Things a Bright Girl Can Do

Happy International Women’s Day! And, being bizarrely topical, I’ve decided to celebrate this day by publishing my review early for this fantastic novel all about woman’s suffrage and getting the vote in England in 1918.

The novel follows three girls at the most pivotal point in their young lives: starting the novel they are fifteen just before the First World War breaks out. Our first protagonist Evelyn is bright young sixth former who has been told she’s got the grades for Oxford but isn’t allowed to attend university because her parents aren’t wasting money educating a girl. In her anger she throws herself at the suffragette cause, desperate to have the education her brother takes for granted.

In contrast May, the second narrator, is very different. She’s a staunch pasifist and strong believer of the suffragists cause. Comfortable in her sexuality and openly gay she’s rather an enigma of her time but struggles to decipher which of her views are most important when war breaks out across Europe. Finally, Nell enters the fray. A baton wielding, East end suffragette who’s always teetering on the edge of the workhouse. Preferring boys clothes and games makes her stand out from the others on her street as she struggles to accept her identity and is faced with the difficult choice between conforming in the hope of a life or being herself.

I enjoyed seeing the unusual perspective each character had in the situation they’d been placed. May felt immature, shown through her dialogue, naive views and blind insistence on pacifism, which is tactless and unhelpful when others are clearly struggling. It was through her narrative that the reader grasps the history of suffrage at the time: how the suffragettes and suffragists are reacting to the war, the work they are doing for the government and female suffrage on an international scale. Because of this the reader sees very little of May’s life in the novel, she focuses more on her thoughts about the cause and the facts from the time, leaving her little space to develop as a character. Furthermore, the war effects her the least, having no male relatives or friends join the fight, meaning she doesn’t show the same character development our other protagonists do. However, her perspective was unique and towards the end of the novel she starts to develop in herself and stops blindly following her mother’s views.

My favourite character, and by far the most relatable to me, was Evelyn. Evelyn, like me, isn’t good with her hands and doesn’t want to spend her life running a house. It was her plight that really demonstrated to me how unfair it was to be a woman in 1914 and made me wonder if I would have been strong enough to fight for something that I now take for granted. However, when the war starts she appears selfish as she continues to focus on Oxford while her brother and fiancé are at the front, and struggles to understand the reality of war. She certainly matures throughout the novel but it’s clear her struggles have only just begun when the novel draws to a close, leaving readers with the unsatisfying reality that the right some women gained to vote in 1918 is not the end of female inequality.

Our final protagonist, Nell, shows the reader the harsh reality of the lower classes: how female suffrage comes second to her need to eat and to save her sickly brother. I enjoyed how she explained each situation she was in so simply to the reader- explaining the coal shortage, for example, being down to richer people stocking up before the war and the loss of trade with Europe. Furthermore it is is through Nell that the reader really grasps the damaging realities of inequality: her inability to do a man’s job like delivery and the mistrust people have of employing a woman in man’s clothing nearly cost her her brother’s life to pneumonia.

May and Nell’s relationship, pivotal to both their storylines, was something of an enigma in literature. Used to seeing perfect teen romances I was excited to see something so honest. The characters had very little chemistry and the lack of empathy they showed for each other was clearly a downfall. However I don’t say this as a bad thing: when you’re fifteen it’s very normal for your first love to not last and I was thrilled to see this on the page for once. Hey, my first relationship at eighteen was no doubt me getting all giddy at actually having someone like me and not much deeper than that. I liked the LGBT representation and seeing how this first relationship helped the girls mature as they go on to meet other partners. The budding, supportive friendship they show at the end of the novel was honest and heartwarming, giving a neat end to the messy business of first love.

Obviously a key theme to the novel was equality- not just between men and women but between classes as well. I liked how the novel drew to a close after women get the vote, not when the war ends despite its importance in history. The novel conrinues to focus on such an important and slightly overshadowed piece of history despite how much the later half of the novel was understandably shaped by the war. The ending was not all joy- Evelyn is quick to point out the flaws: that only women over thirty have the vote, women who’ve attended Oxbridge get two votes, she still can’t take so many jobs. These observations make it clear to the reader that the bill passed in 1918 did not give women or the working classes complete equality, however May and Nell end the novel on some more uplifting observations: that it was them, young, uneducated, impoverished girls, who helped bring about this incredible change giving readers the final uplifting thought that anyone can, and has, made a difference. Two very important observations to end on.

The novel was well paced. Although I found, as I always do, the switching point of views annoying (because when I want to know the verdict of Evelyn’s prison trial we take an aside to hear about May schoolwork!) But that was more due to my impatient than the author. Each girl’s story develops well and is fleshed out. The difference in pace between their lives and character development balances the novel and means the reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed.

Similarly, the plot was well written and well balanced. I enjoyed seeing how history was effecting each young woman and the diverse range of backgrounds and personalities meant the reader has a good overall grasp of the situation at the time. What little history I recognised was correct: the ‘canary girls’, white feathers, the league’s of factory women playing football. Which is actually an interesting piece of history – women’s football got real traction during the war but in 1921 it was banned in favour of men’s football and it’s never gained the same support since. I had a history teacher at school who went off curriculum in year nine to teach woman’s suffrage- we should have been learning about the war but I’m forever grateful she felt it important to educate young woman about this key piece of history, a view I now share.

Finally, the writing style. I enjoyed the old fashioned exclamations and tone of the novel- it was very ‘buck up old chum’ old fashioned English and it was nice to see the author making such a conscious effort to place her characters in their time. The descriptions and narratives are easy to read and not explicit, I believe any audience can pick up this novel and enjoy it: whether you be fourteen or forty. Their is reference to sex and war but nothing too explicit or graphic and the writing style is very digestible. The history interwoven throughout the plot is well done: it doesn’t feel thrust upon the reader but is still definitely there and, from what I gathered from the authors notes, accurate with the exception of some time frames.

Overall I highly recommend this novel. The perfect read for international women’s Day, bringing important history in front of readers in an engaging way.