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Red Ellen – The Novels of Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson has long been a hero of mine. She was one of the first female Labour MPs, and had a reputation as a ‘firebrand’, probably because of her red hair. Most memorably, she was MP for Jarrow at the time of the famous hunger march (1936). You can find photographs of her leading it: a small figure in comparison to other marchers.

Born in 1891 into a working class family in Manchester, she got her education there and began her political activities by supporting female suffrage. She went on to work as a trade union organiser, and was first elected to parliament in 1924 when most Labour MPs lost their seats. She won Middlesborough East by a majority of 972. As a trade unionist she was involved in the General Strike of 1926 but she lost her seat after the failure of the second Labour Government in 1931, returning to parliament in 1935. 

While she was out of parliament she turned to writing, earning her keep as a journalist, and writing her two novels, the subjects of this post. Her return to parliament kept her too busy to continue with fiction writing. During the Second World War she served in the coalition government and became Minister of Education in the post-war Labour government. Sadly she died too young in 1947, having suffered from bronchial asthma, been a smoker and an overworker all her adult life.

It is with some sadness that I realise that my grandfather would have known her as he was also elected in 1935, albeit as a Liberal. Sadly I did not take the opportunity to ask him. I am sure he would have known her, full of energy, small, with red hair and a dramatic sense of colour and style in her clothing.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson

Clash was published in 1929 and much of it is drawn from the author’s experiences of the General Strike, such a bold move, such exciting times, but ultimately a failure. The miners, in support of whom it was called, suffered for months in the lock out that followed. Joan Craig is the heroine, and her proximity to the leaders of the unions, her hard work to keep the strike going, and her support for the miners are all drawn from Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences. But Joan has black not red hair.

This is also a love story. Joan falls for the older Bloomsbury writer, Tony Dacre. Much of the second part of the novel is taken up with Joan’s dilemma: follow her heart or continue with her work supporting workers. 

The clash of the title is evident in so many aspects of the story. I was struck by how many of these tensions still exist 90 years later. There is the tension between the North and the South of England. All the excitement of the strike and the pleasure of intellectual company and activities is found in London. Joan is tempted. But in the North there is real poverty, exploitation of workers, and work that she is so good at to be done. 

The North-South divide is also a class divide. Tony Dacre offers Joan the possibility of more comfort and security. The passages describing the hardships of life when the miners were locked out are a strong as any in the novel. The ignorance of the middle class (in both senses of ignorance) is shocking. And the class divide is sharpest in the failed relationships of bosses and trade unions.

There is the male-female tension, played out as she considers the life offered by Tony. His view is that she would have to give up her work, dedicate her life to him if they were together. And he believes that romantic love is justification enough for this. It’s what women do. A clash between intellectual and romantic views of life is also shown. I won’t pre-empt your reading by telling you how Joan resolved these dilemmas. But like her creator she did not disappoint.

My interest in the history of the time was well rewarded by reading this novel, full of action and ideas. I enjoyed it. Thanks to HeavenAli for drawing it to my attention on her blog.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, published in 1932. It was reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1989. 309pp

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson 

This second novel also draws on Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences, this time in the House of Commons. She had been a PPS (parliamentary private secretary) to several ministers. The amateur detective in her novel  Robert West, is a young male MP, PPS to the Home Secretary, known as Flossie. I chose to read this as a relief from some books that had hard-to-read passages of abuse of women. It is a light read.

A gunshot is heard at the same moment as Big Ben struck and the division bell sounded. A rich American banker has been murdered in Dining Room J. Rob West is tasked with helping the police find the culprit. The Home Secretary was meeting with Oissel to negotiate a government loan but left for the division just before Oissel was found dead. The story features the beautiful but ice-cold grand-daughter of the murdered man, her fiancé who is also an MP, a female MP from the Labour Party, a journalist, the Scotland Yard detective, a Peer of the Realm and the chief Civil Servant in the Home Office. Who did it?

The story is slight, but one relationship caught my attention. Rob West asks Grace Richards MP for some help.

The attitude of Robert West to the modern young woman was typical of that of a very young man. He preferred the intelligent woman. He liked to be seen about with one who was also making a name for herself. But while he was interested in her he expected her to put her own affairs in the background, and devote herself to his. When she was no longer needed she might be permitted to pick up her own threads again, but she must not trouble him. This he called allowing a woman to lead her own life. (120)

He asks her for help.

“And why should I help you?”
Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? (123)

There is an edge in this little exchange which makes me think that Ellen Wilkinson had encountered this young man’s attitude many times. 

I would love to have met Ellen Wilkinson, heard her make a speech, watch her navigate male-dominated politics. I enjoyed her two novels, and that will have to do.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, first published in 1932 and reissued in 2018 in the British Library Crime Classics series. 254pp

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