Today is the day that I part company with Kate Frye – at least in a physical sense.
Waiting collection in the hall are the 18 boxes that hold her extensive diary that runs from the late 1890s to 1958, her notebooks containing lists of all the plays she saw and concerts she attended (at least from the 1890s to 1914), the books in which, as a teenager, she wrote at length her critique of books read, her notebook listing the names of all her dolls – and there were very many – and who had given each one to her, her photographs – covering the 1880s to the 1950s – her family letters, flyers relating to her father’s parliamentary career, and the numerous plays she wrote.
After 7 years in my care Kate is finding a new – and, I hope, permanent – home in the Archive of Royal Holloway College. There her diaries and associated archive will be available to anyone who wants to understand what it was like to be a woman living through the last couple of decades of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. I am sure Kate would be delighted to rest in a seat of higher learning. One of her great regrets was that she did not receive a decent education: ‘I do not understand why I was born if I wasn’t to be educated’ she wrote in her diary in 1914.
When I brought home a carload of dripping wet boxes packed with Kate’s life-long diary and laid them out on the kitchen floor to dry (for they had been stored in an extremely damp cellar) I had no idea that she would take over my life. From associated ephemera I could see that this diarist, Kate Parry Frye, had had some association with the suffrage campaign but it was only once I started reading that I realised what a unique view she gave. Unsullied by hindsight this was a contemporary account like no other of what it was like to work as an organiser for the constitutional suffrage campaign.
And out of this came a book Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary (see here for details). It is a salutary corrective to a popularly-held idea that the suffrage campaign was all chaining oneself to railings, throwing stones, falling under horses, or being forcibly fed. Kate’s account is equally heroic in its way – travelling from town to town with no cheerful companion to share the adventure, having to find yet another set of digs and then fitting in with the peculiarities of each, braving the locals to find a chairman/woman for a meeting, organizing a printer, a bill poster, possibly the police if the meeting was likely to be rowdy. And then worrying if the speaker would turn up, would be heard if she did, if an audience would turn out, and worrying what to do if the local youth disrupted the meeting. And so it went on, month after month. Kate relates it all, day by day. We can be there with her.
Obviously I read far more of the diary than the suffrage years in order to get the background to Kate’s campaigning years and was then delighted to be given the opportunity by ITV to write the story of Kate’s entire life. For Kate, played by Romola Garai (whose voice I now hear as I read Kate’s words), had played a small part in an ITV feature to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War – The Great War: The People’s Story. The result was Kate Parry Frye: the long life of an Edwardian actress and suffragette (see here for details – you can read Kate’s life for a mere £1.19 – what good value!). For, yes, in her ’20s Kate had fulfilled her ambition and taken to the stage.. ..another story to be told among so many others packed into one life…the cradle to grave story. Indeed I’ve stalked Kate’s life and seen the place where she was born, the the house where she grew up, the digs she stayed in, and have stood by her grave.
Way back in the 1960s, while I was at university studying history and politics, there was no kind of book I liked better than an autobiography whose subject had had a Victorian or Edwardian upbringing. Books such as Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, or Emily Lutyens’ Blessed Girl, or Mary Clive, Christmas with the Savages, or Molly Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s. It’s extraordinary to think that we are as far away – or as close – now to the 1960s as the 1960s were to the Edwardian period. For surely there is less difference between a 1960s and a 2010s childhood (apart from electronic gadgetry) than there was between 1910 and 1960?
Anyway, Kate’s diary gives a peephole into a late-Victorian childhood – in a family that was hoping to be upwardly socially mobile. Kate, even as a young girl, innocently comments on what we can see as gradations of the class system within her extended family. The Fryes finances proved to be desperately insecure – and so Kate experienced both what appears to be careless wealth and then grinding poverty – all the while having to keep up appearances. As the years go by, the lines harden. As an elderly woman she returns to All Saints Road in north Kensington and marvels that as a child she lived there, in a flat above her father’s shop.
And so it goes on ….I hope Kate’s life will provide a wealth of interest to some fortunate researchers. And, by the way, her published play, Cease Fire! – is set on the Western Front in the hour before the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Wouldn’t it be just the thing to include in a centenary commemoration?