Longlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
I could not let the 2018 UK spring pass unremarked. It has been wonderful: sunny, bright, warm, cheerful. Fabulous! I decided to mark it with a seasonal read. Ironically Ajay Close’s petrol-scented spring is neither sunny, bright, warm, nor cheerful. Fabulous nonetheless!
And ideal for those wishing to commemorate the centenary of female suffrage in the UK, because this novel charts the sufferings of the suffragettes in pre-WWI Britain, Particularly the hunger-striking suffragettes, who were sent to Scotland, to Perth, where they were in for a shock. Prior to this point, they had been hunger-striking in the full knowledge that the the provisions of the Cat and Mouse Act allowed temorary release should they become too unwell. On arrival in Perth they were shocked to find that the authorities had changed tact, and had endorsed force feeding.
Moreover in Hugh Ferguson Watson they had a doctor prepared to carry out their orders.
In Arabella Scott, the suffragettes had a heroine with a will to resist with every fibre of her body.
In both, Ajay Close has a cat and mouse act of an altogether different ilk. Because Watson doesn’t want his “patient” to starve to death, doesn’t want to force feed. But he will, if he has to. Can he persuade her psychologically to give up her hunger-strike? And in this process do their feelings for each other develop beyond doctor and patient?
The question is posed by the narrator, Donella, Ferguson’s wife whom he married a couple of years after Arabella Scott’s incarceration. Their marriage was not a success; Donella’s dreams of happiness turning to dust mid-way through her wedding day when Watson suddenly froze on her. Not that he explained why he refused to consummate the marriage. It takes months, perhaps even a couple of years (I’m not entirely sure of the timeline) before Donella discovers the reason, by which time her attitude has hardened sufficiently that she refuses to do what is needed to out the problem to rest.
There’s a lot of bloody-mindedness in this novel, and a lot of suffering because of it. And I’m not just talking about that inflicted by force-feeding. There’s no shying away from the gruelling details here, so this is not for the squeamish, And yet, no-one is entirely innocent and my sympathies are entirely mixed. When merged with the often confused feelings and motives of the protagonists, this makes for quite a complex read. One which has me asking questions about the suffragette past I had never previously thought to ask …. and surprising myself with the answers.
This is a thought-provoking read. Only one flaw. Donella is writing from some 50 years after her marriage, still seeking to resolve her issues. The transitions back and forth through time weren’t always successful for me. I was sometimes lost in time, taking a couple of pages to get my bearings, particularly as new characters appeared with very little introduction.
That aside, A Petrol-Scented Spring is an excellent example of historical fiction. It introduced me to characters and events I had never heard of, put flesh and blood (spit and sinew even) on details that would never appear in a non-fictional text and entertained even as it educated. Of course, you have to take Close’s reasoning on the Watson’s failed marriage with a pinch of salt. The whys and wherefoes are not recorded in the archives. But she has provided an entirely plausible explanation to fill a gap left in the record and that’s exactly what good historical fiction should do.