CHARLESTON Festival plays host to an array of dynamic thinkers, artists and writers next month. CAROLE BUCHAN previews three events based around the work and lives of extraordinary women

Hearts, Minds And Deeds: Helen Pankhurst and Jane Robinson with Arifa Akbar

Saturday, May 19, 3pm

ONE hundred years after women over the age 30 won the right to vote, Helen Pankhurst, descendant of the founders of the Suffragette movement, will be at Charleston to discuss how far equality for women has come.

And, with the “me-too” campaign and the gender pay gap debate gaining momentum, she will also explore how far it has to go.

Helen’s book Deeds Not Words looks at the story of women’s rights then and now. She will be in conversation with Jane Robinson, author of Hearts And Minds, which delves into the history of the suffragettes – ordinary people effecting extraordinary change.

Helen is a women’s rights activist and senior advisor to CARE International based in the UK and in Ethiopia. Despite huge progress since the suffragette campaigns and wave after wave of feminism, women are still fighting for equality, she says.

Why, she asks, in 2015 did 11 per cent of women lose their jobs due to pregnancy? Why, globally, has one in three women experienced physical or sexual violence?

Her book charts how women’s lives have changed – or otherwise – over the last century and offers a new way forward. Each of the five chapters in the book explores the themes of politics, money, family and identity, violence and culture, through the voices of both pioneers and ordinary women.

Brought up in Ethiopia, where her grandmother Sylvia went to live, it was inevitable that from a very young age Helen would be inspired by her campaigning forebears.

International feminism has always been at her core, she says. She was brought close to her ancestors during the 2012 London Olympics when she and her daughter took part in the opening ceremony to represent the suffragette movement.

Later she was involved in making the film Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan.

“Throughout my life,” says Helen, “I have been asked what the suffragettes would make of how far we have come and what I thought.”

The result is the book which looks back on the past, holds a magnifying glass to the present and examines expectations of the future. Although she finds in some instances women’s lives are still the same, there is at the same time a “momentous movement of change” against inequality.

Just as a century ago the suffragettes created their own ground-breaking movement, women are moving collectively towards the next stage in the 21st century. But there is a long way to go.

“The drip drip of gender bias continues to infiltrate our lives in a cumulative way, creating an all-pervasive and relentless culture of inequality and socialised sexism,” she says.

“And although some women may escape the worst of this, may even be under the illusion they are treated equally, few are untouched by gender discrimination over the course of their lives.”

The Inner Level: Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett with Caroline Lucas

Friday, May 25, 5.30pm

The Brighton Pavilion MP is hosting a debate with the authors of the book The Inner Level – sequel to the popular Spirit Level – which focuses on inequality across the world

Why do you think The Spirit Level made such an impact?

It set out the overwhelming evidence that showed how the effects of inequality go far deeper than a sense of unfairness. Inequality affects everything – from economic success to mental wellbeing and the size of prison populations – and this book highlighted the hugely positive impact that addressing inequality would have for everyone, not just those with the least.

Do you feel society is more unequal now than it was, say, 20 years ago? If so, why?

There’s absolutely no doubt that inequality has become more entrenched, and wealth inequality has got far worse. According to the Commission on Economic Justice, which was set up by the IPPR thinktank, the wealthiest 10 per cent of households own 45 per cent of the nation’s collectively created wealth. For the bottom half, the figure is a paltry 9 per cent. The reasons for the huge gap between rich and poor are manifold, but a big part of the problem is a tax system riddled with loopholes and exemptions.

In recent years we’ve also seen an attack by the government on the public realm – and local services cuts which hit poorer people harder. One of the main drivers for inequality in recent years is also a huge rise in house prices, which has benefited those who own their own home, and made life much harder for those who don’t.

Is this a global inequality or is the situation worse in the Western world? If the latter, why is it worse?

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that vast inequalities are a problem across the globe, though they are undoubtedly worse in the developing world. A major reason for that is that poorer countries are essentially used as tax havens for rich individuals and multinational companies from richer countries. This means they have looser tax rules and less funding for their welfare states.

Here in Britain a large part of the reason for huge wealth disparities is the ability of the very richest to avoid paying tax, and to speculate on property and other assets. The majority of people are not able to do such speculation.

How can we deal with inequality, or is the human race a lost cause?

Dealing with inequality is entirely possible, and should start with a few simple measures. I’d like to see a wealth tax to redistribute money from the richest. This should be accompanied by a change in inheritance tax rules so that the rate paid is worked out according to the wealth of the recipient, rather than the person who died. The money raised by these kind of measures could then be used to pay for better public services and, crucially, improve our schools so that all children get the best start in life.

Can you give examples of societies which have a culture of sharing and reciprocity, and are these societies happier?

It’s very clear from global studies that more equal societies are happiest. Just recently it was announced that Finland, one of the most equal countries in the world, is the happiest. The reasons for this are complex, but a sense of collectivism is crucial, as are good public services.

