I love fiction, and perhaps best of all I love stories set in institutions. Especially women’s institutions, and especially in the past. I thrill to books about closed communities, with their intense relationships, their special rules, their sense of being worlds apart and worlds unto themselves. My PhD was on fiction set in girls’ schools and colleges, and my work in progress is about a working girls’ hostel, but you could add to that a obsession with convents, hospitals (Call The Midwife scores twice here) and of course prisons. And I am not alone. The success of dramas such as Orange Is The New Black testifies to an abiding fascination with women who break the rules and how society deals with them.
My own first memories of being politically aware involve prisons. I remember the IRA hunger strikes of 1981, and very shortly afterwards seeing women from Greenham Common being sent to prison. This coincided with my learning about suffragette prisoners in the 1910s, so I always knew that prisons were complex spaces. As a student and later as a writer I have spent time working inside prisons, and know that they are places bristling with stories, often harsh and horrifying, always reflecting the world outside as well inside their walls.
So when I heard about Caitlin Davies’ forthcoming Bad Girls, a history of Holloway Prison, some time before publication, I was really excited about it. Because even more than fiction I love social history, especially the history of women’s experience. Sometimes when I feel a bit storied-out I reach for social history as a kind of palate-cleanser. I knew this book was going to tick a lot of my boxes, and when it arrived I was almost scared to start reading it; I had invested so much interest and expectation in it. I’d also rashly agreed to review it for this blog before I even started reading it.
But I needn’t have worried. A quick glance at the contents page was enough to reassure me that this was very much my kind of book, with chapters on subjects ranging from Victorian baby farmers to spies in World War Two, and of course a detailed and horrifying section on the treatment of suffragettes. There are also sections covering sex and relationships, medical matters, and the changing regime at Holloway. The book is comprehensive and thoroughly researched, with a successful balance between telling the overarching factual story of Holloway as an institution and exploring some of the individual characters and events who found themselves incarcerated – or dependent on Holloway for their livelihood. It is dense with detail but always readable and engaging.
Davies writes fascinatingly about the women who worked as warders, and the changing demands of that role from Victorian times until more or less the present day. (Holloway closed in 2016.) I was surprised to learn that many of the wardresses were in fact sympathetic to the cause of suffragette prisoners, though this sympathy was not encouraged, and in fact the opposite was suggested in the press. As Davies says, ‘The press preferred to portray them in opposition to the suffragettes, for… a prison full of inmates and wardresses who wanted the vote was a frightening prospect.’
The book raises important questions about what constitutes crime and punishment, and the extent to which this is determined by changing social mores. Women are particularly vulnerable to this, as their crimes and misdemeanours are sometimes less clear-cut than male crime, and very prone to shifting notions of morality. I had imagined that the prison regime would have been harshest in the nineteenth century, growing gradually more humane, but the truth is more complex than that.
Bad Girls joins my library of non-fiction about women’s experiences in the past, and I know I’ll return to it many times. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in social history, especially women’s history.