Book Reviews · Reading

REVIEW: Things a Bright Girl Can do by Sally Nicholls

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.
IMG_8746Evelyn 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?

So, I’ve had my eye on this book for a while now, and at YALC, when I spotted a ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’ sash, I knew I *had* to read it, come hell or high water. Obvs, I was pretty chill when I was approved by NetGalley:

Then I read it in one day.

Full disclosure: I know I a lot about the suffragettes. I’m writing my MA dissertation on them, and I find the campaign for the parliamentary vote for women absolutely fascinating. However, I also find that much of the media surrounding them tends to oversimplify the myriad of organisations, people, and viewpoints.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do didn’t do that. It exposed the complexities of the suffrage campaign–the tensions that existed between the Women’s Social and Political Union, and other, more constitutionalist suffrage groups. It looked unflinchingly at the hot issues of the day–like militancy and the tug between conscientious objection & fighting for your country.

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Our story focuses on three young women; Evelyn, who is middle class & desperate to go to Oxford University, May, who lives a bohemian lifestyle and is a committed pacifist suffragist, and Nell, who’s family struggles to meet ends meet. All three characters are compelling, and I like how each story interweaved, however briefly.

My favourite character was Nell, a working class girl who prefers dressing in masculine clothes and shares a cramped house with her family of eight, AND another family. Nell is bright and frustrated with her lot in life. Her devotion and commitment to her family is lovely. And I adored her exploration of her sexuality and her relationship with May. But what I loved most about Nell’s ARC through the book was her gradual articulation of what she wanted from the vote–a career. Nell’s confidence, in herself, in her identity and in her abilities grew throughout the story. I LOVED seeing a working class suffragette so vividly portrayed. I feel sometimes there is an overemphasis on middle class suffragettes, so it was lovely to see someone like Nell represented.

May, Nell’s girlfriend, was a little more difficult to fall for. May has been brought up in a very accepting household, her mother is a suffragist and very involved in the Quaker movement. I really enjoyed reading about May’s commitment to her faith–I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with a Quaker MC, so that was lovely. May’s adherence to pacifism and non-violence provides a interesting insight into this area of suffrage campaigning. Especially in popular history, much of the films and books seem to focus on the militants. It was really nice to see a suffragist that wasn’t a militant (and her fav Pankhurst is Sylvia so I was 100% for that!) However, as the book goes on and war draws closer, May’s beliefs seem to get more complicated. On one hand, I admired May for sticking to what she believed in, and on the other–it frustrated me SO much that she couldn’t empathise with other people’s opinions. I also LOVED how confident May was with her sexuality, and the relationship with Nell was beautiful.

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Evelyn’s story, who’s joining the suffragettes was a rebellion against her parents so she could access education, was equally fascinating. I really enjoyed her discourse on what happens AFTER we get the vote? It was interesting to see these characters grappling with the implications of what the parliamentary vote actually meant for their future. For Evelyn, she wanted an education, and more from her life than being a wife and mother. One of Evelyn’s scenes from the book was probably one of the most harrowing and powerful pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

Basically, Things a Bright Girl Can Do is a complex & nuanced YA book with heart. A lot of the time, the suffragettes are cast as heroes or villains, which does these complicated women a disservice. The women who fought for our right to vote over a hundred years ago were not badly drawn caricatures–they were people. Sally Nicholls has exceeded at creating a rich and compelling narrative, exploring a well-researched area of history, and writing three heroines that feel vividly real.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Also, gay suffragettes?!!! YES PLEASE!!

*I received a review copy from NetGalley*

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