Suffragette: The Diary of Dollie Baxter, London, 1909-1913
St Helens, Scholastic, 2003, 224p
The 'My Story' series tell the tales of a number of historical events through the eyes of fictional contemporaries. The series includes accounts of the reign of Bloody Mary to the voyage of the Mayflower. This particular story is about a young teenage girl's experiences of the Suffrage movement in the beginning of the twentieth century.
Dollie Baxter is thirteen years old in 1909, when her benefactor passes away and she is left unsure of what her future holds. She was born and raised in the dockyards of London, an area of poverty and destitution, but was rescued by Lady Violet and placed in education. Now, she depends on the goodwill of Lady Violet's granddaughter, Flora, who is a suffragist, socialising with the most famous names in contemporary culture and feminism. Through Flora, Dollie learns what suffrage is all about,and joins the Women's Social and Political Union, the more radical, violent branch of the suffrage movement.
Although Dollie is a fictional character, she interacts with many people who were prominent members of society at the turn of the century. She crosses paths with feminist leaders, from Emily Wilding Davison to Christabel Pankhurst. She attends dinner parties alongside George Bernard Shaw and Katherine Mansfield. Reading this novel is like walking through a classy soiree of celebrities. Dollie's guardian is well connected, granting her the opportunities to be better educated, more aware, and to move up in the world.
However, since Dollie was born working class, she continues to carry the burden of her heritage. In the upper class London society, she is aware of the vast differences between herself and her friends. Her fight for equality is rooted in her past, as she fears what would have happened to her had she not been taken in by Lady Violet. Seeing her mother so dependent upon her father, she believes education and employment as the only way to free women from the power men. Her plight differs from that of her rich friends, as she acknowledges how lucky she is to have such opportunities.
But then, when she goes home to visit her mother, she finds anger and resentment awaiting her. Her mother refuses to accept charity from her wealthy daughter, and is reluctant to encourage her in the suffrage movement. And her siblings envy her, mocking her posh accent and well-to-do dress. Dollie is in-between, never fully belonging.
I think it can be really difficult to engage young people in history. With so many facts and figures and little link to our reality today, the subject can seem distant and unimportant. Of course, history teaches us valuable lessons, but if you have little history yourself, how can you be expected to appreciate how past experiences can help us in our future decisions and prevent us from repeating unnecessary mistakes? These fact-based stories, with young fictional protagonists surrounded by historical fact, offer a route into history for young people. Students need to be aware that they are not 100% accurate, but they will support their curriculum-based learning and hopefully fuel their interest to research further.