Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Emily Wilding Davison - A Suffragette's Family Album

Emily Wilding Davison - A Suffragette's Family Album by Maureen Howes
Published by The History Press
1st May 2013
Paperback Edition
Emily Wilding Davison's image has been frozen in time since 1913.  On the 4 June of that year, Emily was struck by the king's horse, Anmer, during the Epsom Derby.  She died four days later.
     She, unlike her fellow Millitant Suffragettes, did not live to write her memoirs in a more enlightened and tolerant era.  In the aftermath of the Epsom protest, her family and her northern associates were caught between two very powerful factions: the government's spin doctors and the every efficient publicity machine of Mrs Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union.  In response, Emily's family and associates closed ranks around her mother, Margaret Davison, and her young cousins.  For almost a century, their silence has guarded Emily's story.  Now, at the centenary of Emily's death, her family have come together to share Emily's side of the story for the first time.  Drawing on the Davison family archives,  and filled with more than 150 rare photographs, this volume explores the true cost of women's suffrage, revolutionising in the process our understanding of one of the defining events of the twentieth century.
On 4 June 1913, suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was struck and fatally wounded by the King's horse, Anmer, after she ran onto the racecourse at Epsom Downs, Surrey, during that year's Epsom Derby.  Pathe News had a camera running that day, and seeing the flickering black and white images they captured, showing Emily Wilding Davison stepping onto the racecourse as a group of horses thunder around Tattenham Corner, still has the power to shock today, just as it did a century ago.
     Since then, many theories about Emily's intentions that day have been aired: was her act, as many have claimed, a wanton act of suicide, or did the coroner get it right when he declared that her death was a result of 'misadventure' caused by Emily 'wilfully running' onto the course while a race was in progress?  Were the suffragists and the militants correct to claim that she went to Epsom as a willing martyr to the cause that she so passionately believed in?  So much time has elapsed since that day, and so many claims and counter-claims have clouded the issue since, that it sometimes seems impossible that anyone will be able to uncover Emily's true intentions.
I have been fascinated by the Suffragette Movement for as long as I can remember, and I think one of the things that, as a historian, fascinates me most about the life and death of Emily Wilding Davison, is the inconclusiveness of it all.  I think if we had some concrete evidence as to what her intentions actually were on 4th June then that would satisfy our understanding of the event itself.  The key point that she had a return railway ticket in her coat pocket seems to indicate that she did not intend to commit suicide at all, or what would have been the point in spending the money in the first place?  Maureen Howes attempts to shed further light on the dramatic end to the life of this very intelligent woman by talking to her remaining family and using previously unpublished memoirs and photographs. 
I really enjoyed stepping back in time, and not just focusing on 'derby day' itself, but learning about Emily's family and her life before 1913.  There is much more to her than just the suffragette who threw herself under the King's horse, for example she attained a First Class Honours degree from Oxford University and that she had hidden in a broom cupboard on the night of the census in 1911 thus giving the Houses of Parliament as her address!

I don't think we can ever really say for certain what the intentions of Emily were that fateful day, but she will always be remembered for her actions.  Thankfully time has helped to view this event in a more positive light that it was a century ago. 

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x

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