The Call (1924) by Edith Ayrton Zangwill: Two Recent Editions
Volume 7, Cycle 1
For many interwar writers, the women’s suffrage movement was a force as powerful as the war itself in shaping modernity. In her undeservedly forgotten novel The Call (1924), Edith Ayrton Zangwill takes up the history of both suffrage militancy and the war, chronicling their impact on women’s professional, political, and personal lives. The novel tells the story of a young chemist, Ursula Winfield, who is initially more absorbed in questions of science than in questions of women’s rights. She becomes convinced of the urgency of the cause after her eyes are opened to some harsh realities, including the light legal penalties for sexual assault and child trafficking. The Call movingly explores Ursula’s political commitments, but it is more than a suffrage novel. It is equally invested in exploring the challenges of a woman breaking into a male-dominated profession: those moments when Ursula comes, in her words, “crash[ing] into some absurd artificial sex barrier—as though my work wore petticoats!” With its winding plot and well-developed minor characters, the novel also explores the value of domestic labor, women’s war work, pacifism, and the conflicting demands of career and personal life.
Out of print since its original publication, The Call was rediscovered and made available to scholars in 2007 in the valuable six-volume anthology, Women’s Suffrage Literature, edited by Katharine Cockin, Glenda Norquay, and Sowon S. Park. Two new standalone editions—published by Persephone Books in 2018 and Bloomsbury Academic in 2020—have now made it possible to study this rich, overlooked novel more deeply and to teach it in the modernist classroom. In my experience, students respond well to the novel’s wry humor and its combination of feminist concerns.
The Call documents events that were still fresh in memory when it was published in 1924, taking stock of the movement after a limited franchise had been won. Some feminist writers, like Cicely Hamilton, revised their view of militancy after the Great War: Hamilton’s 1919 novel William, an Englishman—another Persephone title—depicts militant rhetoric and tactics as farcical compared with the horrors of the front. In contrast, Zangwill implies that militancy was a necessary means of securing women’s political rights. Although her protagonist remains skeptical of some of the tactics in which she participates, such as searing “votes for women” on a golf course green, Zangwill frames the protests, hunger strikes, and force-feeding suffragettes endured as honorable sacrifices. Her novel presents devotion to the cause as the female counterpart to “the call” of military service.
The novel’s protagonist is modeled on Zangwill’s stepmother, Hertha Ayrton, a pioneer in electrical engineering and a stalwart supporter of the suffrage movement. Ursula’s struggles to be taken seriously in a male profession parallel those of her prototype. Despite her expertise on the electric arc (a technology widely used for public lighting at the time), as a married woman, Ayrton was denied membership by the Royal Society, and she had to fight the male establishment to get them to take seriously her life-saving invention, a fan for expelling poison gas from the trenches. Like Ayrton, Ursula is belittled and thwarted in her work as a scientist.
In her thoughtful introduction to the Persephone edition, novelist and journalist Elizabeth Day fleshes out this biographical context, elaborating on the details of both Zangwill’s and Hertha Ayrton’s careers. She includes relevant details of suffrage history that dovetail with the editor’s brief timeline of suffrage events, usefully keyed to the novel’s action. Her introduction highlights a feature of the novel that my students appreciate: it passes the Bechdel test avant la lettre. “Throughout The Call,” Day writes, “Edith Zangwill puts female solidarity, friendship and mutual respect on a footing equal to any kind of conventional romantic narrative arc between men and women” (The Call, xiv).
Like earlier suffrage fiction, The Call includes an obligatory romance, forcing Ursula to choose between the cause and her soldier fiancé, who disapproves of suffrage militancy. The romance plot is sweet enough, though it sometimes feels hackneyed, as when Ursula swoons into her lover’s arms—and don’t get me started about the surprise ending! But I agree with Day that it is refreshingly sidelined for much of the narrative. Ursula’s passion for her work often overrides her love interest, as when she is comically “enraptured” by her lover “for as much as half a minute” before returning her focus to her scientific apparatus (The Call, 358). The mother-daughter relationship is also interestingly developed, as is the relationship between the minor character, Charlotte Smee, and her sister.
