A sense of duty

One of the first things I had to sort out when I started writing was what really motivates my heroine, Charlotte. Why did she get involved with the suffragettes? And why was it so difficult for her to leave the movement?

I started by thinking about what it would take for a woman in modern times to devote herself to a case, sacrificing comfort, dignity, and reputation. I considered protest movements such as animal rights, Greenham Common, abortion. I then thought about total life-style changes; volunteering in low-resource countries,  dedicating oneself to a sport – even going to university.

I came to the conclusion that embracing these “causes” would require both intellectual buy-in and emotional commitment. Charlotte needs to understand the suffrage cause (and to be given opportunities in the story to demonstrate this understanding) but, to add human interest, she has to be shown to have some emotional investment. If she does not have this, why is she so bereft when she leaves London?

I then considered the sense of identity and belonging that accompanies these causes; the power of a common goal, of being one in a beleaguer minority, of shared danger – and shared fun. Reading around the subject, I discovered that this was, indeed, so for some suffragettes. For many of the women, joining the movement gave them previously only dreamt of opportunities for personal freedom. For others, the camaraderie was reminiscent of boarding school – or, for a few (including Charlotte) college life. For some, the cause offered an outlet for time and energy not on offer elsewhere in a society when marriage was seen as the only way of escaping the stifling boredom of life as a women. In other words, being a suffragette offered an alternative (and very attractive) identity.

These thoughts took me so far but I still felt I wasn’t quite getting to the root of Charlotte’s commitment. I then I listened to Jeremy Paxman’s brilliant book Great Britain’s War. Early in the book, Paxman asks what drove men into the army and, once there, what kept them fighting year after year. He answers his own question at length by describing the sense of duty that permitted throughout all levels of society in the early 20th century.

Duty is a hard concept for us nowadays to understand. We think of duty to family and society, of being on duty as a nurse or policeman – but these feelings hardly scratch the service of what “duty” meant to the men and women 100 years ago.  Duty to them meant the subjugation of self into the good of society, in a way that we can hardly grasp nowadays with our demands for human rights and freedom of personal expression. (Perhaps, dare I say it, the nearest example is that of communities of religious extremists?)

Once I understood the concept of duty, everything else fell into place. My earlier musings on identity and intellectual enthusiasm are still valid but placing Duty above all else suddenly made sense of the motivation and choices not only of Charlotte but of all my other characters as well.

About Hannah

Newbie novelist, sometime midwife, lazy mountaineer, creative gardener. Writing first novel: a Great War romantic thriller of suffragettes and soldiers; duty, courage, and the pain of love.
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