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Deeds Not Words

Love and suffragism at a girls’ school in 20th-century England. A short story

All the girls at St. Clements loved Miss Mulhouse. Quite a few of them had loved her even before she broke windows in a shop on Oxford Street and was arrested as a suffragette. She was graceful and earnest and angularly thin, with a lot of very soft hair and large, interesting pale eyes, the lower lids languidly heavy. Her intensity was of the smoldering and not the flaring kind, and she read Browning and Dante Gabriel Rossetti to the girls in her lessons. I have been here before, / But when or how I cannot tell: / I know the grass beyond the door, / The sweet keen smell

After the news of her arrest had spread—someone’s father had found her name in the newspaper—loving Miss Mulhouse became a kind of cult in the school and no one dared not belong. The girls decorated their desks in Women’s Social and Political Union colors, purple and green and white, and stuck pictures of the Pankhursts inside their desk lids. They found out their teacher’s first name, Laura—perhaps it had been in the list in the newspaper—and passed it around in hushed voices, like an initiation into occult knowledge. Fervently some of them began mugging up on suffragist politics; one of the day-girls had a brother with a printing set, and they composed angry pamphlets with believe and you will conquer in big letters set crookedly on the front page, or liberty and no surrender. All through prayers one morning, one of these pamphlets was pinned at the very center of the honors board, where the names of distinguished alumnae were picked out in gold. Afterward discussion surged among the groups of girls: Had the teachers and the headmistress really not noticed their pamphlet? Or had they seen it and chosen to leave it there? Some of them were known to be sympathizers.

Edith Carew taught Latin, and approved in principle—of course—of votes for women, but was too skeptical to be an enthusiast for any political cause. Laura Mulhouse had always seemed vaguely comical to her, drifting through the corridors with her arms full of poetry books and her air of high-minded regret. Laura had such reserves of indignation over so many outrages, and seemed freshly astonished every day by the world’s wickedness—though she could be petty over borrowed teacups in the staff room. Edith thought that Laura played up to certain susceptible girls, too, encouraging them to worship her. Edith and the French teacher, Mr. Briers, had privately called Laura the Lady of Shalott—it was Mr. Briers’s first shared joke with Edith, though they gave it up later when Laura was in prison. By that time, anyway, Edith wasn’t giving Laura Mulhouse much thought. Her mind was all absorbed in lower things: She was drowning in her love affair with Fitzsimmon Briers.

Edith was 34 and lively and not bad-looking and had always expected to get married, but humiliatingly she had to own up to Fitz that this was her first experience of love—certainly of what she shyly called “intimate relations.” Fitz was the most intelligent man Edith had ever gotten anywhere close to; his dry humor and his good taste, and his appreciation of her, changed her life as drastically as if she’d found footprints on an island where she’d been beginning to believe she was alone. Sometimes she felt this alteration so intensely that she imagined he must be leaving actual marks on her body, and looked for them after they’d spent time together. Fitz was heavy and shambolic, with black hair and a beard, and silky black hair on his chest. Edith was trim with a neat figure; she had dreaded that this body would bloom and fade under her clothes without any man ever knowing it. Unfortunately, and it was just her luck—the only thing to do with her luck, Edith thought, was to laugh at it—Fitz was married, with a child. He wouldn’t talk about his wife, just said she was an invalid and didn’t go out much. Edith had never seen her. People said she’d had a nervous collapse.

St. Clements had moved recently into an 18th-century gentleman’s residence built on the hillside above a town on the south coast; the classrooms were wood-paneled and poky, and all of the headmistress’s energies were bent on raising funds for a modern science block. Every afternoon at the end of the school day, when she wasn’t on duty and Fitz could get away, Edith climbed the back staircase in Old Court to the French office, hardly more than a cupboard under the roof, where French grammar books were kept, along with spare chairs and editions of Racine and Victor Hugo. This staircase was forbidden to the girls. Fitz would be waiting for her; he would hurry her over the threshold, nuzzling her hands and her arms as if he was too hungry to delay. Then he’d lock the door behind them and lay out on the floorboards the blankets he’d brought from home, which smelled of mothballs. Sometimes rain drummed on the sloping roof, enclosing them; sometimes the sun baked down on it and their skins were slick with sweat. Edith could hardly believe that this French cupboard, which had been so prosaically ordinary, could transform into the scene of such revelations. After their intimacies, while she lay curled in the crook of his arm, he read to her out of Phèdre or Madame de Staël. He had a beautiful accent and got carried away with the sound of the words; Edith had to whisper to him to keep quiet. She was haunted by the perils of their situation, though she’d never been fearful in her life before. They might be found out and she would be disgraced and they would both lose their jobs. Or she might conceive a child—though Fitz assured her that he “knew what he was doing.”

Meanwhile word went around that Miss Mulhouse was on a hunger strike in prison, and being force-fed. Passion for the movement blew up fervidly among the girls. They asked permission to hold meetings in the common room. In the end the headmistress agreed—though not all her teachers supported her—and the meetings were so well attended that they had to be moved into the refectory. Certain members of the staff went along too. Crazes had swept the school before, Edith remembered—for automatic writing, and the novels of Marie Corelli; last winter half the girls were wearing crosses hidden under their blouses, and swapping around scent bottles supposed to be filled with holy water. Fitz agreed with Edith that the force-feeding was barbaric, but he said that Laura Mulhouse had gone to Oxford Street intent on suffering: In another era she’d have been a Christian martyr. Police brutality only encouraged hysterical behavior. Then two senior girls were suspended—there was a rumor they’d been planning to invade the local racecourse. Someone set fire to a letter box in the high street, though probably this had nothing to do with the school.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis; Museum of London / Heritage / Getty; John William Waterhouse

At the end of one afternoon, when Edith and Fitz climbed the stairs to the French cupboard, its door was daubed with slogans in white paint. end this outrage now! stop the torture of women!

