Bartitsu has received an unusual shout-out in the new biography Toupie Lowther: Her Life, by English author Val Brown.
Born to a wealthy, aristocratic family in 1874, May Lowther – known almost universally as “Toupie” – grew into a multi-talented woman of means, adept at opera singing, motoring and (especially) both tennis and fencing. In the latter capacity she once playfully challenged Bartitsu Club fencing instructor Captain Alfred Hutton to a match after Hutton had made a polite but, to her ear, condescending remark about female fencers.
Toupie’s other athletic enthusiasms included weightlifting, jiujitsu and possibly boxing, and Val Brown speculates that she may also have studied Bartitsu, given that the Bartitsu Club admitted female students. Although history isn’t clear on that point, Brown does note Toupie’s portrayal as a Bartitsu practitioner in the Suffrajitsu graphic novel trilogy, in which she serves as Emmeline Pankhurst’s chauffeuse and getaway driver and as the second-in-command of the clandestine “Amazons” bodyguard team. She is also featured as a significant supporting character in the spin-off novella The Isle of Dogs and as the protagonist of the short story The Pale Blue Ribbon.
In real life, Toupie Lowther was decorated for her service in France during the First World War, which included organising and operating an ambulance team under extremely dangerous conditions.
Post-War, Toupie was also a friend of writer Radclyffe Hall and her partner, sculptor Una Troubridge, until after the publication of Hall’s controversial novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928. Toupie believed that the novel’s female protagonist, the cross-dressing former WW1 ambulance driver Stephen Gordon, was based to a large extent on herself, and this seems to have caused a rift in the friendship.
An interesting woman who led a highly unusual life for her time, Toupie Lowther well deserves the wider recognition that this very readable book will undoubtedly bring her.