Sunday, 24 September 2017

Review: Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally NichollsNetGalleyThings a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls (eProof) - Through rallies and marches, in polite drawing rooms and freezing prison cells and the poverty-stricken slums of the East End, three courageous young women join the fight for the vote.

Evelyn is seventeen, and though she is rich and clever, she may never be allowed to follow her older brother to university. Enraged that she is expected to marry her childhood sweetheart rather than be educated, she joins the Suffragettes, and vows to pay the ultimate price for women's freedom.

May is fifteen, and already sworn to the cause, though she and her fellow Suffragists refuse violence. When she meets Nell, a girl who's grown up in hardship, she sees a kindred spirit. Together and in love, the two girls start to dream of a world where all kinds of women have their place.

But the fight for freedom will challenge Evelyn, May and Nell more than they ever could believe. As war looms, just how much are they willing to sacrifice?
From Goodreads.

WARNING: This review is so very long, but I have a lot to say.

When I first heard about Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls, there was absolutely no way I wasn't going to read it. A book about the Suffragettes! As a feminist, there's just no way this book wasn't going to appeal to me. Having finished, I can say that Things a Bright Girl Can Do was such a good book - but for different reasons than I expected.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do isn't about the Suffragettes - it's about three girls who are Suffragettes/ists, or become one. It's about what Evelyn, May and Nell think, their opinions and their morals, and their individual stories. To be honest, there isn't a huge amount of them actually being Suffragettes/ists; there's some, but mostly it's them talking about or thinking about how unfair the world is for women, while their individual lives and what happens to them make the core of the plot.

Evelyn comes from a wealthy family. She's clever, and has a passion for learning, and absolutely hates that a university education isn't easily available to women. Because women don't need an education; they will marry men who are educated who will provide for their family, and the women will have children and look after their family - rich women, that is. Evelyn's parents don't understand why Evelyn would want a university education or a degree (not that she can actually get one; women can take the classes, but they don't get a qualification at the end of it), because it's not a necessity as she won't work. They look at it as something she wants to do that isn't really important, and will cost a lot of money, and as it's unnecessary, they're not paying that money. It's almost like they think Evelyn weird for wanting an education - why would a woman want more than getting married and having children? This enrages her, and having already been interested in the Suffragettes, she becomes one. She goes on marches, she where's sandwich boards and hands out handbills, she takes part in actions - risky missions the Suffragettes undertake to fight for their rights. But she always doubts herself and what she's doing, wondering if it's the right thing to do. When it comes down to actual risk, her heart is never fully in it. (Though she does end up going to prison and hunger striking, and oh my god it was appalling, and major props to Evelyn - or rather the actual real life Suffragettes who went through it - for going to such lengths to be heard.)

May is a Suffragist like her mother - a woman who wants the vote, but is more for trying to get it through peaceful means; protests and conversations and handing out handbills, basically fighting for their rights through talking rather than violence and criminality. Due to being a Quaker (which Nicholls is herself, making this book #OwnVoices), May is also a pacifist, and frowns upon Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst's methods. She is a very opinionated, and confident in talking about what she believes to be right, assertively fighting her corner. She's not quite holier-than-thou, but she is genuinely bewildered and upset when people don't understand or at least respect her views. Because she genuinely believes she is right, this is the right way of doing things, and everyone else has got it wrong and she doesn't understand why.

Nell is from the East End of London, a Suffragette who is all for violence and criminality, though mainly because she gets a thrill from it all, finds it exciting, not necessarily because she doesn't believed they won't be listened to otherwise. She lives in extreme poverty, which only highlights for her how needed equality is, because there are certain jobs women simply can't have, and in the jobs which men also do, the women get paid far less. At times in the book, things for Nell's family are absolutely desperate.

The three girls have one thing in common; wanting votes for women. But otherwise, they're completely different. Evelyn is wealthy, May is middle class, and although they have money, they don't really have enough to replace their worn clothes, and Nell has practically nothing to spare. Their morals when it comes to rights for women are at odds. I was actually surprised that May and Nell ended up together, because they as people, and their views, are just so different.

They're Sapphists, which is an old fashioned term for lesbians; it comes from the Greek poet Sappho, who wrote about women and loving women. Although their relationships to the wider world is secret, it's not something that's completely clandestine; May's mother knows, has known her daughter is a Sapphist for a while, and has no problem at all, even gave her a book to understand herself better, and introduced her to other Sapphists in the Suffragist community. I don't know if Nell's mum knows or not, but May does visit their house a number of times. Basically, to everyone who does know, there's not a problem, and there's never any worrying about being found out, or experience homophobia. It's just them, together and they're happy.

