Elizabeth Lord’s Give Me Tomorrow begins in 1909, when Eveline Fenton, a young woman from the East End, spontaneously joins a suffragette protest march. She’s greeted by another young woman, Constance Mornington, the middle-class daughter of a Harley Street physician. And so begins a friendship that will take them through first loves, marriages, pregnancies, rejections, motherhood and ultimately the valley of the shadow of war.
It’s a book that, despite the suggestions of the blurb, is not so much about the suffragette movement as contextualised by it. Thanks to that proto-feminism rippling through the background of Eveline’s and Constance’s lives, it becomes ever more apparent that those lives are almost completely circumscribed by the needs and whims of men: husbands, lovers, fathers, returning soldiers, politicians. Constance is disowned by her domineering father for marrying the wrong person; her mother and sister go along with it, leaving her utterly cast out from her family. Eveline becomes pregnant by a rich rake who has no intention of marrying her; her only chance at a decent future for herself and her unborn child is to marry a man she doesn’t really love. The men in their lives effectively control their financial and social standing; so even a loving relationship with a man is never fully equal.
The novel, then, is confined to what has been women’s milieu for time out of mind: the ordinary everyday. Eveline and Constance are very much ordinary women. Though they attend suffragette meetings and marches, they’re not organisers or leaders; though Eveline serves a few days in jail for her suffragette activities, her experience is matched by hundreds of other women. And, as the book goes on, their involvement is increasingly mediated by worries about their social positions: who will look after the children, if they’re arrested? What will their husbands think? Who will put dinner on the table if they’re out at meetings? The novel is full of such mundane concerns, especially after the onset of the First World War: with their husbands gone off to fight, how will they pay the rent? Politics is something that happens to these women, not the other way around. Give Me Tomorrow is about the one power women have been granted down the ages: the power of going on, of taking tomorrow as it comes, of holding families together as best they can.
It’s important work, this. I’m not convinced that it’s really done very well here, though. Eveline and Constance’s relationship needs to carry the book: Lord’s trying to say that this is the one equal relationship either of them will ever have. But I wasn’t convinced by it. It begins, realistically enough, in mutual misunderstanding: Eveline thinks Constance’s money gives her the greater freedom; Constance thinks Eveline’s lack of money makes her more free. (Neither, of course, is correct, oppression being intersectional.) This misunderstanding, evolving into various forms, is a thread that runs through the book; and if it were just that, a thread, I think Give Me Tomorrow would have worked much better than it does.
Put simply, Constance and Eveline just don’t seem to like each other all that much. They are constantly jealous and resentful of each other, always censoring themselves in front of the other. I get that jealousy and resentment can be an important facet in female friendship, and that it’s important to write fully nuanced relationships. But I felt that we only ever see jealousy and resentment; never the kinship, the sisterhood, that supposedly unites them. That’s a major problem in a book that’s about sisterhood.
It also has a problem with telling rather than showing: the emotional beats of the narrative feel clumsy and wooden, and Lord has a tendency to infodump historical events, especially once we hit the war years. Such over-explaining takes the focus away from those tightly-observed domestic concerns, which is a shame.
I am glad, on the whole, that I gave Give Me Tomorrow a try: it was an interesting step into a genre I don’t read very often, if at all. I just don’t think it was, perhaps, the best example of that genre.