We’ve recently returned from a wonderfully relaxing holiday in Denmark, on Western Australia’s south coast. I spent a lot of my time there sitting on the back veranda of the cottage we rented, reading books and watching the amazing variety of birds that visited the garden.
I took two books to read. The first was Irene Sauman’s “The Body in the Woodpile“, which is the second in her Emma Berry Murray River mystery series. I’m not normally a “cosy mystery” reader, but I enjoyed reading the first book, “A Gem of a Problem”, and I wanted something entertaining and not too heavy for holiday reading.
Irene is a retired historian, living in Perth, and her books are carefully researched, well written, and full of fascinating details about life on the Murray River in the 1870’s. I was looking forward to finding out how the likeable young widow Emma Berry would fare now that she was the part-owner of the Murray River paddle steamer Mary B. Would her relationship with her brother-in-law and co-owner Daniel improve? Would the crew of the boat accept her, a woman in a man’s world? And would her developing skills as a detective help her to solve the mystery of the woman’s body found in the woodpile by the river?
I wasn’t disappointed in my choice of reading matter, in fact I was delighted to see how Irene’s confidence as a fiction writer had developed between this book and her first. My only disappointment was that when I reached the end of the book, and went on to the Amazon site to download the next one in the series, I discovered it hasn’t been published yet. I’m looking forward to reading it when it is.
The second book I took with me was by another Australian author, Robert Wainwright. “Miss Muriel Matters: The Australian actress who became one of London’s most famous suffragists” is the biography of a remarkable, but now almost forgotten, woman.
I first came across her name while I was doing some research on Fremantle Women’s Prison for my next book. Muriel Matters visited the prison during a speaking tour to Western Australia in 1910. In a newspaper interview she compared the women’s section of the prison in Fremantle unfavourably with the notorious Holloway Prison in London, where she herself had been a prisoner. I was intrigued and wanted to know more about her.
Wainwright’s book tells the whole amazing story of her life, first as an actress and “elocutionist” in Australia and then, after a short time trying to establish her acting career in England, as a winsome campaigner for social justice. During the long battle to win British women the right to vote, her name was widely recognised, both in England and in Australia.
I discovered that in 1908 Muriel and another woman chained themselves to the grille that kept women in the visitors gallery in London’s Houses of Parliament separated and hidden from the Members of Parliament. While frantic attempts were made to remove them, Muriel made an impassioned speech promoting the right of women to vote. For that she was sent to Holloway for three months.
This was only one of her imaginative exploits. Using her skills as a speaker, and confidence as a performer, she campaigned relentlessly for women in Britain to be given the same rights that women in her home state of South Australia had been exercising since 1894. It’s significant that she called herself a “suffragist” rather than a “suffragette”. She rejected the more famous Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrogant attitude towards working class women. Muriel had a strong sense of justice and compassion, and saw winning the right for all women to vote as a means to other ends, not as an end in itself.
This year marks the centenary of women in Britain winning the right to vote, and in telling Muriel Matter’s story, Wainright’s book also provides an engaging history of how that came about. An undemanding book that’s well worth reading.