Finding the real Emily Wilding Davison
- Credit: Archant
For many people Emily Wilding Davison was a passionate suffragette who committed suicide by throwing herself under the King’s horse on Derby Day 1913.
Now, a new play Emily: The Making of a Militant Suffragette, created in East Anglia, aims to turn Emily from an idealised icon into a real woman. The play, by the Cambridge Devised Theatre Company, written by Ros Connelly, is produced by former Bury Theatre Royal artistic director Colin Blumenau and directed by Kath Burlinson, from Great Finborough, near Stowmarket.
All three were drawn together by the extraordinary story behind the woman who created one of the most talked about moments in 20th century British history when she stepped out onto the racecourse at Epsom. It was an act which shocked the nation and drew attention to the whole debate surrounding women’s suffrage.
Whether or not Emily Davison intended to commit suicide remains a matter of fierce debate but according to Kath Burlinson is not really relevant. What is important is that she felt compelled to do something about a situation which she felt was intrinsically unjust.
“Personally, I don’t think she was trying to kill herself that day at The Derby but she did realise that there was a risk of that. I believe she was trying to make a statement rather than kill herself. Emily was carrying the Suffragette flag and she was there to attach the flag to the King’s horse – therefore effectively petitioning the King. Having the King’s horse cross the finish line with the suffragette colours attached would have delivered a huge message to the powers that be.”
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Producer Colin Blumenau came on board after he witnessed the play’s effect on an audience in a small village hall during an early try out for the play. He said that although the events happened 100 years ago, it was clear they still had a powerful influence on modern audiences.
“I got involved because the performance I attended was full of middle aged to older ladies and they were really gripped by what they saw. It wasn’t a case of: ‘Isn’t this nice?’ These women were really concerned about what was happening in this play. Their response told me that this was an important piece of history and they themselves weren’t that far removed from the events depicted – just one or two generations, and it was clear it really resonated with them.”
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Colin said that he is thrilled that Emily: The Making of a Militant Suffragette is being staged at his old home Bury’s Theatre Royal and he hopes that the play will also attract younger audiences who, perhaps, don’t know Emily’s story and will see what it took for women to get the vote.
Kath said that the more they explored Emily Davison’s background the more fascinating she became.
“Emily Wilding Davison is one of those women who history has judged is important because she made a difference. The play is very much about what made Emily into the kind of woman she was.
“It follows the story of this very intelligent young woman who was studying for a degree at Royal Holloway when her father died. After his death, they realised that he was in a bad financial situation and she was unable to pay the university fees. So we start with her at that age and then follow her as she tries to earn a living and continue her education.
“She then hears Sylvia Pankhurst speak at a rally in Hyde Park which begins the raising of awareness which gradually develops into militant activism.
“Emily was studying English at Royal Holloway but she did take further degrees elsewhere. She became a governess so she could save money to complete her studies and she ended up having two first class degrees.”
Kath said that in many ways Emily was an enigma. She was a very intelligent woman, who wrote articulately about the cause of women’s suffrage but she was also willing to go to extremes.
“While in prison, in order to alert the public to the forced feeding that was going on, she had deliberately tried to throw herself down a set of metal stairs. It was a kind of martyrdom-type action designed to bring attention to the cause. She did have that wild side to her character.”
But, like Kath, Colin doesn’t believe that she went to the races intending to kill herself. “If you look at the footage it is very clear that she is not trying to throw herself under the horse, she is trying to grab the reigns and tie the Suffragette colours to the horse. And that’s when it all went wrong.
“If anyone knows anything about horses, you know that if you want to throw yourself under a horse, you throw yourself under a horse, you don’t trying and wrestle it first. Why would you? And, of course, she bought a return ticket and some of the evidence points to her making a political point rather than trying to do herself in.”
This is backed up by the fact that she possessed a return railway ticket and was planning to go to Paris to visit her nephew shortly after the races. She was also a highly religious woman to whom suicide would have been unthinkable.
“Today you wouldn’t associate radical politics with Christian beliefs, but what was interesting for us was to discover that in the Edwardian era that was not uncommon.
“Emily devoutly believed in both her faith and the cause of women’s suffrage. She believed that there was an inevitability about the suffrage movement and they would triumph. It was God’s will that women would be represented.”
Colin added that she was fond of the grand gesture which she demonstrated on the night of the 1911 census when she squirrelled herself away in a small broom cupboard in the Palace of Westminster so she could say a woman was in occupation at the House of Commons on census night.
The play’s development was a very collaborative process with writer Ros Connelly, actress Elizabeth Crarer and Kath Burlinson carrying out improvised devising sessions before Ros went away to put pen to paper.
“Ros was very keen that we worked out the physical challenges that there would be in the piece. She had done a huge amount of research. She had done a lot of reading both about Emily and the period – in fact we all had. We went through a process where we devised for a few days and then Ros went away to put it down on paper.
“We looked at moments that we thought should be in there, key moments in the radicalisation of this young woman and key life events. We create a portrait of a woman who was willing to make these radical gestures. It uses lots of physical theatre vocabulary to tell a very moving story and a very militant story about a woman who really believed in what she was doing. She believed in it enough to undergo the force-feeding while on hunger strike. And this happened on numerous occasions. We wanted to find an innovative physical language for the show. It’s not just a monologue.
“The play also raises questions about the role of women today and the state’s reaction and response towards militancy and activism in modern society.
It ends on the day that she sets out for Epsom.”
n Emily: The Making of a Militant Suffragette is at Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal on Thursday April 3.