Book: Things A Bright Girl Can Do
Author: Sally Nicholls
This book is the first of my YALC prep books, as the author is going to be at YALC this year and I was planning on read this book this year anyway, since it was the centenary of The Representation of The People Act 1918, which gave women over 30 and female graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as all men, the right to vote. I was really excited to read this book, as I love the suffragettes and did a whole module on gender in Britain in this time period for one of my history modules last year, but I was slightly disappointed that actually this book is less about the suffragettes and more about the British war effort, which wasn’t exactly what I picked the book up for? The book started out strong, but as soon as it got into the war parts, it felt kind of clunky and the plot was a little sparse. As an introduction to the suffragettes, this book does alright, but for me, someone who already knows quite a lot about the movement, I found it a bit lacking in places. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
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?
This story follows three girls during their fight for suffrage and WWI, each from a different class and family background, and the different reasons they have for wanting the vote and the methods they use to obtain it. In this respect, the book does well, seeing three young women of varying classes using different ways to fight for the vote is interesting and it’s also interesting to see how obtaining the vote would have a different impact on each of them. However one of the major flaws in this book is that there is no crossover between Evelyn and the two other girls! May literally gives Evelyn a handbill at the beginning of the book and that is all, she never crosses paths with Evelyn again and Nell never even meets her! Whilst that might be because of their family backgrounds, because Evelyn’s story is so separate from May and Nell’s, it makes the transitions between chapters seem kind of clunky,
Speaking of major flaws, there is a glaring omission of WOC in this book, and considering there was quite a big contingent of Indian suffragettes in the UK, it seems odd that there is only one passing mention of an Indian suffragette in the book. It would have been really interesting to see the struggles of women of colour in the suffrage movement and the fact that they aren’t there? Yup it definitely raised my eyebrows a bit, because the suffrage movement was not just a white women movement.
Evelyn was probably my favourite character in the book, I could relate to her most strongly, I reckon if I had been a girl in the 1910s, Evelyn is probably closest to who I would be. She wants the vote because she wants the same access to education that her brother has and feels it unfair that she is denied because she is a girl. She can come across as a little immature and naive at times, but I think that’s quite natural given her age and upbringing. Reading about her hunger strike was so harrowing. However, after the war starts, Evelyn’s storyline spins away from her education and more towards her romance with Teddy, which I didn’t love, not because I didn’t like her and Teddy together (I actually thought Teddy was quite sweet) but given how hard she fought to get her education, I would have liked to have seen more of her at Oxford.
May was perhaps my least favourite of the three, like Evelyn, she’s kind of headstrong and passionate, but she’s the sort of person whose views are so deeply entrenched that trying to talk to her if you have different views is like banging up against a brick wall, so I felt quite sorry for Nell in that respect. May is also quite immature and she seems to have blinkers on for a lot of the book, thinking that her way of seeing the world is the only way that’s right. She improved towards the end of the book, but by that time it was kind of too late for me to really like her.
In terms of storyline, Nell’s is probably the most interesting of the three and the one where we get to see the worst impact of the war. It was horrifying for me to read her chapters, where her family were practically starving and she’s so desperate to try and get a job to help them out, but no one will hire her because she dresses like a boy. I felt like I could really root for Nell because I could see how much she wanted to help her family. I felt awful for Nell when May was being a total brat about her getting a job to help her family because the job was involved in the war effort. It was also really heartening for me to see where Nell ended up at the end of the book.
There is some LGBTQ+ rep as May is a lesbian, sapphic and Nell…..well it’s a little more difficult to say what Nell is, as she reads as trans or potentially non-binary, it’s not explicitly stated, but she does express feelings of questioning her gender so I feel like defining her relationship with May as a “gay” one might be wrong, I don’t know! Anyway, so there’s LGBTQ+ rep and as far as I can tell, it’s pretty good, though there is obviously some internalised homophobia because of the time period. I also felt like May and Nell kind of rushed into a relationship and it always feels like May is more into it than Nell is, though seeing that it makes what happens later understandable. It was also nice to see a teen relationship in a book that didn’t end in “true love forever” and a break up that was relatively healthy and the two characters moved on with their lives and weren’t necessarily pining for each other years later. There was also some good PTSD rep with exploring how Teddy (and by extension Evelyn) dealt with coming home from the war.
The chapter lengths were nice, pretty much all under twenty pages and a variation of some longer ones and some shorter ones which I liked. I liked the quirky little chapter titles as well, referencing something that was said or something that happened in the chapter, I thought that was cool-I love chapter titles, I wish more books had them!
Like I said at the start, I would have loved to see more stuff with the suffragettes and maybe less of the war as I found the suffragette stuff more engaging than the war stuff and that was more what I was expecting and the plot felt a little sparse during the war years. The language also takes a bit of getting used to as the characters either speak in a very old fashioned formal way (Evelyn and to an extent May) or in an old fashioned cockney way (Nell).
The ending is kind of anticlimactic, we end abruptly at the 1918 act that allows some women the vote, but we barely get to see the character’s reactions to that or the fallout for them. I wished we could have seen what happened to Evelyn post 1917, we get to see Nell and May react to the 1918 vote but we barely get to see Evelyn’s reaction.
Overall, this was a good introductory book for people who want to learn about the suffragettes and WWI but I would definitely recommend it more for younger teens as the writing style is quite simplistic, and it doesn’t really go very in depth on the suffrage movement. It was a decent enough book but wasn’t quite what I was expecting and could have been improved with more focus on the suffrage movement, the inclusion of WOC and more focus on Evelyn’s education.
My Rating: 3/5
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-May and Nell talk about many things that are not to do with men and Evelyn talks to her fellow suffragettes about actions they take part in.
My next review will be my e-ARC of A Thousand Perfect Notes, a little later than planned, but ah well!