In her shock Edith was confused for a moment. “Do they know about us?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s nothing to do with us. It’s those blasted suffragettes.”

Fitz was right, of course—it turned out the slogans were all over the place, the work of the girls who’d been suspended and who’d crept back with a bucket of whitewash while the school was in afternoon lessons. He said Edith had better not stay, there was bound to be uproar. Sick with her disappointment, she made her way downstairs. All that was left for her now was to return to her lodgings, heat up her supper of leftover meat and vegetables and rice pudding over the paraffin lamp, prepare her lessons for the next day. I might as well be dead, she thought, crossing the school garden. The evening was tenderly sunlit and warm, and a little breeze turned the leaves of the young beech trees pale side out—but all of its loveliness was wasted. She was waylaid by a fourth-former, a big-bosomed gushing girl called Ursula Smythe with a WSPU badge pinned to her lapel. Ursula was carrying a petition clipped to a board.

“Miss Carew, do you support votes for women? Will you sign the petition for our poor Miss Mulhouse?”

Bad-temperedly, Edith pushed the petition away. “For goodness’ sake, Ursula, I’ve got tests to mark. I can’t help what Miss Mulhouse chooses to do with her spare time. I suppose she knew what she was letting herself in for.”

What good would it do anyone, Edith thought, for a dolt like Ursula Smythe to have the vote? What would she vote for? Hadn’t she been one of the champions at automatic writing, filling whole exercise books with her nonsense?

After the incident with the whitewash, the school governors suspended the headmistress and certain teachers. The girls had worked themselves up by this time into such a state that when this news got around there were riots in the classrooms and it was impossible to impose any kind of discipline, or carry on with normal lessons. The boarders tore up sheets to make sashes painted with the WSPU motto, “Deeds not words.” They called themselves “irregulars” and barricaded themselves in the dormitories, threatening to jump out of the windows; on one occasion the police had to be called in. Parents who got wind of the disturbances came to carry their daughters off to safety. All of this lasted for several weeks, and it was hard to see where it would end—until the school holidays arrived, and then in August war was declared, and the WSPU announced from Pankhurst headquarters in Paris that it was abandoning its campaign for the duration.

One evening in September, Miss Carew and Mr. Briers met on the school grounds. They couldn’t use the French cupboard any longer, because Mr. Briers had resigned from his position at the school and been awarded a commission in the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment. All the furor of the summer had died down; girls in their white blouses paraded calmly, arm in arm, or chased one another squealing around the great cedar on the lawn. Some were already knitting socks for soldiers. Edith and Fitz were on a bench at a turn in the path, tucked behind some holly bushes; when Edith raised her voice Fitz warned her that the girls were watching, but she hardly cared. He had his back half-turned, with his shoulder in its ghastly khaki hunched against her, as if he were only enduring their conversation. His black hair, which had been carelessly unkempt in the days when he read Racine to her, was now shorn close; where his ears stuck out from his scalp, the skin was reddened and raw.

“How can you give yourself to this beastly war?” she raged. “I can’t believe you don’t see through it all as I do. You never had these militarist opinions before. Isn’t it all so foul? Don’t you hate the idea of all this death and pain?”

With heavy patience he tried to explain. “Whatever my opinions are, how can I stay at home teaching French to little girls, when other men are giving their lives out there?”

She thought that if only she could touch him, she could win him back.

“What does your wife think?”

He turned his hooded eyes on her, gleaming in righteous anger. “Don’t speak about my wife.”

Then Edith guessed that he had a picture in his mind like a sentimental postcard, of his wife standing waving farewell to him as he went off to war, hidden half out of sight behind a curtain at a window, perhaps with the child in her arms—whatever it was, girl or boy. Of course Edith had no place in this sacred scene, contaminating it. She jumped up from the bench as if she had to save herself from his new patriotic stupidity. But no matter how she saw through his condemnation, she couldn’t escape it: He had power over her, because of what had happened in the French cupboard. It was another sentimental postcard: She was unchaste, she had forfeited the white flower of a blameless life, she wasn’t the kind of woman a man would go to war for. Fitz was allowed to think this if he liked. She walked away from him through the garden without looking back once, and went inside the school to collect her books—she had 10 minutes, thankfully, before classes started. She needed to sit for a moment in the classroom, to collect herself, because her legs were shaking.

And on her way up the back stairs she met Laura Mulhouse coming down. Laura had spent the summer at home with her mother, recovering from her ordeal in prison; now she’d quietly resumed her teaching. The girls hadn’t made any great fuss over her. The headmistress and all the other teachers had been reinstated; no one spoke now about the madness of last term. Edith stopped to let her pass on the narrow staircase. Laura didn’t look as intense as she used to: She was oddly stooped and her hair lay dead flat and her complexion was lusterless and clammy. Edith remembered what she’d read about force-feeding: the India-rubber tube pushed up the women’s noses, the indignity and dreadful pain and the choking and vomiting. Both of them were broken, Edith thought. In their shame, they could hardly bear to look at each other.

This story appears in Bad Dreams and Other Stories, published in the U.S. in May.