highly prized items today – she billed herself to sing at age 76 at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall in October 1944. This fulfilled a lifetime ambition – but one critic described her performance as ‘a bizarre demonstration of her vocal inability’. Five days afterwards, she was stricken by a heart attack. She died a month later.


Mr Bullock admirably gives us a highly informative biography that allows us fairly to judge the subject. It seems inadequate to label Florence Foster Jenkins as a self-indulgent socialite and an object of ridicule. She was a tirelessly busy organiser and promoter of musical events including fund-raising for charity. Her generosity was boundless. And if Emmeline Pankhurst had ever met or known of FFJ she would doubtless have enjoyed seeing how this larger-than-life lady used her wealth to help found or invigorate a number of women-only clubs in New York. Throwing off the Victorian shackles the mission was to achieve ‘social contact between bright and energetic women who know and do things.’


Jerry Dowlen

January 2017


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins

John Updike

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


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