Reviewing: Things A Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

If I had to live in the world depicted in these pages, a world that once was – where I was restrained away from all that I hold dear today, it would have destroyed me. I am a tax paying, working, university educated lesbian who doesn’t like babies. I am literally a Suffragette’s dream and the nightmare of 19/20th century politicians. And so it is with both a sense of gratitude and one of understanding that I write this. Because of the acts depicted herein, as well as a myriad of social and economic factors and that fact that society was slowly but surely coming round to the idea that women are people, I can vote, or not vote, for whomever I choose. I have voted in elections both local and national, and in referendums, in classrooms and society meetings. My property is mine, my money is mine, and if anybody were to ask my dad’s opinion on me doing literally anything he’d probably just stare at them for a bit and suggest asking me instead. This is not, however, the world in which Evelyn, May and Nell live.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do shows the era of the Women’s Suffrage movement through the eyes of three very different women. Evelyn has a relatively wealthy family, lives in a good part of London and is well-educated – though not to the university levels she aspires for. May is a Quaker, living with her vehemently Suffragist mother in a less wealthy – but still quite middle class – arrangement. Nell is working class, sharing two rooms with her family, working for half what her brothers would earn in a jam factory just to keep that leaking roof over their heads, and more masculine than her the era she lives in will happily permit. All three aspire to be more than they are allowed to be, and will fight for the right to do so.

“modern society wastes and destroys the talents of half its population”

Through the eyes of these young women we witness rallies, police brutality, hunger strikes and the affects of the First World War on those who were left behind to find work in a country where business owners were closing up shop to fight in France. As well as the jarring differences between the Suffragette and Suffragist movements and the relationships between those involved in them, we also see how the fight could mean different things to different women depending on where they live. For Evelyn, the fight for women’s suffrage is in part a rebellion against her parents, for May it is a religious statement, for Nell it is the fight against a society determined to degrade and vilify her, to pay her less than she deserves and to shun her for being born female. The question ‘is it worth dying for?’ echoes throughout the book, from the suffrage movement to the war in Belgium and France, and while for some it may be a firm yes or no, for others it is more relative and uncertain. You can tell the world how unfair it is all you want, but how far would you be willing to go to make it listen?

“You’re a Sapphist, aren’t you? Like me?”

This book contains several love stories, one of which is between characters May and Nell as they navigate the differences between them and learn to live with the similarity that they must keep secret. May’s mother is aware and supportive of her daughter’s sapphic tendencies, referring her to books on gender that had begun to arise at the time suggesting the presence of a third, ‘inverted’ gender. (I read extracts of these for my dissertation, and while it offered the opportunity for people to justify and explain gender and sexuality non-conformity, should probably be taken with a grain of salt. From what I recall it was still highly problematic, as one might expect given its era of origin). But as war strikes and brings to light the differences between May, whose Quaker beliefs render her a pacifist, and Nell, whose family members serve in the army, and they must overcome them as the fight for the vote takes a step back in favour of the war.

I felt that the first half of the book was slower than the second, perhaps due to the increased pressure of wartime beginning about half way through, and by and large May as a character did irritate me a little but not so much so that I lost all sympathy for her. I felt that the research and attention to detail was superb, from the theory of the invert to Nell’s story and its origins in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (also one of my dissertation texts, fun fact). This is a book that showed the unglamorous sides of the Suffrage movement, not just the rallies and community but the starvation and mockery, the degradation and judgement. It shows how the Suffragettes could be violent, and angry, and thoroughly unladylike. After all, if someone tried to force me to live like that, I’d get a little angry too.

Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖 4 books out of 5

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