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Review: Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans
Harper, 2018. 310 pp. $16

Matilda Simpkin lives in a glorious, thrilling past as an activist for women’s suffrage, who, before the First World War, rubbed elbows with the Pankhursts and threw elbows at policemen trying to subdue her. But it’s now 1928, and London life has dulled for Mattie. She lectures from time to time on the old days, for she has priceless lantern slides of the movement and can talk about what it was like to be imprisoned at Holloway, the infamous jail where suffragists were tortured, out of the public eye. An elegant, passionate, witty speaker, she’s quick on her feet and quicker to remind her audiences that women under thirty still can’t vote in Britain, nor those of age who lack the property qualifications. So Mattie still has her cause, her sisters in need, and the energy to lend a hand.

Annie Kenney, left, and Christabel Pankhurst, founders of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Manchester, ca. 1908 (photo courtesy Hastings Press via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But nobody’s paying attention, really, and that’s Mattie’s problem. Not only has her generation lost its fire; she needs to feel listened to, be the center of attention, to mentor others. However, she can be too quick to offer solutions to their problems and too slow to hear their silent plea simply for an understanding ear; and her urge to fix people, whom she sees as acolytes, can make her impossible. She assumes that those who turn away must be complacent or scared of risk, never dreaming that she herself scares them, or that the way she comes across subverts her efforts. In other words, Mattie Simpkin is a good-hearted, committed narcissist, and though such people often make waves, they don’t always pay attention to those who fear drowning in them.

Picture, then, her attempt to teach the younger generation. She forms a girls’ club called the Amazons, which meets weekly near her home on Hampstead Heath, for intellectual and physical exercise, learning and cooperative games. Who’d bother to join a club run by a windbag feminist of yesteryear? Dozens, as it turns out, a victory that Mattie accepts as a matter of course, and she thrives in her role. Despite her pedantry and occasional lack of sensitivity, both of which can be hilarious, she has much to teach, as relevant now as it was then: As a girl, you’re a real person, and you can make a difference. Her students aren’t always sure what this means, but most like the sound of it, and things go fine until a particular girl shows up, one who evokes the past. On such small incidents, worlds turn.

As you find out only at the end, Evans’s previous novel, Crooked Hearts, has a tangential connection to Old Baggage. I liked Crooked Hearts, but I like the current book better. It’s more serious yet funnier at once, which sounds odd until you notice that the tone here lacks all consciousness of satire, and the characters feel deeper. They have no sense that anyone should laugh at them, because they believe what they’re doing is utterly important. But our heroine needs a sidekick, one who’s more tuned in, and Florrie Lee (called The Flea), fills the role perfectly. The women are sparring partners in both heart and in politics, and though there’s social commentary aplenty, I never think it’s over the top or pasted on. It’s part of the action.

But it’s Mattie who drives the book, eccentric, principled, and flawed. As one of her less enthusiastic charges in the Amazons observes:

Miss Simpkin… had a face as readable as a penny newspaper, enthusiasm and exasperation, encouragement and the odd gust of rage chasing across her features. ‘Thar she blows!’ some of the bolder girls would whisper, as Mattie sounded off about Mussolini, or dogs with docked tails, or vegetarians.… Miss Simpkin was peculiar. Normal people stayed indoors when it rained, and thought that nice stockings were important; they didn’t sing in public, they didn’t pick up frogs and tell you about Greek plays.

Besides the sense of humor visible on almost every page, Evans has a knack for capturing historical ages and scraping the sepia off them. She understands politics and social movements from the inside and how they look from the outside. Likewise, the difficulties Mattie faces in her quest to educate the young reveal obstacles inside her and in others, so that her inner narrative connects to the outer, seamlessly accomplished.

Old Baggage is a delightful, moving book, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.