Book Review: Half The Human Race by Anthony Quinn

Half the Human Race, by Anthony Quinn

Half the Human Race, by Anthony Quinn

Set against the eventful years both pre-and-post World War One, this story of personal and public struggle, tender love and political upheaval touches upon many issues of gender, relationships, loneliness and standing up for what you believe in, while also providing a gentle, compelling and absorbing read.

It’s not the most incisive of books on the subject of the suffragettes, and the story’s strength fades out towards the end, but Quinn’s vivid descriptions of such varied settings as central London, Holloway prison, Paris, the Western front and the traditional British country house, as well as his deep ability to portray humanity and inner conflict, make Quinn’s characters memorably and convincingly real.

In fact, the characters’ believability is the best part of the book.

Will and Connie (or William Maitland, cricketer and army officer, and Constance Callaway, thwarted would-be surgeon, bookseller, nurse and reluctantly-militant suffragette) are stubborn, strong-minded and outspoken – and yet as doubting of themselves as the next person. They frequently do things that they don’t entirely understand and can’t wholly justify to themselves: a very human trait that allows the reader to empathise with them. We see them as real people, rather than just plot devices or simplistic ciphers in Quinn’s tale of the social and political conditions surrounding the suffragette movement of the early twentieth century.

Fighting against the system

Will, his traditional background, his leaning towards quietly conservative values, and his focus on the hierarchical, traditional world of cricketing, seemed at first at odds to the overall focus of the book on the suffragette movement. However, it soon becomes clear that giving Will a ‘cause’ – although he himself says he has never had one ‒ allows us to explore more aspects of his character, as he stands up for what he believes in – friendship, honour, respect ‒ through his cricket, in the same way as Connie does through her Votes for Women campaign. That he fights for what he sees as important against a clearly demarcated ‘system’, allows us to root for him, and draw parallels between his character and Connie’s (who we are clearly supposed to empathise with – and successfully do), even as he behaves poorly towards her.

This careful, not-always-straightforward build-up of Will’s character allows us to see that, despite in some ways being the typical man who just takes it as read that a woman will defer to him, need rescuing, defending, speaking for, and give up her job on marriage (without being especially hard-line about it), he is not a harsh, cold man, but simply a product of his time, and, given the chance, is actually able to change his mind about votes for women and see women’s autonomy as a force for good, both on a professional (when Connie’s nurse training saves his life) and personal (when he longs for her autonomy in his relationship) level. Will provides a contrast to the hard-core anti-suffrage politicians of the day while also providing a contemporary context to other, less-typical viewpoints such as that of fellow, star cricketer and lonely, deeply-caring ‘Tam’, or Brigstock, Connie’s liberal artist friend, who offer little real resistance to the idea that women should be granted emancipation.

Connie Callaway: effective and strong

Votes for women

Votes for Women!

Connie’s character is equally as effective, if not more so. Casting her as a militant suffragette, albeit a slightly reluctant one unwilling to cause real harm or commit herself utterly to nothing but the cause, allows Quinn to demonstrate the different elements of the movement. Through her, we see the aristocratic (Connie is friends with an upper-class yet militant organiser), the hard-line (Connie meets the humourless and incredibly-focused Ivy in prison, who is later at the centre of a bomb plot that Connie herself flees), and the middle-of-the-road, in which throwing stones and selling newspapers is the more acceptable, understandable face of what was ultimately an illegal campaign.

The book’s tendency to always describe Connie in relation to other men, be it her late father, Will, Brigstocke, or Tam, also achieves several aims relating to the women’s struggle: namely that how suffragettes (and their non-militant counterparts, suffragists) didn’t exist in a bubble, but had to involve themselves with men in an establishment in which that sex ruled.

Suffragette cartoon

Contemporary suffragette cartoon – one of many ridiculing the suffragettes, who they were as women, and their political struggle

It also allows Quinn to show how the women involved in militancy weren’t hard-line women incapable or unwilling to enter into that perennial and contemporary  signifier of ‘femininity’ or ‘social acceptability’ – relationships with the opposite sex. Nor were they scary, manic terrorists that no-one could relate to, but women just like any other, who faced that timeless struggle between wanting companionship and the domesticity they had been brought up to expect, and the deep feeling that there is something more to be had: autonomy and the pursuit of personal justice at the expense of taking on the submissive role traditionally assigned to women at the time.

