By Timothy Arden
The dawn of the 20th century was a pivotal time in British history. As the nation came out of the Victorian era, the sun was beginning to set on the age of empire and patriotic or chauvinistic values that had been hereto unquestioned were starting to be challenged.
Every period has its progressives, staunchly fighting against the status quo, but the Edwardian era was significant in one particular aspect – it was arguably the first time when women were a principle component of that public debate.
New historical novel Broome Park, by self-confessed “history buff” Stephen Cowell, captures that time of ferment perfectly, in an absorbing period drama that pays fitting tribute to the conviction and courage of the women who set out to change the social order for the benefit of all.
The novel’s protagonist is Jane Dunhaughton, a member of the British upper classes who, at the start of the story, is aged 23 and resides with her father, Irving, at the family home in Hampshire.
Since the sudden passing of her mother a few years before, Jane has found her father becoming increasingly curmudgeonly and dismissive. While her family’s estate is idyllic, Jane has come to realise that she is confined both by her surroundings and the expectations placed upon her by Irving. She may live a privileged life, but as a woman she understands that the wider social privileges that we, today, take for granted are non-existent. She, like all of her gender, rich or poor, is circumscribed within a male-dominated society. This is neatly summed up by her father, a relic of the Victorian era:
“What do you know about the farm or the estate?’ asked Irving as he raised himself from the table. ‘What can you do other than ride a horse? Stick to that, that’s what you girls do best,’ he said dismissively, turning away and walking unsteadily towards the door. ‘You can’t even find yourself a husband,’ he said, more to himself than to Jane, but she heard him.”
Jane finds her escape through an unexpected encounter with real-life historical figure, Emily Hobhouse – a prominent turn-of-the-century welfare campaigner and feminist. Attending a Liberal Party rally in nearby Winchester with her friend, Lilly Baring, Jane is instantly struck by Hobhouse’s presence:
“Aged about forty, she was strikingly soft and feminine. To Jane, she was inexplicably magnetic. She was not glamorous, yet she had presence; she was not tall, yet she had height; she had not spoken, yet Jane could imagine her voice. She imagined that it would be sensitive and caring.”
Hobhouse, a staunch pacifist, was at that time serving as the secretary of the South Africa Conciliation Committee – an anti-war organisation opposed to the Second Boer War being raged between the British and Boer republics in South Africa. The war, which ran between 1899 and 1902, has gone down in history for the brutality displayed by the British towards the Boers, particularly the Army’s scorched earth policy and the first emergence of concentration camps – predating the Nazis by four decades.
While the patriotic crowds are not responsive to Hobhouse’s shocking reports of Boer women and children being imprisoned in these squalid camps – “there were cries of ‘No! No!” – Jane is touched by her words, which are line with her sense of compassion and her personal moral code: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.
As Jane discovers from Hobhouse, the Army under Lord Kitchener plans to win the war by attrition, “by depriving them of their homes and lands. They will be starved into submission.” Sensing that the South Africa Conciliation Committee’s goal of a peaceful resolution is something she would like to assist, she volunteers her help.
Soon after, she receives two letters. One is from the local vicar inviting her to a ball, which means nothing to her, while the other is from Hobhouse, inviting Jane to accompany her to South Africa as an assistant, and friend. This is the moment when Jane’s life changes, finally being imbued with a social purpose beyond her father’s desire to see her wed.
“She was not thinking of South Africa. She was not thinking of the war, or the logistics of the journey, or the impact at home. She was thinking that she had not failed. She had impressed; there was nothing wrong with her, she had something to offer.”
In South Africa, Jane – and through her eyes, the reader – is confronted with the dark side of warfare, witnessing the terrible suffering of the Boer women and children ripped from their homes, which are hastily destroyed, and locked behind barbed-wire fences within the concentration camps.
“It was, though, the suffering of the children that hit the hardest. The children, deprived of all stimulation, cold then hot, scared and starving, were often too weak to eat and susceptible to all manner of illness, particularly typhoid. They lay around the tents with nowhere to go and nothing to do, weak and demoralised.”
It is a moment of awakening for Jane, far removed from the tranquillity of her estate back in Hampshire. Over the coming months she tries to help where she can and, in one particularly moving scene, assists a Boer mother in saving her last surviving child from certain death in the concentration camp.
In time, however, Jane has to return to England when her father falls ill and eventually finds herself managing an estate connected to the same Lord Kitchener whom she despises for being the architect of the Boers’ suffering. Yet she returns as a different woman, now firmly committed to social reform. With the Boer War ended, this manifests instead in support for the suffragette movement and its campaign for the woman’s vote.
Broome Park is a remarkable debut by Stephen Cowell, who is also the author of a work of military history: Demise of the Military Hero: How Emancipation, Education and Medication Changed Society’s Attitude to Conflict.
It is clear in every page how much research has gone into the novel, which effortlessly entwines fact with fiction in its evocative portrayal of the period and sensitive personalisation of the true impact of conflict. If revered British film production company Merchant Ivory, which specialised in period dramas, was still in existence then Cowell’s book would surely have been a contender for big-screen adaptation.
Through the sympathetic character of Jane and the historical figures she encounters, such as Hobhouse as well as suffragist Millicent Fawcett, the reader learns much about the era, and especially about the fight for equality that would ultimately lead to women receiving the vote in 1918. But Cowell uses Jane to put forward a deeper and wider argument: women are vital to society as they temper the bullish aggression and bigotry of men.
