An incredibly moving story of the past women of Bristol who paved the way for the women of today to work, vote, and walk the streets.
Christina Hollis captures life as a woman during the Victorian period in Bristol, she tells the tales of women of middle class backgrounds, to women forced to workhouses. This certainly isn’t a book if you’re looking for a bunch of law abiding, meek, innocent women – indeed quite the opposite. What Hollis does so well is fling the reader to a captivating story of loss and unjust poverty, women working to death to feed their children – to women who were criminals and murderers. It is in fact an honest, raw insight into the women before us.
Sitting amongst sunbathers, footballers and dog walkers, I lay on the Downs in Clifton in view of the suspension bridge and the gorge to delve into the lives of the women who paved the way before me. The sun was hot against my bare arms and legs, and I began reading. Within the first few extracts, I was thrown into the story of Clifton Downs very different to the one I was living, it was a world unfamiliar and uncomfortable. But that is the utter brilliance of this book, you could sit down anywhere in Bristol and at some point you’ll find yourself in the same place 100 years ago, it’s haunting and dark and there’s a feeling that you can’t escape it. The description of the mistreatment of women was sometimes difficult to digest, Hollis captures the loneliness and despair in a way that makes you want to reach into the book, it’s a desperation that can never been relieved.
It’s dark, it’s depressing, it’s sometimes funny. It’s a reminder to keep persevering and fighting. These women before us were made of strong stuff, resilient, daring and brave they fought for women in Bristol today so we could go to work, so we could vote, so we could walk through the streets unaccompanied by a man. And there is a rebellious tone in Hollis’s voice, nearing the end of the book there’s hope, a small spark and it picks up a little bit of pace. We’re reminded of the performers hailing from Bristol and their international fame and success. In fact, with such comparisons to the beginning of the book you start to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride.
It’s made me look at the place I live in a completely different light, Harbourside, where I enjoy socialising with friends has now changed, where I feel I understand another layer to it. I understand what it took for me to sit outside in my t-shirt and shorts and order a glass of wine on a summer’s evening. My fundamental rights were built here, and Hollis did a fantastic job of reminding me. Although it did not cover the story of all women of all backgrounds, it’s an excellent read for those like me who don’t feel like they know enough about the women before us.
Originally published on bristolwomensvoice.org.uk