THE plot of Ajay Close’s 2014 novel Trust turns on two modern political crises: the miners strikes of the early 1980s and the financial crash of the late noughties. The characters who garner sympathy struggle to maintain moral steadfastness in the face of an unjust political situation. There are the women who face a daily barrage of misogyny and general masculine brutality whilst working for the ironically-named merchant bank Goodison Farebrother; in such an environment moral purity doesn’t get anyone anywhere – apart from fired. Across the picket line there are the miners at a private colliery who are militantly holding firm against both the mine owners and the state. On the amoral side of things, there are the few characters – mostly bankers – who are motivated by pure self-interest and, if they’re male, a primitive dedication to certain lower organs.
The female protagonist, Lexa, who works for Goodison, is brokering a deal to sell the mine and starts a relationship with a union official. When her moral boundaries start shifting considerably, she leaves the banking sector to pursue old-fashioned ideals of community. She does, however, retain personal ties to her female co-workers, who compromise themselves and cling on in the banking world. When Lexa is dragged back in to resolve a conflict at Caledonian Bank in the wake of the big bust she realizes that corruption, past and present, are not just restricted to a few bad apples. What is striking in Trust is the number of individuals either willing to abandon their ethics or those who simply have none, but also that in 2009 militant politics has become an anachronism. Political compromise is the best option in any situation, no matter how much it suits vested interests.
Off the back of Trust Close has chosen another fiery turning point in British history, and another militant cause, for her new novel: the suffragette campaign that came to a riotous fervour during the years leading up to the First World War. Much of A Petrol Scented Spring seems very similar to Close’s 2010 play Cat and Mouse. The title takes its name from the notorious Cat and Mouse Act passed by H.H. Asquith’s Liberal government in 1913. This legislation allowed imprisoned, hunger-striking suffragettes to be released on condition they be re-arrested once they had recovered; as it happens, many of them smelt freedom and went on the run. Based on real events and set in Perth Prison, Cat and Mouse concerns the Chief Medical Officer called Hugh Ferguson Watson, who, in contrast to most of the medical fraternity in Scotland, agrees to force-feed imprisoned suffragettes in the spring and summer of 1914.
If a play-turned-novel sounds suspect, it’s not particularly rare. Alasdair Gray turned some of his early plays into a couple of quieter and not-too-bad novels, either because he’d run out of ideas or needed to fulfil publishing contracts. This is something Close will know all about, having interviewed Gray in her previous life as a journalist. But whatever the reason for her return to familiar territory, Close’s fourth novel is a captivating and nuanced read, and one which takes on some of the more controversial and often forgotten aspects of the suffrage movement. It would quite rightly be blasphemous now to suggest that the suffragettes were anything but heroes, yet what is often overlooked is the chaos they were prepared to unleash, something which would be roundly condemned today. A Petrol Scented Spring opens with an example of one of their less extreme acts. A troop of women create a ‘cacophony of smashing glass’ by turning their ire, and their hammers, on a row of shopfronts.
Close captures the plucky, gee-whiz spirit of the age without, as the title suggests, kowtowing to the idea of the Edwardian period as a long idyll before the world broke. If you were a suffragette at the time, society was no picnic in the park, and there was nothing innocent about the deep-seated and obstinate patriarchy that ensured women were delegated to second-class citizens. The suffragettes turned to the destruction of property out of frustration with the lack of progress in parliament. It was approached with a provocateur’s sense of fun, but there were strict rules: ‘No person, however vile, is to be hurt….there must be a clear message in the action’. So when Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is expected in Scotland, the rebels burn down a mansion in Perthshire owned by a prominent anti-suffragist. ‘A postcard, found near the blaze, bears the words A warm welcome to Lloyd George.’
The narrator at the love-sick heart of A Petrol Scented Spring is Hugh Ferguson Watson’s wife, Donella, who married the doctor in 1916, two years after the suffragettes were given amnesty as a result of the war breaking out. Close gives Donella a good punchy present tense authorial voice and a sharp eye. As Donella recalls her passionless years married to Hugh, she imagines what could have happened between Perth Prison’s Chief Medical Officer and a particularly fiery Scotswoman called Arabella Scott, imprisoned for trying to burn down Kelso racecourse. Although there are many reasons why Hugh and Donella’s marriage is a failure, one of them is that Hugh’s initial attraction to Donella was her resemblance to Arabella. Even after recounting her life, Donella is still unsure ‘whether the love story pieced together in these pages, is mine, or hers’.