The novel closes in 1916 with the First World War but a sequel, concluding Jane’s story in the 1920s, is in the works. While we wait for this, any fan of historical fiction or thoughtful women’s fiction would be well advised to seek out Broome Park.
Broome Park by Stephen Cowell (Olympia Publishers) is out now on Amazon, priced £9.99 in paperback and £3.99 as an eBook.
Exclusive Q& A Interview with Stephen Cowell
We speak to author Stephen Cowell about the genesis of his new historical novel, Broome Park, and why he thinks modern society owes so much to a few brave women who dared to challenge the status quo.
Q. How did the idea for Broome Park come about?
A. I was researching for my book, Demise of the Military Hero. This explores our changing attitude to conflict. In particular I look at how the emancipation of women influenced British society’s attitudes. In looking at this I came across the work of Emily Hobhouse during the Boer War in South Africa. I have some South African friends and mentioned her to them. They knew her instantly as she is revered in South Africa. They also told me tales of women in the British concentration camps handing over their babies so that they might survive. This became the central idea for the book.
Q. The novel is impressively detailed in its depiction of the early Edwardian era. How did you go about researching the period?
A. Mainly through reading diaries and first-hand accounts. I also talked to my friends who have travelled extensively on the trains in South Africa. Train journey feature significantly in the book.
Q. Broome Park is partly set during the Boer War and captures well the horror of that conflict, especially the concentration camps. What historical facts did you uncover that you felt most shocking?
A. For me it was not the actual conditions, although these were terrible. It was the way that the people delivering the message of these terrible conditions and resulting deaths were vilified by the press and politicians. It reinforced views I have developed over the years, and increasingly as I get older, that I do not really believe anything I read in the press. Journalists always have an angle they want to get across.
Q. The novel explores the role of women in changing social attitudes. How did they do this?
A. Primarily, by campaigning for the vote. Once the vote was achieved, and women started becoming elected politicians, they brought a different mind-set to Parliament. Also, politicians began to realise that 50% of the votes were from women – who took a much different viewpoint to conflict. The work of the suffragettes in promoting the concept of international organisations such as an International Court of Justice, a War Crimes Commission, a League of Nations, was fundamental. Equally important, though, was the role of women as teachers in schools and universities. Once they had the vote and these positions became available, the intrinsic softer and more questioning attitude of women began to influence attitudes generally.
Q. The contribution of women to society since receiving the vote has obviously been immense. Are there any particular contributions that you would view as especially important or notable?
A. It is difficult to single out one area as I believe all are so inter-related. However, I would single out the role of women in education. Mothers have always been the key influence on a child’s development. With emancipation, the ability of women to formalise the role via the teaching profession was opened up and has significantly influenced attitudes on many issues. There is no science behind this but I suspect we are a more caring and compassionate society as a result.
Q. You have had a lifelong fascination with history, especially military history. Why do you think it is important to learn about the past, and our military conflicts especially?
A. I think any analysis of current issues can only benefit by looking at the history of the issue. In our own time I would refer to Northern Ireland and ask how could it be possible to find a solution if you did not have a full understanding of how people had arrived at the positions and views they currently held. In the Vietnam War, General Giáp famously asked if Americans ever read history, clearly indicating that the American fears of a unified Vietnam becoming a vassal state of China were not based on any study of these two people.
I was horrified to read General Nick Clark, then head of the British Army, saying, “When we went into Helmand we didn’t understand at all what we were going into, we did not understand the politics on the ground, we did not understand the tribal dynamics.” This was reinforced by General Rupert Smith, Deputy Supreme Commander of NATO, who wrote, “In the military we do not examine in depth either the historical or geographical context in any great depth”.
It is hard to avoid asking why this should be so, and would performance and advice the Army could offer not be enhanced if they did look at these issues?
Q. Early 20th century welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse features in the novel. How would you sum up her importance and lasting legacy?
A. I wish I could say that her legacy was greater but in Britain she is more or less forgotten. This is not the case in South Africa, where she is revered. Her ashes were placed in the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, and she was given a state funeral. I think the work she did in South Africa marks a defining moment from when it no longer became possible to hide the unpalatable or unacceptable from the wider public eye.
Q. You are also the author of military history study Demise of the Military Hero. In essence, what is the book about?
A. The sub-title of the book is ‘How Emancipation, Education and Medication Changed Society’s Attitude to Conflict’. Basically, the book argues that women having the vote changed attitudes, that universal education meant that people could not just be sent to war not knowing why there were fighting, and that medication meant people valued life much more because they have the prospect of a long life, which they did not up until the 20th century.
Q. What would you like readers to come away with after reading Broome Park?
A. Well, it’s a novel so I hope they enjoyed the tale. After that, I hope they reflect on the key questions asked. One of the characters says there is no such thing as truth and that truth changes according to the beholder. Is this right? Also, a character says there would be less conflict if there were more women in charge. Is this correct? I would also like them to reflect on what remarkable courage Emily Hobhouse had.
Q. What’s next for you as an author?
A. I’m currently working on a sequel to Broome Park that takes Jane from 1916 to 1926 and will cover the end of the First World War, the election of Britain’s first MP, Nancy Astor, and social deprivation. It will close with Emily Hobhouse’s death and Jane being asked to transport the ashes to South Africa.