WHAT an enchanting, entertaining and enlightening event the Charleston Festival, now in its 29th year, is.

And what illustrious company you can find yourself in, in the idyllic grounds of the home of the Bloomsbury group.

What bliss too to bask in Saturday’s sunshine, perusing the intriguing literary line-up. It was the perfect retreat from a certain wedding going on at Windsor.

Charleston may be a fairly small scale literary festival, and it is all the more charming for it, but it attracts literary royalty across its ten days, with the likes of Ali Smith, Simon Armitage, Susie Orbach, Alexander McCall Smith – and Sir David Attenborough, no less – appearing in the beautiful marquee with its painterly backdrop in the style of artist Vanessa Bell who famously lived there.

In the centenary year of the Representation of the People Act, which gave a partial vote to women, it was thrilling to see Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, take to the stage.

In her book Deeds Not Words she considers how female lives have changed over the past century.

She looks at identity, the workplace, culture, power and more – and sets out a call for action for the next ten years.

“What about a decade of activism to 2028, to the centenary of women’s total right to vote?” she invited an enthralled audience.

“The statistics are still infuriating so what do we want to happen next?”

Speaking with an impressive breadth of knowledge and a quiet passion, she said she was heartened by how women’s sense of self and confidence had grown, but dismayed by the violence they still faced.

Helen was sharing the stage with author Jane Robinson whose Hearts And Minds book explores the history of the suffragists, those ordinary women effecting extraordinary change, putting in much of the legwork over many years for the more militant suffragettes.

Why, she asked, was The Great Pilgrimage of 1913, at which 50,000 suffragists marched across the country, such an untold story?

The discussion of feminism past and present was a lively, informed and inspiring one, skilfully chaired by journalist Arifa Akbar, and built on an earlier talk by Lyndall Gordon whose group biography Outsiders links five iconic female novelists – Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and, appropriately given the setting, Virginia Woolf.

Chaired with warmth and consummate professionalism by veteran broadcaster Joan Bakewell, this was fascinating on how all these authors were motherless during crucial periods of their writing development.

They underwent haphazard education and were supported by enlightened men who were crucial to their progress and exposure.

Their necessarily unconventional lives were examined and their incredible courage applauded in a very enjoyable morning session.

It felt not only a treat to be immersed in the lives of all these pioneers of the past at the two talks but important too to be reminded of their bravery as the fight for women’s rights very much still goes on in the troubled era of the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns.

The Bloomsbury group made it their mission to search for truth and provoke debate and the Charleston Festival succeeds so well in keeping that questioning spirit alive.

Susan Gilson