Unlike the suffragettes, Hugh is an extremist of the dangerous sort. He is a cold, dour individual from Ayrshire. Conservative to the bone, his theory of marriage is made clear in one of the conversations between him and Arabella: ‘Nature seeks a balance. Masculine and feminine, virility and tenderness, brain and womb. Your body, a woman’s body, is a part of Nature. Denied the balance of wedlock and motherhood, it must remain unfulfilled.’ If he wasn’t so passionless, it is the sort of thing one of DH Lawrence’s male characters might say. Hugh’s love is clearly of the domineering sort. One might even call it sadistic: ‘he loved a convalescent girl, weakened by long illness. He loved the way I bent in his hands,’ says Donella. Arabella’s imperviousness is partly why Hugh falls for her. She has the obstinacy to withstand his torture and the psychological acuity to outwit him. Arabella is one of those difficult characters: a hugely intelligent menace. She was rich enough to attend Edinburgh University, and by the time she is in Perth Prison, she’s had spells in Holloway and Edinburgh’s Calton jails as a result of her subversive activities.
What qualifies Doctor Ferguson Watson to force-feed suffragettes is his experience treating the ‘mad poor’, who at the time were housed in ‘public asylums, where they are strait-jacketed or strapped to their beds or thrashed by their infuriated keepers and, should they become so crazed that they will not eat, they are forcibly fed’. Hugh is also a specialist in syphilis, which he believes is a marker for insanity, and so one isn’t surprised to learn of his fear of sex. When he discovers that madness runs in Donella’s family he recoils from the marriage bed and – metaphorically at least – runs for the hills. His suspicion that Donella might have syphilis is only compounded when he finds out she once had a youthful affair with one of the sisterhood, the terrifically-named and anarchic Argemone ffarington Bellairs. Thankfully, Close doesn’t milk the age-old prejudice concerning femininity and madness, but lets it sit like a malign growth in the background.
Like in any good love story, love reveals itself to be possessive, violent and deceitful. It’s a nasty business to get involved in, and the reader may wonder why Donella binds the ties of love by marrying such a brute. It is the least convincing part of the novel, and something which could have been given more depth. But Donella’s lingering fascination with the man she married, and the woman he preferred to her, shows a mind in doubt about the decisions that have affected the most important parts of her life. Events that are replayed in Donella’s head take on a sinister hue as she and the reader realize that during their courtship Hugh used Donella as a stand-in for Arabella. Their consequent marriage is no better, as testified by Donella likening holy matrimony to a fight between Hugh and Arabella: ‘the uninhibited passion in their voices, the murderous vigour in their limbs’. Donella, however, also shows herself to be an adept fighter. She blackmails Hugh and he pays for her to train as a doctor. He sends her to Canada, where he once promised to take Arabella. The inequities of marriage is a motif loosely holding the private and public together in the book: the suffragette’s destruction of property is a symbolic attack on what was once a way for a man to own a woman.
It’s not all despair. Amidst the shocking descriptions of force-feeding, a practice which wasn’t restricted to the normal digestive tracts, Close writes witty and humorous dialogue that has the duck, dive and jab of a boxing match between characters. This has been a trademark of her fiction since her first novel Official and Doubtful. In Trust the repartee was a way for male bankers to make sexist jibes, but in A Petrol Scented Spring it is the imprisoned suffragettes who get the best lines, using their wit to provoke and undermine the seemingly indomitable Hugh. There is also the occasional interference by Donella’s bohemian sister Hilda, who goes on to have a riotous lifelong relationship with Argemone. It is a shame more room isn’t made for Argemone, whose first words encapsulate her demeanour: ‘I say, is anyone up for fun?’ Instead, she disappears for long periods and this spiky extravagant figure is reduced to a plot device. Plot, however, is something Close has always controlled with a steady hand. The final intriguing scene takes place in Edinburgh during an air raid in World War Two, where a kind of revelation means one eventually begins to feel a hint of sympathy for Hugh.
At its core, A Petrol Scented Spring is about what individuals will and will not sacrifice to hold on to their ideals. Hugh dedicates his whole life in pursuit of his obstinate and mostly flawed beliefs about madness and marriage. The imprisoned suffragettes are prepared to die for their cause. When Arabella is released after five weeks Hugh is furious and writes an emotionally-charged letter to the prison commission, which also proves that not only can idealists be defeated by history, they can also lose out to their own desperate hearts. As for Donella, she suffers the narrator’s curse and is doomed to be circumvented by the characters who shaped her life.
A Petrol Scented Spring
Sandstone Press, £8.99, ISBN: 9781910124611, PP255