Death in Ten Minutes – Kitty Marion, Activist, Arsonist, Suffragette
Fern Riddell (Great Britain, Hodder and Stoughton: 2018).
‘Anywhere you could find a woman, you could find a suffragette bomb’
I’ve been looking forward to Fern Riddell’s Death in Ten Minutes since she announced on Twitter that she was publishing a new book, the follow-up and part thematic heir to her 2014 text The Victorian Guide to Sex: Desire and Deviance in the 19th Century.
A book which pulls no punches, Death in Ten Minutes immediately sets out to ‘challenge everything you thought you knew about the suffragettes’ – a considerable and ambitious objective, but one that Riddell certainly achieves.
The book tells the story of red-haired Kitty Marion, music hall star, leading birth control activist and militant suffragette who conducted a bombing and arson campaign in the fight for the vote. Despite Marion’s imprisonment for her suffrage work, subjection to 232 force-feedings, and eventual flight to America after being wrongfully accused of espionage for the Germans, her story is little known.
Marion, a German immigrant arriving in the East End of London two years before the infamous Whitehall murders instigated discussions of women’s roles in public spaces and as sexual beings, knew, as Riddell explains, ‘first-hand the reality of sexual danger that many women faced’ due to her music hall career. The author links Marion’s experiences and understandings of sex and women’s rights, based on biographical analysis, with a wider reading of the period in which the suffragette lived. The battle for female emancipation was, as Riddell explains, ‘governed by very strict, conservation forces […] which has a complex relationship with women and sex’, which is explored comprehensively in Death in Ten Minutes.
Riddell presents an explanation for the Marion’s removal from the official suffragette history, contextualising the music hall star’s life story within the discourses of sex and respectability which dominated the beginning of the twentieth century. Why has Marion, a woman fighting for women’s rights, been omitted from the record of the fight to which she dedicated her life?
The voices of women who did not conform to a particular ideal have been excluded by those who have sought to control the history of women, Riddell argues – a factor which still impacts on our understandings of history and understanding of women’s societal roles today.
A fascinating and stimulating read, perhaps the most important contribution Death in Ten Minutes makes to a reading of suffragette history is the number of difficult, uncomfortable and thought-provoking questions it asks of its reader. The acts members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) committed, identified as ‘Suffragette Outrages’ by the press at the time, were undoubtedly acts of terrorism. They ‘grew in violence and intensity in the years before the First World War,’ Riddell explains, ‘ranging from window-breaking, chemical attacks on postboxes and the cutting of telegraph and telephone wires, to the arson and bombings of churches, railway carriages and stations, MPs’ homes, racecourses, golf courses, sporting pavilions, theatres, public parks, banks, newspaper offices and museums’.
The questions Death in Ten Minutes are concise and direct, necessitating that the reader considers their own prejudices and presumptions about understanding and interpreting history: ‘How do we feel when we discover these actions in a movement we idolise? Is there room for our heroes to be flawed?’
Chapter One, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, sets out a historical backdrop for the suffragettes, tracing Mary Wollstonecraft’s dismissal by conservative Victorian feminists for her views on marriage and sexuality to Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, who explored human desire in her novel Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft’s private life excluded her from much of the arguments and organisations of the women’s movement in the nineteenth century, which is linked to suffragette rewritings of history. From the diverse and conflicting attitudes Victorian feminists held towards sex, from those who promoted the misogynistic Contagious Diseases Act to those who advocated for birth control and safe sex, a distinct narrative emerged which is still prevalent today: that ‘good girls’ are sexually passive beings. Herein, Riddell suggests, lies the reason that women such as Marion have been written out of history.
Chapter Two, ‘An Escape’, examines Marion’s early life as she left her abusive father for a new life in London, of which, in 1888, ‘the twin forces of violent misogyny and an early radical feminism combined to shake the foundations’. The bright lights of the music hall called to her, a place shaped by sex occasionally abuse, and for some men, ‘a hunting ground’. Here, Riddell identifies that although ‘conservative feminism would have you believe that no woman on the stage, or who celebrated (and economised) her sexuality, was actually happy, but the reality of these women’s lives and choices is far more complex’.
Chapter 3, ‘What soul-satisfying exhilarations’, looks in detail at Marion’s life on the stage and a confrontation with a predatory agent which would shape her worldview and inform her life’s work. Chapter 4, ‘Love and Lies’, follows Kitty as she learned about sex, and her decision to never marry for fear of losing her identity and freedom.
Chapter 5, ‘Now I was awake’, looks in depth at the political climate the suffragettes inhabited in the first two decades of the twentieth century, and the 1908 march which first radicalised Marion. Themes of revolt and resistance also characterise chapter 6, ‘Death in Ten Minutes’, which documents the ‘guns, bombs and arson attached [which had] bec[o]me second nature to the women’. Riddell traces the development of more and more militant tactics, or ‘SUFFRAGETTE TERRORISM’ employed by women who had been ‘radicalised by a combination of the revolutionary leadership of the WSPU and the physical violence they experienced at the hands of anti-suffragists, the police and the prison system’.
After outlining a centuries-old tradition of female martyrdom, chapter 7, ‘No Surrender!’, compares Christabel Pankhurst’s unwillingness for self-sacrifice with Emily Wilding Davison’s campaign, which led to her death, as well as the affect of this on Marion.
Chapter 8 follows Marion’s flight to America after a face from her past betrays her, claiming her to be a spy reporting back intel to Germany, now at war. It was during her new life in New York that she ‘opened the newspaper one day […] and discovered her next cause. Its leader was Margaret Sanger and this was the dawn of the international birth control movement’. Connecting this chapter of Marion’s life with the contexts of womanhood and sex discussed earlier in Death in Ten Minutes, Riddell connects Marion’s experiences of sexual abuse and happy times with the WSPU with her empathy for the birth control movement.
‘Sex: A Woman’s Choice’, chapter 9, examines Marion’s work with the American Birth Control League against some of the discussions Riddell has introduced earlier in her book: discourses of respectability versus sexual expression, and where suffrage and female behaviour was expected to sit within this spectrum.
Marion’s fight for her autobiographical manuscript to be made public is a topic covered in chapter 10, ‘Kitty’s legacy-100 years on’. In this passage, Riddell deftly connects the suffragette’s life’s work with the contemporary Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, as well as the continuous fight against sexual abuse and predatory men in power since Marion’s time.
Death in Ten Minutes is is a lively, evocative, and exhilarating record of and reflection on a fascinating and largely forgotten feminist figure, and a useful re-examination of a political group which has been sanitized and reinscribed over the last century. An occasionally challenging and often (particularly for myself as a researcher) inspiring book, this is an ideal read for history lovers, feminists, and those looking for a greater understanding into modern day concepts of sex, womanhood and political activism.