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Evelyn’s Story by Jenny Corser

This story is to remember Mary Blathwayt who planted a Golden Queen Holly on 9 May 1910. 

It was at a Women’s Social and Political Union meeting on Nelson Street in Manchester two years ago that I had first met Miss Ava Butler, the leader of the London branch. Secretly, I was relieved that Mother and Father were not present at the speech as they undoubtedly would not have approved of Miss Butler's militant persuasion. I, on the other hand, was so impressed with her plea for "good little window smashers" that I gave her the white rose that was pinned on my dress. Miss Butler, who was quite taken aback by my gift, just smiled sweetly while I stared at her three-fingered hand, lost for words. Of course, I had heard about her childhood factory accident, but never had I imagined how ugly the stub would be. Father revved the engine of his HP6 1904 Oldsmobile outside the hall, which signalled my departure and ended my embarrassment.

From that moment onwards, I was determined to find a way to see Miss Butler again. So I began making comments to convince Father: "Surely, with our fortune and our fifty-acre estate, there must be something that we ought to do for the Movement."

But all Father was willing to donate was two and six, which was less than Miss Butler's weekly WSPU wage. It certainly was a start though.

Then, during breakfast six months later, Father looked over his spectacles and white beard at Mother and I . As he placed The Manchester Guardian on the table, I could just make out the headline: 'Women Demand the Vote.' Father cleared his throat as he said:

"Perhaps part of Starling House could be donated to the Suffragette Movement. I suppose our Summer House could be converted into a place of rest and recuperation for the members of the WSPU after they leave prison."

Mother smiled as she caught my self-satisfied grin in the mirror above the mantle. Triumph at last!

In the weeks that followed, the servants aired the Summer House and ironed fresh linen in preparation for the suffragettes. Then a steady stream of women began to arrive. Many had served two, six or even 12-week sentences at Holloway for all sorts of misdemeanours: demonstrations outside The House of Commons, chaining themselves to railings, defacing public property, and of course, smashing windows.

In the weeks that followed, the servants aired the Summer House and ironed fresh linen in preparation for the suffragettes. Then a steady stream of women began to arrive. Many had served two, six or even 12-week sentences at Holloway for all sorts of misdemeanours: demonstrations outside The House of Commons, chaining themselves to railings, defacing public property, and of course, smashing windows.

Miss Butler was the sixth suffragette to arrive, still dressed in her coarse grey, one-size-fits-all, prison skirt. What an unflattering, shapeless thing. It really does not suit her slender figure, I thought. I wanted to lend her one of my elegant gowns until her trunk of personal possessions was delivered. But then she began to explain how she had lost so much weight during her confinement. Her voice was barely above a whisper, begging for something to drink. After Mother offered her a concoction of hot lemon and honey water to soothe her scarred throat, I took Miss Butler by the hand and led her to a vacant bedchamber in the Summer House. Placing her light carpet bag inside the door, I helped her out of her coat and shoes.

"Now Miss Butler, lay yourself down on this fine, feather duvet. Close your eyes. Think of nothing. Clear your mind. Forget all the pain, the torture and the injustice that you have endured. You absolutely need to rest. Rest."

As she drifted off to sleep, I smoothed her strawberry-coloured hair, and sang what my mother used to sing by my bedside: "Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I heard a maid sing in the valley below."

A week or so passed. Then one crisp April morning, Miss Butler finally had enough strength to plant her sapling silver birch in Father's arboretum. For while the Summer House was being readied for the suffragettes, Father had tasked the head gardener to create an arboretum so that each suffragette visiting Starling House could plant a tree to celebrate their achievements in the Movement. Already, we had several rows of hollies, conifers, cedars and pines. With our skirts dragging through the mud and clasping cold-handled shovels, Miss Butler and I stooped and began to slowly dig a hole in the soft earth. Father proudly captured the moment with his Kodak Brownie.

About four weeks after Miss Butler arrived at Starling, after supper one evening, she ushered me into the conservatory. Immediately, I assumed that I had upset her in some way. A word out of turn, a wrong glance. Taking my hand in hers, Miss Butler whispered, "Just make sure you trim these nails before you knock on my door tonight!"

I smiled coyly, the crimson rising in my cheeks. All I could hear in my head was mother's voice spitting the words: "Young ladies of our class do not partake in such encounters."

