My thanks to Aurum Press and NetGalley for a review copy of the book.
Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved Birds tells the story of Margaretta ‘Etta’ Lemon, who worked for around five decades to bring an end to a cruel practice—the slaughter of millions of birds every year, simply for the millinery industry—and who was also a founding member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. But really (and the title is something I will come back to later in this review), it is much more. In fact, the book is the story of the broader campaign that took place to save the birds and to get parliament to ban trade in feathers (of which Etta was a prominent member) as also another powerful campaign that was being run alongside by an equally powerful, and perhaps a woman who stood out more, Emmeline Pankhust, the charismatic leader of the suffragettes. The two movements ran somewhat parallelly and even contrary to each other for while Mrs Lemon sought a ban on plumes (and indeed whole birds) on hats, Mrs Pankurst’s ladies were encouraged to be more fashionable and lady-like which included flaunting these elaborate creations; Mrs Pankurst sought the vote for women while Mrs Lemon opposed it! Etta Lemon and Emmeline Pankhust had roughly similar backgrounds but their inclinations and reactions to fashion, politics, and the Victorian society they belonged to were entirely opposite to one other.
But our story doesn’t really even begin with these formidable ladies. Rather, Boase introduces us to Alice Battershall, a young factory worker, who worked like hundreds of others in skilled and unskilled employments in the feather trade—from cleaning and washing to curling, thickening, and dyeing, among many stages before the plumes were ever affixed to a hat–and, mostly, for a pittance. To these hundreds of poor young women, feathers represented not a living thing (in fact, few had ever had any real contact with birds having lived in the city all of their lives), but certainly a living, ready money (feathers stolen at work), and a symbol of respectability and acceptance. And the work had its own problems—for employment was seasonal and the girls had to find other work when feather work closed after each season.
But the other side of the picture was that the millinery trade led to the massacre (a lot of it excessively cruel, like the egrets who were hunted during their mating/hatching seasons when feathers were at their most beautiful, leaving thousands of chicks to literally starve to death) of millions of birds every year. One estimate that the author mentions is by Frank Chapman which was 5 million birds killed annually in America alone. And it wasn’t just feathers but whole wings or even whole birds affixed to hats in what would certainly look grotesque to us today but was the height of fashion in its day. But fashion demanded it, the shops continued to sell (it was a profitable trade) and the ladies to buy. So, the ladies who set out to protect the birds had a formidable task before them.
And ladies they were. The society’s start can be traced to the individual efforts of some of the ladies, like Etta Lemon herself who sent letters to the women she observed at church wearing these offending creations (they made her shudder, too)—and ultimately to tea parties. A ladies’ tea party may not be viewed too seriously but at a time when women lacked places to meet, two sets of ladies Emily Williamson with her Society for the Protection of Birds in Manchester, and Eliza Phillips with her Fur, Fin and Feather Folk in Croydon (of which Etta Lemon was a part) began their campaigns. Eventually, the two were combined and absorbed by the RSPCA but continued to remain for a while a society run by women. And while it may have been scoffed at by more ‘scientifically minded men’, the women managed to increase their membership manifold, and bring in funds too, though ultimately men too were made members, and they had to look at influential ones for support.
But the fact remains, these were women in a world of men—and were not spared slights or derision but still persisted with their campaign. They had impressive organisational skills (Etta Lemon in particular), and their campaigns included both directly targeting wearers (with pamphlets and such) and even manufacturers, to trying to push through a bill for banning this cruel practice through the influential male members of the society. But politics and compromise were very much a part of the process, for the issue of game birds raised by member Julia Andrews was shut down and Miss Andrews even removed, with the society declaring that its focus would remain the millinery trade. Politics reared its head at other times too, in Mrs Lemon’s later days when she was pushed out of the society she cared about so much.
Alongside, we follow Mrs Pankhurst’s story and the suffragette movement which resorted to violent protest and means to put forth the claim for votes for women; they too faced derision, cruelty, like force feeding when they went on hunger strike in prison or even violence/assault during protests. Mrs Pankhurst’s own interest in fashion and shopping was passed on to her fellow campaigners who were encouraged to look their best, and it was sometimes ladies who were members of both movements who achieved some success in preventing them from wearing feathered hats.
Both movements involved decades of struggle and considerations of politics, fashion and of course economics. And it wasn’t their efforts alone, but also changes in circumstances which ultimately bore fruit.
This was a well-written and excellently researched (even Alice Battershall’s life is well traced) book which proved to be an engrossing read for the most part. I enjoyed following the journey of the two campaigns—their successes and failures, the ways in which they intertwined, and the stories of the two formidable ladies—Etta Lemon and Emmeline Pankhust—who played crucial roles in each (there were many others too, like Winifred Duchess of Portland in the bird campaign; Millicent Fawcett leader of the suffragists; and even Mrs Humphry Ward, prominent among the Anti-suffragists, among many more whose contributions we learn about as well).
What I especially liked about the book was the well-rounded and holistic picture it paints for us—we see the perspectives of the young girls who worked with feathers and for whom they were a symbol of respectability, to the suffragettes like Mrs Pankhust to whom too, these were a symbol of their femininity which was the basis on which they sought the vote; we peep into glamourous boutiques, and also into a hunt for egrets—the hunter thrilled with the money he makes from one trip (as indeed did the traders who interests weighed with politicians for a long enough time to see the plumage bill shelved many times for over a decade); and of course those, like Mrs Lemon who felt for the birds and could not bear to see them adorning the hats of the fashionable ladies of the day, to even Winifred Portland who had to tread a middle way for while she was a passionate animal lover, a vegetarian and hated blood sport, her husband hunted with equal passion, and she had to balance her role in the RSPB with her role as society hostess.
The book was an eye opener for me in many ways; I did know about feathers on hats as a fashion but did not have an idea of the extent of this practice and trade—I didn’t know how many species of wild birds were driven to the brink of extinction, or that the creations had full wings, or even entire birds on them. The thought was so repulsive and off putting (mild words compared to what I felt), but then I realised that this was also a time when people did wear furs too, and with heads and tails attached! I honestly was not aware of the extent of cruelty involved in the practice as well, like the egret hunting I mentioned earlier—and it was these images that served strongly—though the lens of a camera and in the powerful words of Virginia Woolf that did sent a shudder through people, much more than pamphlets and other campaigns could achieve. (And speaking of pictures, I must mention that the images in the book are really high quality which I appreciated a lot.)
Of the suffragettes too, I learnt a lot—especially all they had to go through in their campaigns—the violence and cruelty, the slights and sneers—the victory is a hard won one (which we perhaps don’t appreciate enough). (Also, to tell the truth, I didn’t quite know the difference between suffragettes and suffragists before reading this either).
From these and Boase’s writing, we get a good sense of out two heroines, Etta Lemon and Emmeline Pankhurst—where they came from, what drove them, and their lives, thoughts and ideas which moved in very different directions to each other.
This was a very interesting and enjoyable read overall, but I did have one criticism or complaint and this was the title itself—reading the title and description of the book, I had expected a book focused more on Etta lemon and the movement for the protection of birds; the suffragette movement I’d expected to go into, but only to an extent, but when I found so much of the book devoted to that, while I did enjoy reading the details there were times when I wondered why we were going on such a tangent, and was even slightly losing interest. Later I found that another edition (the hardback) of the book is titled Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather. But this too, I feel doesn’t capture the whole essence of the book—If I had known from the beginning that this was about both ladies and both movements—Etta and Emmeline (like one of the chapters), I think I’d have been able to appreciate it much more when reading.
But a really good and engrossing read otherwise.