Norwich School pupil, Daisy Campbell (U6E Art Scholar), has had her writing selected for Suffragette Stories; an anthology of stories by established and aspiring writers, to commemorate the Suffragette movement. Suffragette Stories is a heritage and creative writing project based on the Kenney Papers. The project launched 6th December 2018 at the Millennium Library, with an exhibition and reading of the Anthology.
The following writing is Daisy Campbell's contribution to the project.
Green, white, violet
Elspeth was a fine young woman, subordinate to her husband, of course; a fantastic embroiderer; in possession of: a wasp-waist, whilst still maintaining a feminine softness; a complexion like milk; two efficient and subservient maids, available to perform the more banal of domestic duties; two adoring children with hair of silk, Harold and Estella, and an esteemed husband, Arthur. She was accomplished entirely: well married. Given her dark maple, well-maintained hair, her eyes, as if a skyscape were cast in glass, were a piercing surprise. She was frail enough to require her husband’s imposition of infantilising limits on her activity, yet not so infirm that she was subject to the more mundane, frequent and debilitating ailments such as migraines and fevers. Self-taught, the given extent and expected capacity of her ability, she could sufficiently entertain on the pianoforte; her husband was, of course, a finer musician. Her drawings made it to the wall: facsimiles from those tired booklets ‘for ladies’, of the gradual composition of the rose. Her empty hours could not be filled by her exploration of the world; like her waist, her potential, as well as her capacity to influence more than the trivial, were circumscribed. She was to be content.
It didn’t matter that she wasn’t married: she had no desire to become a mother, to be sold and used: a rich man’s commodity. She enjoyed being in possession of a mind; it was quick and independent, shrewd, employing as much intuition as it did rationale, but above all, it was used. To Maud, the mind, she was convinced, was a muscle which, like any other, withered when not in use. It was an organ wasted on the supercilious; on those who chose not to exercise and test its application. It was puzzling to see inaction: sloth, idleness, earned its place as a cardinal sin. How anyone, any woman, could sit so still, so refined, and poised amongst this national, not domestic, war, propped as some porcelain doll: decrepit, inanimate, life and movement bestowed, flippantly, when its owner decided that it should be enlivened to boast, baffled her.
A most horrid, foul and toxic smell had tainted the air of the entirety of the drawing-room; the smell was nauseating and utterly putrid. It was assumed that some timid mouse may have died, skittishly busing itself in some futile attempt to collect food. It wasn’t a mouse: some external thing from that forbidden world. With each passing moment, the smell became increasingly noxious, and every embroidered linen cushion was flipped, the fine imported rug beaten, crewel throws tossed, creased, scarred in the way that fabric does. The cat may have brought in a sparrow, some insidious gift to taunt the pretty songbird: its capped freedom and punctured skin, a fairer fate than imprisonment. And those free birds, lives plundered, can maintain their elusive beauty even in death; as carrion, and melted flesh and bones, their feathers – freedom – maintain their splendour. The culprit was found. It was not some foreign, rogue, repulsive corpse; the cream room, with all its shadows bleached by sunlight, was a space to be occupied with beauty. There sat the roses. Beautiful. Thorns removed. Water sweetened to prolong their transient asset’s span. Their own squalor, stagnant decay, encased in some fine-china cell. Insides rancid. All they had to show above the rim were those parched buds, confetti when touched.
“‘Suffrage was never about superiority’. That won’t do. It suggests we have been beaten. ‘Has never been’ is as considerable improvement, yet still vacuous in some way, devoid of impact, it seems a fleeting comment. The message cannot be seen as some futile attempt to sway the minds of the decided. Banners take time; slogans, consideration, and mottos must be laconic and succinct, utilising imagery. The message is simple. Its cause is obvious. To give women the vote. ‘Give women the vote’. Now colours. Meaning must convey strength, unity, and demonstrate that women transcend the status of angles – we are real. The colours must be more than symbolic. They should be enough of a power in themselves so that they hoard away any other, pre-existing connotations that those colours possess, returning them once the cause has been won, but always staining them with our sacrifice, honour, glory and perseverance. Give Women the Vote. Green, White, Violet. Hope, Purity, Dignity. We are women.” The entirety of the congregation were filled with a jovial ecstasy, all enthused and driven as one powerful entity, some formidable murmuration; all other areas of controversy stripped away like the tired skin of a snake: in this room, there was one enemy, a powerful, sickening tyrant, some archaic patriarchal invention: oppression.
