The Courage Game

The Courage Game book cover on a book and tablet

Read an Excerpt from The Courage Game…

Buy The Courage Game

ISBN: 9781800464513
eISBN: 9781800469884
Publisher: Matador/Troubador

From the Back Cover

Gladys grows up in a large family, convinced she is the odd one out, especially compared with pretty Rita, the sister closest to her. Then elder brother Jim invents a new game he calls the Courage Game, in which all seven of the children will be tested for their ability to keep a stiff upper lip.

Little does she know she’ll recall this game years later, comparing his little hand-made badges to those handed out by the W.S.P.U., the Suffragettes. The poverty of Ireland in the 1890s is capped by the terrible conditions of the Birmingham slums where she first works as a teacher.

Heartsick at the hardship she sees all around her, she’s driven to change it, but only the Pankhursts seem to offer any hope of a woman’s voice being heard – providing they win the right to vote, that is. Enthusiastically, Gladys throws herself in, juggling her job, her burgeoning love life and her work for the suffragettes. But how long can one woman keep walking such a line without losing her balance?

What would YOU be prepared to sacrifice for some thing you passionately believe in?

Gladys sacrifices everything: the job she loves as a teacher, her love-life, her close-knit family, and even her health.

Reviews of The Courage Game

This is the best novel I’ve read about the Suffragettes … It’s a compelling page-turner which really reveals their uncertainties, split loyalties, determination, sacrifices and suffering… It’s carefully researched. The accounts of forcible feeding and its long-term after-effects are graphic and shocking… But one of the many things I like about this novel is that every character and situation is presented in a balanced way … lots of decent, if sometimes misguided and misunderstood human beings inhabit the pages. Nothing in this long, readable novel is black and white … Everything here is gloriously multi-dimensional. And I learned a lot.

Susan Elkin, Ink Pellet

…Jeni Whittaker has pulled off a difficult feat in telling a powerful and wholly convincing story based on fact and embellished by her imagination. It’s a riveting read…

Review from Amazon

Having heard the author speak about her great-aunt in a factual talk on the Suffragettes, I was interested to see how this would translate into a fictionalised novel. The answer is superbly well. I was totally engaged by the story and knowing that the structure of the novel was based on truth made it that much more compelling. The writing was beautiful and I found it a real page-turner… I was struck by parallels with modern-day activism, particularly as I believe Extinction Rebellion took some of their methods from the Suffragette movement

Review from Amazon

This is a fabulous book which taught me so much. The information about the suffragettes was horrifying as well as fascinating. A compelling novel which I didn’t want to end…

Review from Amazon

This is a book I’ve been waiting for for a long time. The Suffragettes were such an important movement and yet not much literature/ fiction around it exists and so this book is special. It was so readable and I became really invested in the characters and their plights. The settings were really good and the vivid descriptions and imagery of the living conditions and the poverty felt in these settings was both heart-breaking and humbling. A really good book that I didn’t want to end.

Review from Netgalley

The Genesis of The Courage Game

This is how it began. I took my father, Peter Waterfield, to the film Suffragette which had just come out. Afterwards we went to his favourite Italian restaurant in Falmouth, near where I live. He ate his meal quietly, in itself unusual since my Dad was always a talker. Then he put his fork down and wiped his mouth carefully. His eyes looked vulnerable.

‘Aunt did that,’ he announced.

I eyed him in disbelief. Aunt was the lady who brought him up. She actually was his aunt, because Dad’s mother, her sister, was drowned when he was only two years old. Aunt was what the whole family knew her as, though she was more of a kind of grand-mother figure for me and my siblings. ‘You mean she was a suffragette?’ I asked in disbelief, trying to see the frail old woman I knew as anything but – well – just old. She’d died when I was nine years old.

He nodded.

I conjured up the details of the film in my mind. ‘You mean that she hunger-struck and … and other things … went on marches?’ I finished limply.

‘Exactly.’ And then he explained that he remembered as a little boy being shown her medals but they hadn’t meant much. Now, because of the film, he was thinking of some of the horrors perpetrated on the suffragette women and he felt rather sick. He’d had no idea that his beloved mother-figure, always gentle and kind, had been a fiery soldier in defence of women’s rights nor that she’d been through such torments.

