I found Falling Angels to be extremely interesting and one of my favorite books that we have read so far. I have always found the Victorian era to be fascinating, and have taken a couple of history classes that have focused on the Victorian Era. One of the things that interested me about the reading was the attitudes to women’s suffrage, specifically the women of the novel. Tracy Chevalier’s website provides background information on the Victorian era, as well as information about the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
Women’s Suffrage was passed in 1918, with the Representation of the People Act. This act allowed for women over the age of 30 to vote. Falling Angels ends in 1910, which is eight years before the act was passed. One of the points that I found very interesting was the attitudes that many of the characters had toward the suffragettes.
Many of the characters in the novel had negative views on women’s suffrage. One of the character’s who held a negative view women’s suffrage was the house keeper Jenny Whiby. On page 185 she states, “I finally listened to them suffragettes today as I passed round the scones. What I heard made me want to spit. They talk about helping women but it turns out they’re choosy about who exactly they help. They ain’t fighting for my vote – only for women who own property or went to university.” Jenny brings up the interesting point that there would be a limited group of people who would be enfranchised if they succeeded in obtaining suffrage. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)’s main objective was to gain the rights for some women to be able to vote. Their intention was for women to be on the same page as men, who at the point of the WSPU’s founding in 1903 only 1/3 of men were able to vote in elections. Once the government passed the Representation of the People Act it gave a selected group of women the right to vote, this included women over the age of 30 who either owned property or rented property at 5 pounds a year or if their husband fit these requirements. This act allowed for about 8.5 million women to vote. Although this enfranchised many women, this act would not allow for women like Jenny Whiby to be able to vote. Jenny would be one of the women with something to gain from obtaining the vote. She was fired and kicked out of the house once she became pregnant she had virtually no rights. She was not able to take any action legally that would help her and make her life easier. If women like Jenny obtained the vote they would be able focus on issues that would make like for working class, or single women more livable.
The WSPU received a lot of criticism as an organization that existed to serve the interests of the middle and upper class. Ada Nield Chew was a figure in the Independent Labour Party and in a letter published in The Clarion stated, “The entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised, that the great body of working women, married or single, would be voteless still, and that to give wealthy women a vote would mean that they, voting naturally in their own interests, would help to swamp the vote of the enlightened working man, who is trying to get Labour men into Parliament.”
It is interesting to see the different viewpoints that are presented in this novel on women’s suffrage. Women like Kitty Coleman who were themselves suffragettes, to women such as Gertrude Waterhouse, who tended to have a strict Victorian view on the ways things should be done, to women like Jenny Whiby who did not support the movement who did not support a movement that did not support them her as a working class women.