This November I’ll be giving a talk on the wartime Magnet comics to the Being Young in World War One conference in Manchester. I’ll be arguing that the comics had a nuanced approach to the war, remaining firmly patriotic while suggesting that the demands of war should not make people forget the civilised decencies of peacetime.
The problem with this argument is that on some subjects the Magnet was not very nuanced at all.
I’ve just been reading a copy from earlier in 1914, in which Frank Richards gives his version of the Suffragettes.
In Wild Women at Greyfriars, a group of women (representatives of the Franchise and Explosive Society) come to the town near the school, to disrupt the market day and hold a meeting. Their leader is Miss Boxer.
Miss Boxer was resolute. It needed only one glance at her square jaw to see how resolute she was. It was a bold man indeed who would have ventured to oppose Miss Boxer in anything. Perhaps that was why she was still Miss Boxer.
When the townsfolk attack the women who are disrupting their market day, the gallant boys of Greyfriars wade in to rescue them; essential to the Greyfriars code id the chivalrous idea that women should always be protected.
Despite this, the women use explosives in an attempt to blow up an ancient ruined tower on the Greyfriars site.
Probably the intention was to blow the ancient structure to ruins. But fortunately, as is usually the case with bombs placed by feminine hands, the result had not worked out according to the intentions. Damage had been done, but the greater part of the old building was still intact.
The Headmaster’s reaction is interesting:
The curious thing was that the headmaster, whose daughter belonged to one of the milder suffrage societies, was in favour of the franchise for women, and had been so for many years, but since the explosion in the tower, his views on the subject were modifying. The peculiar policy of the militant Suffragettes, attacking friends as well as foes, had its natural effect.[….] It was hardly possible to be calm and rational when dangerous explosives were used instead of arguments.
Many farcical complications ensue, including some of the remove boys using the resources of the amateur theatricals costume box and disguising themselves as suffragettes to attack an unpopular prefect (one of the boys goes by the name of Mrs Bunkhurst). In another twist on the suffragette theme, his classmates punish Billy Bunter for stealing all their food (so much of it that even he is filled up to the point of indigestion) by forcible feeding.
Throughout the story, there is clearly a strong anxiety about the muddling of gender roles. It is implied that there should be a clear distinction, and that men have an absolute duty to treat women chivalrously. (Even the nastier Greyfriars characters, like Horace Coker, instinctively know this.) When women begin behaving in violent (and therefore male) ways, men are unable to prevent them, because their code forbids using violence on women. Several male characters express their frustration and incomprehension at this situation.
When the boys of Greyfriars finally get their revenge, it is through the agency of Billy Bunter, least manly of the Greyfriars boys. He has one talent – ventriloquism – and at a suffrage meeting throws his voice to chaotic effect, so that all the suffrage leaders think the others are insulting them, and the women start fighting among themselves.
Male honour is thus satisfied. The manly young chaps have not betrayed their code; words and not blows have been used, and the effect of the words has been to expose the previously hidden antagonisms within the Suffrage organisation.
The story is undeniably sexist – and gruesomely racist too in its depiction of Wan Lung, the Chinese student (‘Me velly bad boy – tellee whoppee! No tellee truth like English boy. Allee samee in China.’). It is also daftly unrealistic in its use of the convention of the impenetrability of disguise, and in much else, too.
If one treats it as a document of its time, though, it is interesting. The headmaster is put in the position of the Liberal government – not utterly opposed to women getting the vote, but very unwilling to cave in to the threat of violence. The suggestion that the suffragettes did themselves a disservice by using violent means is not a stupid one. Many supporters dissociated themselves from the WSPU because of Mrs Pankhurst’s extremist tactics.
Doubtless the story encouraged the Magnet’s teenage boy readers in complacent mockery of the suffragettes. In its defence, there are other things happening in the story, which is cleverly constructed around a variety of instances where a wrong has been done, and people seek redress. The prefect abuses his authority, Billy Bunter steals food from his classmates, The suffragettes attack property. Society denies women the vote.
As usual, Richards’ characters model various styles of behaviour in redressing the wrongs, and he nudges readers towards a code which is decent and honourable.
And anyway, I enjoyed the story. You can read it online at the excellent Friardale site. The pdf of this issue of the magnet is at: http://www.friardale.co.uk/Magnet/1914/Magnet%200341-A.pdf
Maybe I should now go and get the other side of the story from the new Suffragette film.