The dove-grey spines of Persephone Books will be familiar to many PrintPlus readers, given the publisher’s mission of rediscovering neglected twentieth-century works by women writers, such as E. M. Delafield, Winifred Holtby, Dorothy Whipple, and Cicely Hamilton. The Call is a welcome addition to their list. Reflecting the thoughtful, understated aesthetic choices of these editions, The Call’s endpaper is a print of a floral fabric pattern manufactured for Liberty in 1912. The publisher notes that the pattern, entitled “Poppyland,” anticipates the iconic flower of World War I, while the subtle color scheme (faded purple, white, and green) evokes the colors of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union. The Persephone website lists the price of The Call as £14 plus £2.50 shipping in the U.K. Although an increase in international shipping rates has raised the price for U.S. readers to $50 including shipping, at this writing, the Persephone edition can be purchased from Amazon for $25. These relatively affordable editions make it possible to incorporate lesser-known works by women writers into the classroom.
The Bloomsbury edition is not priced within reach of individuals (at this writing, $180 is the discounted price), but as a scholarly edition it is a valuable resource for teaching and research that is well worth ordering for one’s university or institutional library. Capably edited by early career scholar Stephanie J. Brown, the Bloomsbury edition includes an introduction, endnotes, excerpts from reviews, four critical essays, and an extensive bibliography of suggested readings—including primary, secondary, print, and online resources on women’s suffrage literature, new woman literature, and early twentieth-century women’s history. Brown’s introduction usefully distills details about the novel’s composition as well as biographical background that is deepened in the critical essays. Her informative notes clarify historical, cultural, and geographical references, with especially rich detail on the history of suffrage activism, which is no surprise given her record of scholarship in this field.
The critical essays form the centerpiece of the edition, situating the novel within debates on interwar feminism, suffrage history, Zangwill’s oeuvre, and modernist and feminist pedagogy. They include two essays adapted from previous published pieces, by Brown and Meri-Jane Rochelson, and two original essays by established scholars of modern feminist print culture, Barbara Green and Maroula Joannou. Rochelson traces feminist themes across the five novels Zangwill published from 1905 to 1928, arguing that while The Call is her most overtly political work, this fiction shares an interest in women’s relationships with one another and in their professional and creative fulfillment. Joannou provides a detailed overview of suffrage history especially useful to students and scholars new to the field. She contextualizes the novel in relation to other suffrage fiction as well as propaganda posters, three of which are reproduced in her essay. Brown shrewdly reads the novel in relation to its interwar moment, when women were being driven out of professional life and egalitarian feminism was at a “low ebb” (“The Call’s Interwar View of Women’s Suffrage,” Edith Ayrton Zangwill’s The Call, 267). Given its focus on the political and professional obstacles its protagonist faces, Brown argues that The Call serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of excluding women from postwar public life. Finally, Green’s essay, “Teaching Suffrage,” is loaded with practical, concrete ideas for instructors about how to incorporate the novel into a unit or how to incorporate suffrage literature more generally into courses on gender and modernity, periodical culture, feminist theory, and modernism. She discusses opportunities to use suffrage literature to think about several issues: periodization, by putting suffrage literature in conversation with fin de siècle New Woman fiction; canonization, by juxtaposing movement fiction like The Call with modernist works like Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End; intersectionality in first-wave feminism, by engaging with working-class memoir; among others. I left this essay energized and eager to implement Green’s ideas in my classroom; it should be of interest to those new to suffrage literature as well as those who, like me, regularly teach it.
Like Persephone Books, the Modernist Archives Series, of which the Bloomsbury edition is part, is dedicated to publishing “hitherto unavailable or neglected primary materials for a wider readership” (“Editorial Preface to Modernist Archives,” Edith Ayrton Zangwill’s The Call, viii). Together, these editions make it possible for students and scholars to rediscover interesting and compelling novels like The Call. This project of rediscovery in turn puts pressure on limited definitions of modernism, calling for scholars to reconceptualize the boundaries of the field.