Iszi Lawrence’s debut children’s book The Unstoppable Letty Pegg is a fast-moving historical adventure that describes the fight for women’s suffrage as it really was. We put a series of questions to her about her book.
Can you sum up The Unstoppable Letty Pegg for us?
Lettice Pegg finds it hard to make friends. She’s an only child with a Mum who is a suffragette and a Dad who is a policeman. The protest for women’s rights to vote spills into Lettice’s homelife and when she sneakily follows her mum, she finds herself in the middle of The Black Friday (Nov 1910) riot. She’s rescued by Edith Garrud, the real life suffragette who taught Mrs Pankhurst’s bodyguard Jiu jitsu. She trains with the suffragettes and she learns to face her fears, to overcome her shyness and control her impulsivity. Only then will she know how to help her family and find out who her friends really are.
You’re a comedian and history presenter. What made you decide to write a children’s book?
What is quite strange is that I’ve had a lot of grown ups saying they like this book, and it is true… I don’t really write for kids, I write for myself. It is true that I want kids to enjoy it so I make sure it is accessible. But the thing is, when writing historical fiction it helps to have a child as your protagonist. From our modern perspective, the past is new and alien. So when your hero is a kid you can explore the world with their fresh eyes. It makes you more part of their story and somehow makes the world seem more tangible. Because it is all new for them too.
As for why I wanted to write a book, well, I’ve always written for fun but this was the first book I’ve ever sent to a publisher. It was quite scary!
Why did you choose to make the Suffragette movement the subject of your book?
Because we have a really skewed idea of what it was. We see it as a serious and noble movement… and it was in some ways… but in others it was bonkers! We have a weird tradition of turning women of the past into demure saints who meekly ask for things, suffer a lot and then society eventually takes notice and randomly grants them a ‘win’. It is totally false. Not only did they bomb places, set fire to post boxes and smash up shop windows they also held comedy sketch shows, organised events in swimming pools and made pop up jail cells for the public to experience what life was like for them in Holloway Prison.
People might not know that suffragettes knew and practised Jiu jitsu. When did you discover this, and why did you make it a feature in your book?
I was interviewing Dr Naomi Paxton for my podcast The Z List Dead List (for grown ups) and she told me all about Edith Garrud and the jitsuffragettes. It was after learning about Edwardian Women doing martial arts that I decided to give Jiu jitsu a go myself with the Jiu Jitsu Foundation. It was THEN that I appreciated how life changing it was for me and how life changing it must have been for politically powerless women a century ago.
How much research did you have to do for the book? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
Yeah, how violent the Edwardian era was! It wasn’t just the suffragettes, there were anarchists, terrorists and armed gangs… I read lots of newspapers of the day as well as history books about education. I was also amused by the ‘progressive’ attitude to schooling. There were outdoor schools. In London. Wet, rainy, industrial, London. There are pictures of all these miserable children having to have afternoon naps on iron beds, under tarpaulin in the chilly drizzle.
What’s your favourite scene or scenes in the book and why?
I really like the bit where Mabel ‘helps’ in the Prison… the valentines card writing also is a favourite… but it has to be the Nativity scene. I’d have loved to have been there to see that. Basically, I like the funny bits.
Letty’s grandmother (her mother’s mother) is wealthy and privileged, while her father – a policeman – is working class. Why did you choose to make them so different?
I wanted to highlight how limited your prospects were, not just by your race or even your gender, but by your social rank. If you look at racism and sexism in Britain back then (and still to this day) it is heavily influenced by class. I included the suffragette Princess Sophia Singh in my book partly for this reason. She was a brave suffragette of the age. She was English but her father was from India and mother was from German and Abyssian decent… and Sophia was Queen Victoria’s Goddaughter. She is upper class but she is not white and it confuses the bigotry of Lettice’s Grandmother not knowing how to treat her. I hope this helps demonstrate how draft both racism and class is.
Will you write more children’s books? Will there be any more adventures for Letty Pegg?
Fingers crossed. I’d love to write more.
The Unstoppable Letty Pegg is published by Bloomsbury, 978-1472962478, £6.99 pbk