Among her many talents, Iszi Lawrence co-hosts BBC Radio 4’s Making History with Tom Holland where her presentation about the role of Jiu Jitsu in the Suffragette movement was made Pick Of The Week in 2018 and has inspired a children’s novel The Unstoppable Letty Pegg with Bloomsbury Education.
The Unstoppable Letty Pegg explores more than just the existence of the Jiu jitsu Suffragettes, it dives into the social context of the movement and the coming of age of two young girls connected with the movement who come to understand just how necessary it is to stand up for oneself and all women, oh and possibly the funniest and anarchic Nativity scene I’ve seen in a long time!!
Lettice Pegg is stuck between two worlds. Her mother Florrie was born into the upper classes and her father Jack is a working class policeman. Their small allowance from her grandmother allows them a little more than most of Lettice’s school peers and that brings her shame, so she dislikes new girl Mabel who has not yet learnt to conceal her wealth.
When she comes across her mother at a Suffragette rally being attacked, Lettice feels powerless until Edith Garrud a jitsuka shows her how much power that girls and women can have.
Fascinated by her rescuer Lettice begins to study in secret as her mother unravels and her father is pressured to be ambitious but the women of the WFL and WSPU show her how things need to change and there are many ways to be strong.
“The men in parliament are elected by men. If they let us vote too, we might vote for someone else. Who knows who might win? … they think everyone is stupid. Being stupid is probably a good thing for a voter to be, as you can tell them who to vote for more easily”
This book was rather a personal journey for me because Women’s History has always been a Deep love of mine, the Suffragettes a favourite subject but more so with this book a few of my great grandmothers would have been Letty’s age in London in 1910-11, some of whom living in Islington- where Edith Garrud’s family did. One was born into money and gave it up for my great grandfather after her approved intended didn’t come back from the War and so she become disowned in the process.
It makes me think of the ancestors I never knew and brings me closer to them, their hopes, dreams, what was achievable to them affected by the lack of women’s voices in politics, and the misogyny in society- how different their lives may have been and whether they would have made the same decisions had they been born into a more liberal society.
‘Are you hurt?’
‘Why are you crying?’ Isabel asked.
‘I’m…’ Lettice thought for a moment. ‘I’m happy’
I’ll admit I got very emotional at this point in the book. The disenfranchisement of women hasn’t just limited women’s political reach, it’s controlled their every move, every thought and every ambition since the first time they were told that girls couldn’t.
Lawrence weaves and explores points and details about life especially in women’s and working class spheres around 1910 from transport to social customs, how it would cost to see a doctor to the horror of not wearing gloves in public and the judgement and control of women through these social expectations.
The fact that Lettice is horrified that people would think she was ‘selling kisses’ or worse simply because she is unescorted by an appropriate male and the secrecy around even the barest of makeup due to its connotations again on such a small yet powerful point shows how such intense and radical change and freedoms happened across Letty’s lifetime towards our own, even if misogyny and the battle remains.
“Women’s reasoning is often faulty, but their memory is nearly on par with that of a man.”Letty’s teacher Mr Metcalfe
There is so much to pick out that delights the History teacher in me about The Unstoppable Letty Pegg to explore about the Suffrage Movements and social history including women’s history, BAME history children’s history and working class history, often the undervalued areas of history in favour of the actions of rich white powerful men.
Speckled and dusted throughout are the names of key figures in the movement such as Edith Garrud herself, but avoids focus on the Pankhursts to show the range and activities but also to show the diversity of the Suffrage movement in both philosophy from the militant ‘Whizzpoos’ to the more stand your ground Women’s Freedom League and indeed in heritage such as daughters of businessmen, Lords, Active ally husbands of key figures and even the Princess Sophia Singh which not only makes it easier to understand and remember the different women’s suffrage ideas and personalities but whilst noting certain disparaging by the poorest women also makes it clear that this wasn’t just a posh white women’s battle.
Indeed attitudes around race is touched upon though not as one might expect precluding a person from class or money like Mabel or the Princess, but definitely shows that prejudices certainly existed back then not just misogyny as Princess Sophia Singh notes as a woman of colour she is in unique position of being royal and lesser, but 100% badass because if you have never heard of Princess Sophia Singh oooooh you are in for a treat.
‘Maybe our deeds not our looks should define us’
Ok geek out moment:
But equally Lawrence shows us the things we have in common particularly about how trends are far more tenacious in history than we give credit to them such as the Vegetarian movement of the era. However it has been realised that it is closely entwined with radical thinking and the Suffrage Movements; ‘It is a strange fact that the ranks of the militant suffragettes are mostly recruited from the mild vegetarians’ Maud Joachim ( My Life in Holloway Gaol 1908) even Lady Constance Lytton who wrote of her time spent undercover in prison as Jane Wharton made reference to being a vegetarian and that the Women’s Freedom League to which Edith belonged were well known for spreading the lifestyle.
(Geek out over- I originally wrote a LOT more here and edited it down ☺️)
Overall, The Unstoppable Letty Pegg is an outstanding and immersive piece of Historical fiction that has been deeply and lovingly researched to be as authentic as possible whilst still being accessible and exciting for the young reader. It’s intensely educational but equally passionately entertaining, you can’t help but root for Lettice, even when things go wrong. I’m so delighted to see this different and dignified spin on the Suffragette movement highlighting the strength and tenacity of these women not just sensationalising the more militant tactics and harsh treatment.
Obviously this book deals with self defence that is provoked by the actions of police officers dealing with Suffragette protests and many were encouraged to humiliate and hurt to put these women back in their ‘sphere’ – so there may be upsetting scenes of peril and violence against women and Lettie as a child. Also there are scenes where Letty is accosted by strange men, one with an intent for sexual assault. I just wanted to note this content-wise for awareness that some readers may be upset by these sections.
The Unstoppable Letty Pegg by Iszi Lawrence is published by Bloomsbury Education on 6th February
Thank you so much for my review copy 💜