As is often the way, I’d seen a few people talking about Things A Bright Girl Can Do, by Sally Nicholls, for a while, and then my friend Sarah told me I had to read it because I would love it, so of course I had to give it a go. She was right of course; I did love it, because it is right up my street. History! Feminism! Wonderful characters! Everything I love to see in a book, in fact.
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?
Things A Bright Girl Can Do starts in 1914 and moves through to the beginning of 1918, following the three young women throughout. It’s a really interesting way to look at the time period – we tend to concentrate on men’s stories in the war period, and although we all learn about the Suffragettes, we don’t tend to drill down past the leaders, and certainly not to teenagers, so I very much enjoyed reading about it from the point of view of three very different young women. All three stories are fascinating and cover the breadth of Edwardian society, and I particularly liked the way they all had different reasons pulling them towards the suffrage movement. It was also good to see the historically accurate potrayal of May and Nell’s relationship, and how it was clear that it was Nell who was taking all the risk, because of the different attitudes of their communities.
I loved Evelyn and Nell as characters, although if I had to pick a favourite, it would probably be Evelyn. She’s intelligent and stubborn right from the start, but once she discovers the Suffragettes she gives herself to the cause wholeheartedly, despite her previously cosseted lifestyle. I found myself desperately worried for her at various points in the book, which shows how much I engaged with her. I also engaged with Nell, but to a lesser extent. The hardships she and her family suffered were heartbreaking, and there was a point where I really regretted reading the book in public, because I knew I was about to cry. May I was much less interested in. Although she shows spectacular growth by the end, for much of the book she came across as a bit self-obssessed. She had no idea about the things Nell was going through, and treated her abominably, and it kind of put me off her, even though the other aspects of her story were interesting. An honourable mention here for Teddy, who was my favourite of the supporting characters. His relatonship with Evelyn was just so lovely, in the way he supported her even though he was worried about what the consequences were, and I was terrified for him when he went off to war.
The period detail in Things A Bright Girl Can Do is also fantastic. The social history of Britain in this period happens to be the area I studied most at university, so while my knowledge isn’t quite up to date, I fancy I’ve got quite a good idea of what it was like, and Sally Nicholls has done a great job of portraying it right across the social classes. From the lack of opportunities for women to get an education (they can study and sit all the exams at Oxford, for example, (if they’re rich enough) but they can’t actually get a degree), to the conditions Nell and her family live in in the East End, Nicholls has got it right. Not only that, she writes in such a way that the setting is vivid and real, even to people who don’t have the historical background.
Things A Bright Girl Can Do is a fantastic book, full of historical detail and great characters. I really enjoyed it, and as this is the first book I’ve read by Sally Nicholls, I will immediately be searching out her other books. I recommend you do the same.
Things A Bright Girl Can Do is out today, 7th September. You should go and buy it.
Arc received from Andersen Press via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.