I love history. Maybe it’s the fact that I love people watching or that I tend to be a bit curious about the lives of others. Or maybe it’s the politics and the decision-making that I find interesting. Whatever the reason may be, I loved Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants because it included all of those things.
Follett’s novel follows a few characters who connect throughout the novel from all different countries: England, USA, Russia, Germany. Through these characters, he describes the start and duration of World War I from several perspectives.
Over the years, I have become interested in a few eras and different people in history:
1.) The story Franz Joseph and Sisi
2.) The story of Nicolas and Alexandria
3.) The Russian Revolution
4.) The Suffragettes movement
As you can see from this list (if you have read the book), it is not a surprise that I dove into Fall or Giants with gusto. I couldn’t put the book down!
More recently I have become interested in the Famous Five. As I have mentioned before, I live close to Nellie McClung’s house. Yet I found an interesting connection between Emily Ferguson Murphy and one of the characters in Follett’s novel.
Emily Murphy was a woman who fought passionately for Canadians, and specifically those who couldn’t help themselves. When she moved to Edmonton, Alberta, she became known around town because she would often walk around on Jasper Avenue and see how much people needed help and support from the Government. She wrote several novels. She helped to establish the Victorian Order of Nurses in Alberta (my Grandma was in the Victorian Order of Nurses). She even went as a representative of Canada to a League of Nations meeting on narcotics. She inaugurated several movements for women and children in Edmonton and Alberta (movement for the election of women as school trustees in Alberta, movement for public playgrounds in Edmonton) and either directed or sat on numerous committees, councils, and boards (Sanders, Byrne Hope. Emily Murphy: Crusader. 1945. Pg. 345-348). Yet she was best known for her work in women’s equality.
Murphy recognized inequality in several areas of government and sought to right them. In fact, because of her appeal that women being tried in court should sit before a female judge, Hon. C. W. Cross, Attorney General, appointed Murphy as Canada’s (and the Commonwealth’s) first female magistrate. Yet a pesky lawyer continually argued in her court that she was not actually a ‘person’ and therefore not able to be a magistrate (MacEwan, Grant. Mighty Women: Stories of Western Canadian Pioneers. 1975. Pg. 133).
In Sander’s biography of Murphy, she quotes Murphy as saying: “There is only one thing worse than a guilty custom—and that is a guilty acquiescence” (Pg. 212). Although Murphy is speaking about the drug trade into Canada, her sentiment of passively allowing injustice to happen permeates her decisions and actions. Because of her convictions, Murphy was one of five women who petitioned the government to consider women as ‘persons’ under the BNA Act. With the help of her lawyer brothers, Murphy was able to work with four other women and bring their petition that women should be considered ‘persons’ and therefore able to sit in Senate to the Canadian House of Commons. In a devastating blow, the government denied their petition. That did not stop these women! They took their petition to England and the Privy Council. Murphy when over to London and eventually the Privy Council in London ruled that women are indeed ‘persons’ and should be included in the BNA Act as ‘persons,’ meaning that they could now sit in the Senate and represent Canadians in every way that a man can.
Although Murphy did not sit as a Senator in Canada, she continued to work tirelessly to support and champion women and social reform in Edmonton, Alberta, and Canada.
In Follett’s novel, he writes about a female character, Ethel Williams Leckwith, from a small Welsh town who goes from a housekeeper to a Labour Party M.P. Throughout the novel, Ethel fights for the rights of women. She is a Suffragette. She organizes rallies, meetings, and demonstrations. When women are denied Solider Credit because of ‘questionable behaviour’ while their husbands are off fighting, Ethel goes down to the Solider Credit office and demands that the women not be judged on their behaviour, especially based on hearsay of other women. Eventually, Ethel and her comrades are able to get the woman her Soldier Credit money.
Through the help of Ethel, the newspaper she starts, and the women around her, she is able to get the House of Commons to vote in favour of giving women the right to vote (at first if they are over thirty, married or widowed and then eventually to all women). Her tireless effort to support equal rights, equal pay, and equal treatment allows her to become known in her community and eventually chosen to represent her area of London in the House of Commons.
Follett’s story of WWI has so many exciting, terrifying, intriguing, and interesting moments that it is hard to put the book down. His grasp of the politics of the time shows how much research he did in order to write this book. As a lover of history and as someone who has a general knowledge of WWI I really enjoyed reading Follett’s novel, yet as you can tell the story lines that I enjoyed the most were of the Suffragettes and how they strove to bring equality in a time of uncertainty.
Both the fictional character of Ethel Williams and the real-life Emily Murphy are inspirations. They both fought to have their voices heard. They both pioneered in fields that were typically filled by men. They sacrificed personally in order to bring reform for the greater good. And best of all, they were both able to see and participate in the changes and justice that they sought, one as a magistrate and one as an M.P.
(Here is a link to a video of Emily Murphy’s accomplishments.)
Follett could have easily ignored the women’s story in his novel, yet Fall of Giants truly shows the shift that did take place in the Northern Hemisphere during and after WWI, which includes the changing role of women in the work force, in the home, and in the government.
“Whenever I don’t know whether to fight or not, I fight” (Emily Murphy).
“So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all . . . ” (Galatians 6:9-10a).