The fight is never over for an aging English political militant whose stalwart standards are endangered by emotional baggage.
What became of the suffragettes after the vote was mainly won? This is the question Evans (Their Finest, 2017, etc.) addresses in her latest spirited historical novel. Most became respectable, some turned to good works, some drank too much, and some—like Matilda Simpkin—found it hard to channel their intelligence and drive. Mattie is a force of nature: “If she storms the barricades, they’ll certainly stay stormed. She’s a one-woman battalion.” But now her campaigning days are over, and Mattie is underoccupied—until she forms the Amazons, a girls’ club that will teach “knowledge, confidence, ready laughter and a strong overarm throw.” In London in 1928, however, Mattie has competition for the children’s attention. A couple of wealthy local Fascists have set up a rival club, the Empire Youth League, espousing nationalism, marching, and an admiration for Mussolini. Mattie must rise to the challenge. Evans, an appealing writer with a taste for unusual historical characters and perspectives as well as sly comic surprises, draws a nicely detailed portrait of post–World War I England, a country drawing breath after the devastating military campaign. Her focus on poverty and health, and the challenges facing women of all classes, brings a sense of social outrage (and modernity) to the story. More privately, Mattie shares her home with another ex-suffragette, Florrie Lee, aka The Flea, whose modest, undeclared love for Mattie introduces a quiet yet affecting note of emotional attachment. These simple storylines are complicated by flaws, follies, and compromised good sense in a tale which reveals itself to be a prequel to Crooked Heart, a curious and minor narrative perhaps, but blessed with qualities that are hard to resist.
Evans impresses again, less for the scale of her narrative than for the charm of its large-hearted heroine.