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The title of The Call, about a woman scientist who abandons her research work (in chemistry) to be a suffragette, has several meanings – military, feminist, vocational, emotional. Although the novel has been ignored for nearly a hundred years, it is an important, and extremely readable, book.
Like Despised and Rejected, PB No. 126, it starts slowly, almost cautiously, and takes 80 or 100 pages before then shocking the reader with its radicalism. Edith Zangwill (1874–1945) – her husband was the writer Israel Zangwill – chooses to begin with a leisurely and detailed trawl round a house in Lowndes Square, ending up in the heroine’s ‘lab of one’s own’ (the title of a recent book about women scientists). It is clear at once that the domestic detail is a crucial part of The Call.
The novel gets into its stride when Ursula accompanies her mother to Henley (it is the July of 1909), encounters some suffragettes – and is appalled by them. But some months later, by chance, she sits in on a court case involving a prostitute and her nine-year-old daughter who has been sexually assaulted by a client. The leniency of the three-month sentence compared with a twelve-month sentence for a man who has stolen a pair of boots horrifies her. She realises that ‘it was the law that was insane, or rather the lawmakers... The suffragettes were right. There was some connection between such things and the Vote.’
Finally, in November 1910 (we have provided a Publisher’s Timeline at the beginning of the book), she witnesses the police knocking down an elderly woman at a protest and ‘nothing before had ever fired Ursula with such an irresistible passion for Women’s Suffrage, with such a burning faith in the value of militancy.’ But Ursula’s devotion to the suffragette cause means that she must give up her research. She had been/is a chemist, who was good enough to be asked to give a paper at the British Association and used to spend her days at her workbench in her lab: the detailed descriptions of her working life are closely based on the life of Edith Zangwill’s stepmother, Hertha Ayrton (1854–1923), a physicist who became an expert on the electric arc.
What changes things for Ursula is the war. She spends the first few months recovering from the trauma of imprisonment and the terrifying and abusive force-feeding (which is graphically described). Then, in 1915, she returns to her lab to work on a method of extinguishing the liquid fire used by the German troops – and thus helping the war effort (just as Hertha Ayrton had invented the ‘Ayrton fan’); the last third of the novel is about Ursula’s struggle to persuade the military to use her invention at the Front.
Sadly, novels about the war and about votes for women were largely ignored during the 1920s: the former was too raw and the latter ‘too remote to be topical & too recent to be innocuous’ (Edith Zangwill to a friend). Even the theme of a woman scientist in a man’s world was rather remote for the average novel-reader. Yet, as Elizabeth Day writes: ‘The Call gives a rare insight into a woman’s domestic life in the first two decades of the 20th century ... domestic details about running a house are, most unusually, given their due alongside Ursula’s political actions, elegantly making the point that a woman’s work behind closed doors is just as worthy of our attention as what goes on in the wider world.’ By making political points in the guise of a ‘woman’s novel’, the author stunningly reveals her commitment to feminism.’