And that was how our nightly visitations began. Once Father and Mother had retired to their bedchamber, I would clamber out of bed, quickly throw a shawl over my nightdress, and dart across the lawn to the Summer House. Miss Butler and I devised our own 'whispering campaign' through her keyhole. "Is my favourite little window smasher in there?" I would inquire in hushed tones. The door would swing open to reveal Miss Butler's red locks cascading over her bare shoulders.

Miss Butler and I continued to be constant bedfellows throughout the rest of her six-week stay at Starling. By this time, she was no longer the ghost that once drifted in and out of the house. Whether it was Cook's hearty meals, the invigorating country air or my attentive company, Miss Butler had regained enough strength to return to her home in London.

As the day of her departure drew nearer, I began to distance myself from Miss Butler. I wanted to prevent the inevitable heartbreak from worsening. I began to frequent her room less and less. I felt an incessant ache in my chest, like it might explode at any moment. I had never been in love with anyone before. I had not expected the agony to be so great.

On the day of her departure, I hid in the attic. Mother, aware of our close friendship though not the extent of our love, exclaimed: "Oh, Miss Butler! I am quite sure Evelyn wishes to say a final farewell to you. Now, wherever can the girl have got to? Evelyn! Evelyn!"

I watched through the window above as Miss Butler stepped into the Oldsmobile and the chauffeur slammed the door behind her.

Many months passed without so much as a word from Miss Butler. Then one overcast morning, I finally received a letter. Secreting it in my dress pocket, I slipped away from my family to read it in private:

My dearest Evelyn, I am sure that news of my attack of a police officer at a rally in Hyde Park, and subsequent arrest and imprisonment, has now reached the papers in the North. However, I fear that you may be unaware that your father has since written to forbid me from ever entering his house again. It seems that he disapproves of any violent or militant actions of our WSPU members after all. Despite what you might think, I do not blame your father for his decision. I understand that as a Colonel, he has a reputation to uphold. I will always remember the kindness and hospitality that your family bestowed upon me while I was recovering at Starling House. But now there is something that I must tell you: I have fallen in love with a man and he has proposed to me. John is a good man who has a steady income. He can give me a security, and one day, God willing, children. I suppose I have learnt to accept the social mores. I know that this will come as a shock to you, but I hope that one day, you too will find love as I have. Yours fondly, Ava.

At a quarter to five the next afternoon, I entered the Manchester Art Gallery, clutching my heavy purse. I thought about Ava’s wise words to her audience at Nelson Street: “Whatever you do, don’t get arrested!”

I approached the information desk, “Excuse me, sir, but where are the Millais paintings located?”

“On the second floor, madam. But you do realise that the Gallery will be shutting in 15 minutes?” the attendant grumbled.

“Don’t worry! I shan’t require more time than that,” I chirped.
In the South Gallery, ‘The Bridesmaid’ hung on the wall. Her fiery hair was crimped around her face, and flowing wildly down to her waist. Her empty eyes stared off into the distance, questioning, fearful. Her cherry lips were slightly parted, as if she was in some sort of quiet contemplation. Pinned at the centre of her dress was a corsage with a simple sprig of Edelweiss, tied with a white satin ribbon. Her bridal bouquet.

Making sure that I was quite alone, I reached for the hammer in my purse. First, I swung for the centre of her forehead. Crack! “This is for the women’s suffrage,” I hissed. Splinters of glass spread across to her eyes, cheeks, the crown of her head. The second time, the hammer hit the flowers. “This is for stupid, old me for falling in love with you.” A shard of glass scored the canvas, leaving a gouge running across her chest.

At that moment, a gallery attendant grabbed both my hands and forced the hammer to the floor. “That’s enough of that, Missus! What were you thinking, destroying a valuable painting? You aren’t one of them damn suffragettes trying to prove a point, are you?”

“No, sir,” I smiled, “Just a good, little window smasher.”

Having grown up and been educated in the United States, Jenny Corser first moved to Norwich to complete her PGCE in Secondary Education at the University of East Anglia. She has taught English at Langley School in Loddon for the past twelve years. In her free time, Jenny enjoys creative writing and is a member of ‘Writing Teachers’, which is a spin-off group of National Writing Project whose mission it is to enhance writing skills in all schools.