Rejection and conviction

The scenes in which Connie rejects Will, despite half of her desperately wanting him, are very affecting and extraordinarily well-described, as we see Will’s expectations that love will conquer all coming face-to-face with Connie’s steadfast attempts to hold on to the independence which she – all in possibility, rightly – accepts will be diminished should she marry. (Quinn’s hints at the conflicting depths loneliness can reach mark one of the standout strands running throughout the book.)

Will’s reaction at seeing Connie in prison, and his subsequent behaviour, is difficult for the reader to take, and yet it is only through such struggle that the full extent of Connie’s self-belief and courage is brought to light. Connie, a product of her time just as much as Will, is unable to articulate exactly what she is feeling, yet knows that she wants something more than the cosy, materially-assured life her sister, like so many others, has chosen.

Indeed, many of Connie’s choices, while being placed at a very different time, echo many of those still faced by many women today, such as, putting their own education or career on hold in favour of that of men, and facing a choice between personal autonomy and deference to the confines of domestic life.

Connie’s surprise at finding that the expensive car outside her parental home is that of her married sister and much-disliked (but rich) husband, coupled with her sorrow at their wedding, resonated particularly with me – as Connie is drawn to the car and wedding, noticing them for their conspicuousness and social acceptability, while being simultaneously repelled by their showy conformity.

Brigstocke: the meandering artist

Brigstocke, Connie’s artist friend, is an especially intriguing character. Sitting as he does on the creative fringes of society, a ‘typical’ artist who sketches women from life and sees himself as free from societal or political pressure, his is a rather ambivalent viewpoint. While not necessarily caring about the political morals of society or women’s rights as such, he manages to befriend women and paint them for who they are, without seeing them necessarily only as objects, or possessions to be disrespected and dismissed.

His ability to capture a woman’s essence without merely demeaning her character is played out very well in the scenes in which Will gets drunk, and ever-more-furiously offers money to Brigstocke in exchange for his portrait of Connie. Unsuccessful, Will is forced to realise that, despite his money and stubbornness, Connie is not a possession he can buy, or an argument he can win.

Coupled with the touching scenes during the war, in which Will is highly yet controversially moral, standing up fruitlessly for what he believes in, ending up injured and near-death at the mercy of female doctors and nurses, (and Connie’s feelings for him), Quinn’s steady yet compassionate depiction slowly builds up our view of Will’s character throughout the book – almost as if Quinn is making him prove his suitability for Connie’s independent heart, which could have been so easily taken instead by the doomed but intensely moral and loving Tam.

Historical descriptions: a triumph

Force-feeding women on hunger strike in prison: A suffragette poster

Force-feeding women on hunger strike in prison: A suffragette poster

Quinn is clearly keen to demonstrate his understanding of the often-conflicting motivations behind the suffragette movement. He paints a convincing portrait of the contemporary view of militant suffragettes as law-breaking and unladylike nuisances, and displays with appalling precision the violence inflicted on such women by the police forces and prison officers of the time.

Quinn’s triumph is that, despite my knowing in some detail what happened to women in prison who went on hunger strike, his descriptions make it fresh and shocking, while the research about the notorious Holloway prison in particular sounds extremely convincing.

In a few short chapters we learn of the food the women were given, the conditions of their cells and day-to-day lives, the types of people who were imprisoned within, and the hostility – and possible empathy ‒ shown towards the unconventional inmates by the guards.

Quinn has that rare ability to present an atmosphere, a feeling, an unsaid thought or conflicted viewpoint without bludgeoning a sledgehammer through the narrative. His work is colourful, but gentle, always preferring to retreat quietly into a character’s own thoughts rather than hammer the story home with superlative plotlines or gratuituous events.

