Finding hope in the face of systemic corruption: "The Unpicking" by Donna Moore
Asylums, syphilis, and suffragettes. In her new novel, The Unpicking, Donna Moore encapsulates the way in which pioneering women fought tooth and nail against powerful systemic sexism in the UK. Set in Victorian Scotland, Moore examines the effects of systemic corruption on three generations of women. Rooted in historical fact, the novel accounts ways in which Victorian women fought for basic human rights and safety.
Through each generation of Gilfillan women, Moore articulates various aspects of systemic sexism. In part three, The Turnkey, she tackles police corruption through the brave character of Mabel who steps foot into a male-dominated police force: it is easy for readers to draw parallels between women's safety then and now. In 2022, The Police Foundation detailed that there was a “crisis of public confidence” in the police force in the UK. One statistic states that “there has been a 240% increase in the numbers of rapes reported”, but the number of cases resulting in a charge “fell from 8.5% to 1.5%” in six years.
In the face of realities like this, it’s easy to feel like we have not made the progress we should in 'unpicking' systemic corruption. However, we can be inspired the final protagonist of the novel, Mabel. On the back of the resilience of her foremothers and her suffragette guardian, Mabel makes her mark by becoming one of the first female police officers in Scotland. In an entirely male sector designed to undermine her, Mabel is tasked with taking statements for evidence in cases of criminal assault against women. Through her hard work and commitment, she makes herself an indispensable asset to the force, impossible to deny.
Mabel is inspiring, injecting an element of optimism into a bleakness we still face today. Her character, strong and unwavering, is based on the real trailblazing women in the field. In 1915, in Grantham, Lincolnshire, Edith Smith became the first woman to be given the power of arrest. In the same year, in Glasgow, Emily Miller was chosen as the first female investigation officer. Both women were granted a fraction of the responsibility of their male counterparts, and like Mabel, were viewed with suspicion and reluctance. And yet, the responsibilities they had aided the lives of many women and girls. While the novel ends with Mabel, we are living in the aftermath; the sequel lies in the accounts of history. Edith and Emily are the catalysts that have propelled the police force forward with their dedication, one step closer to a safe and inclusive environment.
There is still a long way to go. In a case uncomfortably reminiscent of the events of the novel, it was reported in 2023 that former Scottish Met Police commissioner Stephen House had allegedly equated rape claims to “regretful sex”. Additionally,
recent cases like that of Sarah Everard in 2021 reinforce the ways in which the police continue to fail to protect our women and girls. But through her female protagonists, Donna Moore helps us to reflect on the strength and resilience of the women before us who carved their way through the systemic injustices of the past. Through Mabel's strength, we see a light at the end of the tunnel.
The Unpicking is available to pre-order now and will be shipped in October 2023.