Well, they're happy for the most part, because Nell is confused about herself. She wears her older brother's old clothes; breeches, shirt, jacket, hat. A lot of people on first meeting think she's a boy. It would be interesting to read a review by a trans person, because I think Nell might be trans; she thinks of herself as not a girl, but not a man either; when she gets upset, she fights her tears, because of toxic masculinity - guys don't cry, and so she won't either. Because of what she says, I was never really sure why Nell wanted equal rights for women, because she wants to do the things that guys can do, but it's never really clear whether she wants more freedom for women, or she wants to be a man herself. There's a lot of confusion for Nell; she didn't realise that Sapphists were a thing, she thought it was just her until she met May, and she puts down her thoughts and confusion down to being a Sapphist, but a lot of it is about gender, and so I do think that she's trans, but I'm not trans, so obviously, I can't say for sure. But there is a lot of heartache for Nell because she doesn't know what she is, as she herself says. It's heartbreaking to watch.

There's more heartbreak for us as readers when it comes to Nell once the First World War starts. For me, it seemed there were two parts of the book, the first part that deals with Suffrage, and the second that deals with the war, and where Suffrage has to take a back foot. The war affects all three characters, but Nell more so. Things a Bright Girl Can Do tells us the story of the war that we don't hear. I knew the war was hard for the people at home, what with rationing and evacuation, but I never realised just how terrible it could be. When you're poor, and the breadwinner of the family is called up, it's devastating. Not only are you worried about your husband/father, but you're also worried about how you can survive. During war, the price of everything goes up. Jobs are lost because, in the case of Nell's job at a jam factory, who cares about jam now? It was mostly sold to the Germans, so no-one is going to buy, and most of the top men in the company are now at war, so the factory is closed. So many jobs are lost. There are so many women who are out seeking work, but not enough jobs to go round. Possessions had to be pawned, even when you have practically nothing anyway, right down to your bedstead. Appeals for help were made, but too many people needed help. No work, meant no money, and no money meant no food and no coal, and not paying the rent. God forbid you get ill, because there's no way to pay the doctor's bills. Reading about Nell's experiences of the war was horrific.

May isn't struggling as much as Nell, of course, and although she offers to help, Nell refuses charity. But even May's family has very little food now, and her mum is gone all the time on her various committees to try and stop the war. As pacifists, they are completely against the war. May is vocal about it, and is treated terribly by the people at school. She loses friends, and is bullied. When her mother complains, the school pretty much says, "Well, if she's going to be unpatriotic, what do you expect?" I really, really struggled with May. I respected her views, but she doesn't seem to want to respect anyone else's. She and Nell get into a huge fight when Nell finally gets a job in a munitions factory, telling her she shouldn't accept it, because it's wrong - no matter that it's the only job she can find, no matter that her family is in dire straits, no matter that her younger brother has pneumonia. No matter that if the soldiers don't have weapons to fight back with, they will be killed by the Germans, including Nell's father. Nell simply shouldn't take the job, and May feels betrayed that Nell is even considering it. This, on top of thinking bitchily about how Nell hadn't realised that things at school were terrible for May and not asking her about it, when there's a very strong chance her family could be kicked out of their home or starve or die from illness... it was just too much. I did not like that girl in that moment, and I haven't really forgiven her for it.

I did at first think I wouldn't like this book. The language used made the characters feel like caricatures; there was a lot of "jolly good", "rotten", "splendid", and so on. People did probably talk like that at the time, but it just didn't feel natural at the beginning. I did get used to it, however, and it stopped bothering me. I also never related or connected to any of the three girls. Although I respected them in some ways, there was a lot I didn't like about each of them. Though I did find that even though I wasn't a huge fan of them as people, it didn't mean I didn't care about them and what they went through, especially Nell. It's so odd, because I've never cared and felt so emotional for a character I didn't really like before. But it was difficult not to care when you think about how the things that happened in this book actually happened in real life.

I would have preferred to have seen more of what the Suffragettes/ists did rather than just being told about it, I would have liked more of it to have been on the page. But it was still so amazing to hear about the unbelievable things these wonderful, passionate, brave women would do in the fight for equality. Just thinking about it is kind of overwhelming, and I feel such gratitude to these women who thought so hard and were treated so terribly so that I can have the life I live now. I feel such pride in these women that they thought so hard and risked so much for me and the rest of us women, but also such huge disappointment that they suffered so much, and yet there's still a long way to go.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do is such a wonderful, wonderful book. I may not have got on with it all the time, but it was eye-opening, thought-provoking, and just brilliant, really. I can't recommend it enough.

Thank you to Andersen Press via NetGalley for the eProof.

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Published: 7th September 2017
Publisher: Andersen Press
Sally Nicholls' Website

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