Compelling – but not flawless

However, despite this careful and affecting portrayal, peppered with compelling hints of drama and pathos – such as Connie’s throwing of wine in an MP’s face, her arrest, her conviction, her flight to Paris in the driving rain – Quinn’s book is not flawless.

Compelling as it is, certain elements seem rather tired and superfluous – with Will’s overbearing and disapproving mother a rather predictable trope of a conservative ‘older generation’ woman who sees militancy as contrary to the ‘respectable’ notions of the time – and the book does unfortunately seem to lose momentum slightly towards the end.

For example, after the war scenes, Connie’s commitment to the cause seems less strong, even though the suffragette movement did continue to exist after 1918. Readers of this book only hear about the granting of the vote to propertied women over thirty incidentally, through a fairly lacklustre conversation about Connie’s age, rather than through her own inner monologue or someone’s heartfelt relief or triumph at the new law, as we might have come to expect given the content of the book thus far.

Given the characters’ focus on the cause up to this point, I felt a little nonplussed at the ‘follow-up’ of the previously-compelling struggle, and felt that it betrayed the strength of feeling that had been seen so vibrantly at the beginning of the novel.

Historical holes

Votes for women

Votes for women – a contemporary WSPU badge

Also, it’s unfortunate that despite the evident extent of Quinn’s research in some places, the book’s conclusion is fairly historically simplistic, with the characters basically acknowledging that the vote was granted to women simply because of the ‘war work’ they did. That, my own studies have shown me, was certainly not the whole story – and, some historians contend, not the story at all.

For a start, only propertied women over thirty were given the vote in 1918; franchise on an equal par with men didn’t come in full for another ten years (1928), and the slow concession of rights to women was arguably much more about controlling the ‘lower classes’ and those without property or other demonstrable social standing (to show they could be ‘trusted’ with the vote), than it was about giving the vote to the many young women under thirty who had ‘done men’s jobs’ during the war.

Women's war work

Women’s war work – a contemporary Government poster

‘Men’s jobs’ was also something that I felt Quinn could have given more space to in the book:  despite going into some detail about Connie’s work in the women-run hospital, I felt that there could have been more said about the extent to which women took over men’s positions, and the reaction many had to giving up their jobs when the men ‒ many of whom were brutalised ‒ returned home wanting them back.

The complex situation, which actually saw many women gratefully return home, was much more than a case of ‘oh well, the women have shown they can work, so let’s just give them the vote’, although admittedly it did open the door for emancipation and women’s greater role in public society.

But Connie’s character still seems to lose its way, I felt.

She registers no indignation that, as a thirty-year-old, she is still much older than men have to be before being allowed to vote, and at this point in the novel seems far more distracted by Will and Tam than she ever had been before.

Quinn, while clearly developing the character and perhaps showing the extent to which her priorities have changed after the brutality and horrors of war, still comes perilously close to showing Connie’s previous actions as the ‘silly’ whims of a young, pre-war youth, and those of a post-war Connie, more concerned with health and marriage, as the ‘grown-up’, sensible adult.

This ending strikes me as somewhat disappointing, as I’m still not entirely convinced that Will has understood or changed enough to ensure Connie’s intellectual freedom won’t be compromised once she is a wife.

Like talking to an elderly relative

However, the characterisation, description, conflicts and scope of the book mean that this somewhat flat ending doesn’t ruin the experience overall. I was still left with the impression that this is an understanding, compassionate, affecting, compelling, empathetic and ultimately extremely memorable novel, which successfully explores historical concepts of gender, politics, militancy and relationships without ever becoming too heavy-handed, slow or damagingly simplistic.

I grew to love the characters and feel their humanity, and when I turned the last page, I was sad, and felt I’d emerged from the book gently educated about people and relationships in general, even despite the flaws, and wanted to know more – rather as one might after speaking to an elderly relative who gets some of the facts wrong yet describes an extraordinarily lively and fascinating memory nonetheless.

I highly recommend this book for anyone remotely interested in the suffragette movement, early twentieth-century politics, the concepts of loneliness and love, and, of all things (and which I never thought I’d say), cricket.

 4 out of 5 stars

Half The Human Race, by Anthony Quinn (2012, Vintage)


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