The alarmingly viscous, rancid remains of the flowers slopped against the basin. First, a thin, foul-smelling liquid wearily trickled down the tapered neck of the vase, before it twirled around the container’s rim, like some sycamore or some graceful dancer, eventually reaching the base of the enamelled bowl. The odour almost etched its foul mark onto the back of Elspeth’s throat, she felt her stomach fold and her eyes began to burn, filling with some coagulated seawater that inflamed her sockets; the soft and dusty red filled slowly the vessels around her iris, like some punctured dam’s water, spreading through its desiccated remains, reviving the ground’s scars. The mint flecks in her eyes were only accentuated by this, and the rarity of their colour became all the more beautiful. Using the disintegrating stalks, she removed the vegetative sludge from the vase. It left a perverse tidemark of decay. No amount of scrubbing could remove the memory of its slow demise. Typically, she would salvage what she could of the dried plants, binding them close together at their waists, hanging them upside down; perhaps they acted as some template of beauty or something to aspire towards. Beauty was for the young, but the aged flowers would remind the younger ones to utilise this, then retire properly. Tradition. Some things are hard to break. The flowers were to be replaced, if not, Arthur would notice, and then inquire as to why the vase was without inhabitants. She could predict that the revelation of her failure to notice the state of the flowers would result in some form of punishment, most probably psychological, such as not allowing her so talk for a day or so, in his presence. She decided that her priority now should be to replace them. She felt a pathetic pang of excitement at the prospect of Arthur noticing, but that quickly subsided when she reminded herself that only her imperfections would be marked - the absence of flowers. Her flower handbook should be consulted. The language of flowers was one that she was keen to employ as a subtle way of conveying her thoughts. Normally, she wanted to decorate her house with ‘love’ and ‘purity’, and had never found the courage to display her upset. Needless to say, Heliotropes, when in season, the flowers of eternal love, received a periodical bashing.
The purple poppy was identified as the perfect flower by a young girl who had accompanied her mother to the rally. It had a core of purity, petals of dignity, and was framed by an intricate trim of hope. All other meanings were to be discarded. Leaflets were distributed, increasingly militant messages populated the literary frontlines, and the more peaceful protests became furtive ways of harnessing the ‘purity’ of women. The concept of colours spread quickly. The dye seeped through the lanes, along beaten tracks. Paths became submerged in the pigment. Those who hoped to quash, could wipe away the excess, but the mortar remained stained. Maud’s drab wardrobe was soon replaced by an array of greens, whites and violets. She insured that she was in possession of at least one item of each colour, so that whatever she wore, the trio of colours became a visible statement. The patronising idea of women being enticed and manipulated by the offering of material pleasures, was harnessed by the wives of the rich. Towns and cities became filled with swathes and bands of colours. They merged, yet remained distinct. It was a powerful, implicit protest that possessed the capability of being unseen, blurring into the crowds, ‘polluting’ minds with reason, gradually. The cause would grow like a blackberry bush, unnoticed, flowering, and producing its enticing berries. Many would be intoxicated by the sweet fruit, and at this point, the resilient structure would be exposed. Its thorns would snag those who tried to break the impenetrable, living wire. Even if the plant were to be destroyed, its many seeds were scattered, and the succulent berries tasted. It would be too late to oppose; they would have no choice but to submit to the wild barbed wire.
A small flier made its way to the Shipsworth household. Margaret, the youngest maid, brought it through. The pamphlet was from the suffrage movement, a cause which Arthur tried to conceal his wife from. Her eyes ran over the curves and formidable structures of the letters. The boarder was impactful, yet softened by imperfections. It spoke gently, appealing to equality, and Elspeth was startled by how contrary the appearance was, in comparison to the cause described by her husband. A muffled, suggestive cough from Margaret hinted that she should not continue to be to internally animated by this; she felt her eyes were enlivened. Not wanting to arouse further suspicion, she gratefully thanked her for bringing it to her, before dismissively folding the paper at a crooked angle. The slip was to be concealed. Then her eyes travelled beyond the girl’s shoulders, fixed at the back of the wall, and she walked militantly past her, in search of her children.
Harold was still too young to be granted the liberty of free movement to the vast garden; Estella was free to roam. Elspeth pressed her face against the cool glass of the conservatory, watching her daughter meander through the expanse of grass. She watched as the little girl was coated in the pulsating fog as she cast her breath against the pane. She let out a chocked, stunted laugh as she made her eyes dance between focuses, systematically smudging the foreground’s lifeless spider with the emaciated hands of birch that framed the back of the garden. Her hand wrapped slowly around the chilled brass handle. As she pushed, she drew in a long, deep breath, as if to purge herself of the toxic confinement presented by the house. She made her way through the garden, in search of the perfect flowers to liven up the room.
The purple hyacinth - she consulted the book – I’m sorry. But she wasn’t, and she didn’t want to waste this plant, devaluing it as just a pretty flower. She would save it for an occasion that required it; Arthur had no time for such symbolism, but that didn’t matter. She saw a small collection of flowers she mistook to be daisies. Chamomile – energy in adversity – it was a feeling present, but she didn’t want to cause a stir. She couldn’t quite work out what she felt agitated about. Next, the sunflower – false riches – she liked this one; a passive-aggressive flower. She saw the little clusters of colours; there was an extensive selection of herbal plots like a tray of watercolours. There probably was the perfect flower, somewhere, but it required a will she didn’t have; leaving the vicinity also acted as an incentive. The garden was a low-level form of escapism, and the ground was saturated by the dew, forced to dust the grass by the sun’s lack of strength. The clouds had failed to dissipate, and she felt as weak as the dull sun. Arthur would probably look on her excursion to the market with distain; all the mental scenarios she had conjured during the day, containing Arthur, had made her incredibly angry, so she felt the trip was all the more necessary: she would rile him a little, but buy a beautiful bunch of flowers to appease his person in general.