It is hard not to mention Brexit. How do you see the state of the UK in five years’ time?

There’s no doubt in my mind that Brexit poses a serious threat to Britain’s economy and our communities. It’s extraordinary watching the Government proudly supporting an approach which they acknowledge will make the country poorer. That’s why the next few months matter so much when it comes to our approach to Brexit – and why I’m arguing for a people’s poll on the final deal with the EU, so everyone in this country is given a say.

The Creation Myth: Kathryn Harkup and Fiona Sampson with Christopher Frayling

Sunday, May 20, 12.30pm

TWO hundred years after the teenage daughter of two radical thinkers wrote one of literature’s greatest novels, writer and poet Fiona Sampson set out to discover the woman who was Mary Shelley.

Sampson’s biography – In Search of Mary Shelley – reads like a detective story as she carefully unpicks the life of someone who eloped at the age of 16 with the feckless poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, survived the deaths of three of her children, suffered financial ruin and scandal, and went on to become one of the great writers of her age.

She created not only Frankenstein, but a hugely powerful body of work besides. All this at a time when to be a woman writer was an extraordinary anomaly. In writing her book, Fiona sifted through letters, diaries and records to uncover the real Mary Shelley and in the process discovered a complex, generous personality.

“I very much enjoyed getting to know her,” Sampson explained. “In fact I have not really left her. I identified with her quite strongly.”

Mary was loving and loyal, yet neither her peers, or her beloved father – the revolutionary philosopher William Godwin – were kind to her. “She was very lonely,” says Sampson “and shocked that her father should reject her.”

In fact Godwin had received money from Shelley to pay off his debts, giving rise to the gossip that he had sold his daughter (and his stepdaughter – who accompanied the pair on their travels) for £1, 250. Mary and Shelley trailed across Europe, their lives alternating between passion and poverty.

But it was not long before Mary realised what she had done in throwing in her lot with the unreliable and faithless Shelley, who had abandoned his pregnant young wife Harriet, leaving her destitute. Harriet later drowned herself.

“Harriet’s suicide haunted her,” says Sampson. Ironically it is Percy’s death in a boating accident which frees Mary to become a great writer.

Denied any financial support by Percy’s father – unless she is prepared to give up her son, which she refuses to do – she decides that writing is how she will make her living.

Although, as Fiona Sampson explains in her book, her literary career was already mapped out when as an unmarried teenage mother attending Lord Byron’s house party, she responded to his playful challenge “to write a ghost story.” Frankenstein was the result.

“Surely,” says Fiona, “ this must be among the most influential creative writing exercises in literary history.” Sampson describes her investigation into Mary Shelley’s life as “a form of people watching” and, reviewing the book, one critic wrote: “Fiona Sampson is a sleuth of a biographer.”

More Charleston highlights

Lubaina Himid – Making History

Friday, May 18, 3pm

The first black female winner of the Turner Prize (in 2017), Himid’s art addresses the topic of colonial racism among other weighty matters. Born in Zanzibar, the artist (far right) was brought up here in the UK. Her work includes The Lancastrian Dinner Service, a reflection on the slave trade. At the festival she is discussing her “wilderness years” and more with Jennifer Higgie, editorial director of Frieze magazine, who is adapting her novel Bedlam – based on the life of the artist Richard Dadd – for the screen.

Vita And Virginia – Chanya Button, Gemma Arteton and Juliet Nicolson

Sunday, May 20, 7.30pm

Stars of the upcoming film Vita And Virgina – based on the decade-long romantic relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf – discuss the movie. The film tells the story of how Sackville-West Gemma Arteton inspired Woolf to write her gender-bending, time-travelling book Orlando. Arterton plays Vita in the film and Button directed and co-wrote the movie with Aileen Atkins.

Robert Webb

Wednesday, May 23, 5.30pm

Actor, comedian and now author Robert Webb joins the line up to talk about his book How Not to Be a Boy. The star of cult TV series Peep Show, Webb tells a true coming-of-age tale and explains how he didn’t quite fit in like all his friends did (or Robert Webb seemed to do). The book received high praise from JK Rowling of all people, who stated the book made her cry and laugh out loud. Webb is in conversation with Miranda Sawyer.

Chance Encounters – Amy Bloom And Sylvia Brownrigg

Friday, May 25, 12.30pm

Join two novelists as they talk about their books which both feature tales of lesbian love stories. Amy Bloom’s book The White House tells of how First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt is secretly having an affair with her long-time friend Lorena Hick.

After years of not seeing each other since a campus romance, Sylvia Brownrigg’s novel follows two women as they fall back in love for each other – even though, since the last time they saw each other, one became a mother and the other a wife.

Charleston Festival takes place at the Charleston Farmhouse grounds from May 18 to 28. To see the whole programme and to buy tickets for individual events visit or call 01323 811626