Old baggage | Lissa Evans

I am in awe of Lissa Evans. Although firmly in the bracket of popular historical fiction, her work wears its research lightly, and she educates, entertains, does memorable characters and wonderful dialogue that vividly brings the cast to life, while being socially/politically on point (boos for the fascists, cheers for the plucky suffragists) in a funny, warm, sad, satisfying page-turner. I downed this tasty brew in two gulps and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Set in the late 20s and early 30s, it’s the prequel to ‘Crooked heart’ – also a ripping read – starring the majestic Matty Simpkin, a colossus of a main character, former WSPU firebrand, and a woman for whom the word ‘indomitable’ was invented.

The story arc is quite slight – Miss Simpkin assembles a girls’ activity group to exercise bodies and brains and develop backbone, but finds herself competing for hearts and minds with a fascist-run group, also looking to engage the local youth for more sinister reasons. A denouement ensues, Matty is tumbled from her pedestal through her own folly, and everything basically goes tits up. There are side plots and family intrigues but that’s about it. It follows (I think) the formula of Greek tragedy – the tragic flaw, excessive pride, reversal of fortune, suffering, and realisation – which perhaps gave this superficially slight tale a momentous feel. That and the enormous character of Matty, the most memorable of heroines, and an utterly splendid creation.   

At the same time as being warm, wise, witty etc, Evans gives a stark depiction of the lot of women at the time. Women’s lives blighted by lack of birth control, education and health care; the plight of single women scraping a living, girls with little opportunity to fulfil their potential, and the sense of loss and frustration in the generation who had found such purpose and camaraderie in the suffrage movement and war work. It’s a vivid slice of social history, without being didactic, and makes you realise, gratefully, the transformation that the NHS and welfare state created not long after. It also needs to be said that Lissa Evans is an excellent writer and just does everything right – story, character, setting, imagery, language, period detail, humour, pathos. Ticked all my boxes for a totally engaging while not-too-challenging read.