For most of her life, Matilda Simpkin has fought for women’s rights, especially the right to vote. Even in 1928, years after (married) women were given the right to vote in the United Kingdom, Mattie is still agitating to expand the franchise. Her life is much quieter. She gives lectures about the militant suffragist movement, writes a column for a local newspaper, and causes an awful lot of trouble for a 58 year old women. But in the period covered in Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans, Mattie comes to learn just how much she is haunted by the past and how far she has to go in understanding the variety of women in her life.
I loved Mattie more with each page, even though she is completely exasperating in her bombastic efforts to do the right thing. The first pages are a perfect capsule portrait of who Mattie is. She annoys her neighbor with unsolicited advice and, when a purse snatcher grabs her bag, Mattie accidentally injures a young woman, Ida, who gets in the way of a lobbed miniature bottle of whiskey. Mattie does her best to do good; she was deeply involved in the Women’s Social and Political Union, so much so that she’s a veteran of hunger strikes at Holloway Prison and numerous violent protests. The problem is that she acts before she thinks and ends up causing all kinds of trouble for the people around her.
Old Baggage meanders through a year in Mattie’s life, from 1928 to 1929—with a brief coda in 1933. After her housemate, Florrie Lee, seeks out Ida to try and make amends for Mattie’s flying whiskey bottle, Ida comes to work for the two women. (Florrie, called The Flea, is in love with Mattie. Mattie is oblivious to the fact that her friend is a lesbian.) Then, when things go slightly wrong at one of her lectures, Mattie decides that she’s stagnating. With Ida as her first recruit, Mattie founds the Amazons. The group is a forum for Mattie to share the knowledge she’s accumulated over the years: how to debate, throwing javelins, being confident, identifying trees, ju-jitsu (as she calls it), etc. Things are going well, until a young girl and an old comrade turn up and completely derail Mattie.
The phrase “old baggage” can refer either to an older woman of Mattie’s stripe or to the emotional baggage we carry through life. Mattie is/has both. This book is full of realizations for Mattie about all the baggage she hadn’t acknowledged before her life started to blow up around her. Even though I know that Mattie would have driven me up the wall if I had to spend any amount of time with her, I couldn’t help but feel for her as that baggage starts to trip her up. That said, it’s only because her life does blow up that Mattie is able to see that she has been unintentionally hurting people with her obliviousness—but also that she is still needed and has a lot to contribute to the life of the young woman she once hit full in the face with a bottle of whiskey.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.