We’ve recently celebrated the centenary of [some] British women winning the right to vote. It wasn’t for everyone, but it was a start.
Sally Nicholls has written a suffragette novel – Things a Bright Girl Can Do – and as we meet her three main female characters, well-off Evelyn, educated but threadbare May and working class Nell, many of us know that very soon there will be a war, and this won’t be exclusively about the rights for women to vote.
We learn a lot about the suffragette movement – and I was reminded of why I always liked Sylvia Pankhurst the best – as our three girls go about campaigning for votes for women in their own different ways. What I particularly liked was that they have sympathetic people close to them; Evelyn’s young man, Teddy, May’s single mother, and Nell’s [literally] very poor parents.
And it’s not just votes for women. May and her mother are Quakers, and both Nell and May like girls best, discovering that they aren’t alone in this. Then there is the lovely Teddy, and the threat of the looming war.
After a quick march through protests and fasting in jail, war breaks out, and it’s much tougher than the way it’s usually described in fiction. Yes, young men go off to be slaughtered, but life in England is really hard, especially for people like Nell and her family, who have no money and little food, and someone is always unwell. Trying to remain a true Quaker is not easy, either, at a time when everyone seems to give up their principles for their country.
The novel is written in the same light style as Sally’s other books, and it works, despite the difficult topics of suffrage, war, sexual orientation and religious beliefs. In fact, I feel it works better for having this sweetness about it, as the reality of the war years hits home.
You come to love these characters, and you discover that death isn’t necessarily the worst thing that could happen.