Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
Published September 7, 2017
Things a Bright Girl Can Do is a charming and heartfelt novel about the suffragette movement in England during WW1. Spanning the years from 1914 through 1918, the novel is written from the perspectives of three young women from different backgrounds. Well-off, sheltered Evelyn joins the Suffragettes as much to annoy her parents as out of any great devotion to the cause; May, a Quaker and pacifist like her mother, is committed to the suffragists but refuses to use violence to further their cause, while Nell, whose family is just scrapping by, seeks an equal wage for equal work. The fight for equality challenges all three women, and as war looms they must ask themselves how much they’re willing to sacrifice.
What a breath of fresh air this book is. I picked it up because it vaguely looked interesting and wound up hooked! All three of the teenage protagonists are engaging and grow over the course of the novel. It’s likely partly the 1914 setting, but Evelyn and May at times reminded me of Sybil Crawley or Rose MacClare, sheltered, but well-intentioned and passionate young women.
Evelyn comes from a privileged background, with a fiancé and a good education, but she loves to learn and wants to broaden her mind at Oxford. As this is not socially acceptable, her parents forbid it, and she falls into the suffragette movement out of frustration and a desire for equality. It’s empowering to follow her journey, as she joins the suffragette movement out of a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the lack of options available to her as a woman and becomes a committed part of the efforts, even enduring a brutal hunger strike when she is arrested.
May is, in some ways, the most worldly of the three, with a mother who is open-minded, even when it comes to May’s romantic inclination towards other women. May’s aware of and accepting of her identity as a gay woman, and has an infectious optimism towards life. But while her stubborn commitment to her principles is an admirable quality, it also makes it difficult for her to view things from another’s point-of-view. It’s only later, with the wisdom of experience, that she discovers things aren’t so black and white as she had always believed.
For Nell, who dresses in boys clothes and has always felt like an outsider, a chance meeting with May opens a door. Nell is a working-class factory girl, one of six children living with their parents in a two-room flat. The suffragist movement was a practical application. She’s paid half as much as male workers and wants to earn an equal wage to support her family. Life is hard, but as Nell discovers her Sapphic inclinations for the first time, she finds some refuge in May.
I felt attached to all three characters and, importantly, to both of the central relationships that develop. Evelyn and Teddy are friends from childhood who have always presumed that they will marry, but as first Evelyn’s growing interest in the Suffragette cause and then WWI threaten their wellbeing, Evelyn and Teddy discover just how deep their feelings for one another run. Nell and May come from different upbringings and hold different values, but their shared identity as lesbians grows into a sweet story of first love. Although I rooted for both couples, I also appreciated the fact that romantic love is not the sole focus of the novel.
Things a Bright Girl Can Do is obviously well-researched and sheds a light on different spheres of the suffragette movement, including the pacifist Quakers in the form of May and her principled mother, who refuses to pay taxes until women are represented in parliament, and suffers the consequences. There is a subtly rendered lesson in here about walking a mile in another person’s shoes.
Author Sally Nicholls doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence of the suffragette movement, or from detailing the hunger strikes that imprisoned women undertook in an effort to be treated as political prisoners. She is also unflinching in her depiction of the impact of WWI on both soldiers and their families and loved ones , portraying the social consequences and the physical and psychological effects of the war.
Although at times it goes to dark places, the novel is ultimately uplifting. I really enjoyed Things a Bright Girl Can Do and highly recommend it as just the kind of feminist book that can pull you out of a reading slump.