As she made her way up the garden, she insured that she informed her daughter that she was going out. As the little girl stood up to hug her mother, she revealed the burgundy blotches and bruises of blackberry juice, daubed across her cotton dress. Startled by what she initially thought was a series of injuries, she smiled, playfully informing the girl that she would be forgiven if she gave her a handful of the sweet berries. The girl’s initial panic, that had marred her childish beauty with an expression of fear, subsided as she gleefully obliged. Calling to the two maids to watch her children, she bounded down the steps with a fleeting pang of excitement, and exited through the back garden gate.
A group of around thirty women were marching through the streets. They had assembled banners, slackening or removing their corsets entirely. The three pigments began to litter the streets, as women in deep purple jackets and skirts, white shirts and green boots and scarves spilled out. Chanting. Formidable. Incensed. So far, entirely peaceful. Maud had arranged for the smaller populations, close to her, to be targeted due to their distance from the larger areas of action. In the town’s centre, the women grouped around the market place, surrounding the stalls, merging like droplets of rain on a window, forming and reforming, each time, growing.
Camellias, the pretty flowers that told the recipient ‘my fate is in your hands’: perfect. She was relieved that she had settled on the kind that she would purchase. But upon reaching the market, shoals of people obscured the stall, which was nestled at the heart of the commotion. She stopped to listen, pressing her feet to the very base of the buttoned boots.
Maud walked to the front of the crowd, explaining why women should be given the vote in a most eloquent manner, appealing to justice, decency and forcing the listeners to question why not. She explained that for all those it touched, it became their duty to spread the message, the true message. “We are asking for equality as your wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. We are but counterparts, equals, no less and no more; the same as your husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. We are asking, appealing to your common decency and reason, to give us the vote: the right to influence the world we co-inhabit.”
A young, very together seeming woman gave a most eloquent speech. Arthur had lied, and this infuriated her. She looked down, examining her clothing: she felt inadequate without their subtle uniform. She felt utter hatred towards her husband, the contempt breeding with every utterance. She noticed an eccentric, elderly lady at the back of the congregation, her hair strewn with purple poppies. She jostled through the crowd, towards the stall of flowers. A fierce determination was ablaze in her eyes. “Two dozen purple poppies please, madam”. She could hardly restrain the smile that spread across her face.
Seeing a clearly wealthy women, pushing her way past the crowds in pursuit of another commodity in the middle of her speech, infuriated Maud, until her purchase was revealed. The woman held up the bunch and shouted her thanks to the band of moralistic crusaders.
Enthused, she burst through the front door. There was Arthur. Pipe smoke wafted towards the vacuum of the door’s violent opening. The hand containing the flowers, clenched in excitement, slackened, and her smile was, as Arthur referred to it, ‘tidied’. “My love-”. His eyes prevented her from continuing. “What are those?”
“Flowers, dear.” She struggled to suppress the patronising tone.
His lips remained tight; the small hollow in between the taut skin was just enough to allow him to press the bitter air from his teeth. “I know what they are.” ‘What’ was pronounced with the grinding of teeth and palpable fury – she had succeeded. “I want to why you bought them, that kind. I know you are interested in the trivial meanings of shrubs.” He threw the reference book on the table, open, forcing its spine backwards. That he cared for her so little as a person, only as a way to elevate himself from the status of a bachelor, made her stomach sink and his fingers clench so tight, her nails dug into her palms. She liked the language of flowers when she used it, but had the book because of her disinterest in the meantime.
“They mean ‘I love you’, dear. I changed the roses and thought you’d be offended by the flower’s absence.” She smiled, but her eyes remained incensed. “I never usually go out without your permission. I don’t know what came-”. He turned away, so she arranged the flowers in the vase, insuring she caused an audible clatter.
She wouldn’t venture out for at least a fortnight. Natural light was forbidden for the period too. The house would be locked.
She remembered how she had a cousin she had visited the beach with once, and how the girl had lost her necklace in the sand. She pawed at the grit, throwing handfuls of sand behind her as she dug, frantically looking for the charm. Elspeth thought with regret at how she went through the day’s events in such a manner. She felt as though she should be grateful of the life she led: she wasn’t, she shouldn’t.
What made the days of forced matrimony better, were the little things: her choice of clothing; the colours of the throws she would acquire; the three-coloured bands she embroidered her children’s clothes with; the stones she demanded populate her birthday ring: emerald, pearl and amethyst; the wild, anarchic spreading of those formidable poppies across her garden; her efforts in the war, and once the vote did come, stopping thoughtfully to place a chamomile and a purple poppy on her ‘valiant husband’’s grave, on the way to the polling station.