Meanwhile, the meal was forgotten. I was fizzing with excitement. There were a few things about Aunt that I’d always treasured – her poetry for instance that, as a teenager I’d been obsessed with. I knew already that I wanted to write her story. ‘Dad, Aunt was a writer. Writers write! They can’t help themselves. You were her only heir. Somewhere in your house there’ll be things she wrote down about her time as a suffragette.’

That night I’d gone to bed, still fizzing gently, when at two o’clock in the morning the phone rang. It was Dad, his voice an octave higher than usual with excitement. ‘I found some notes she’d written,’ he bellowed. [Being somewhat hard of hearing by this time, in his eighties, Dad always imagined that the distance between people speaking on the telephone had to be compensated for by shouting.] ‘Some stuff about Holloway prison and the forcible feeding. And other bits and bobs.’

By now I was thoroughly awake. I could hardly wait till I could get my hands on them. But that was not to be – at least not for a while.

So excited, Dad blurted to everyone he met about his find. The local paper got hold of it and, after interviewing him, gave it quite a spread. Then the Sunday Telegraph got hold of it, awarding it an even greater spread. The headline read The Forgotten Suffragette. For Aunt, after the suffragette days were over, never talked about it. Google her name Gladys Mary Hazel and all that comes up is a list of those who hunger struck on which she is just one name. No detail. Nothing. It was even more important to read the sheaf of papers Dad had found.

An Oxford don had read the article in the Sunday Telegraph and contacted Dad, telling him that he was writing a book about the suffragettes and would really value seeing what she’d written. Now Dad was an Oxford man with a profound admiration for donnish scholarship. Without further thought, he sent off the package of notes he’d found.

It was almost two years before I prevailed on the Oxford don to send it on to me.

How did I fill those years? With research. I read every book I could find on the subject of suffrage in general and on the suffragettes in particular. I was ashamed that, as a woman, I knew so little about the struggle. By the end of two years, six months of which had been spent trawling through hundreds of Votes for Women, the suffragette weekly newspaper most of which are conveniently on line, I was armed with many more facts. I knew that Gladys had been a teacher in Birmingham, so I looked for anything about Birmingham and, of course, for any mention of her by name. That’s how I found most of my factual material: I could place Gladys at particular events both in Birmingham and nationally through these papers.

And eventually I did receive her own notes: two pages about her childhood, which included the details of the Courage Game invented by her elder brother, Jim, one or two jottings about Birmingham slums and her horror at how the poor had to live and, by far the biggest quantity of notes, about her imprisonment in the Royal Holloway.

Why a ‘Novelised Biography’?

Because despite all that research there still were things I could not find out. Two pages about her childhood is not enough. I was in touch with Jim’s daughter Janet Hazel, who gave me factual details about dates and names of the other children and some of the things they did with their lives but what those children were like I had to imagine.

I re-read Gladys’s poetry looking for clues. From it I deduced that she had loved someone but for some reason that love was forbidden. From that small nugget I built a whole imagined love story. Some of my cousins were convinced that she was in a relationship with the lady doctor with whom she lived after WWI, but many women after that terrible war which wiped out most of a whole generation of young men lived together for companionship and, when I asked my Dad, he said he would have noticed if there’d been more than companionship – after all he lived with them both from the age of two.

There’s a lot of difference between a straight biography which, if it’s well done, will have notes, cross-references and a list of primary and secondary resources. Characters in a biography are read from the outside – their letters, diaries, recorded statements plus what is on record as what they did with their lives – while characters in a novel are understood through their thoughts as much as how these thoughts translated into actions. I have used the first person throughout for the character of Gladys. Perhaps that is my actor training. I wanted to slip into her skin, to ‘be’ her, to feel her life emotionally.

Read an Excerpt from The Courage Game…

Building on the book

The Courage Game has been chosen by many book clubs and I have had a number of requests for visits to these to speak about the book and suffragettes.

I also talk to schools [usually to students of history or politics] and history societies. I travel all over to deliver these talks, which go down very well. For instance, every school I have been to so far has asked me to return next year. I’ve even been to La Rochelle in France to talk to five schools there, where I talked more about the genesis of the book itself than the history of suffrage, and compared the French journey towards suffrage with that of the UK.

I was wracked with nerves before this one but the students [huge groups of between sixty and ninety-five] were charming and engaged and many stayed behind at the end of the talk to ask advice about writing. It was a wonderful trip.

The Latest The Courage Game Updates