Reading the Carnegie: Things A Bright Girl Can Do, by Sally Nicholls

“Remember how they used to laugh at us? And say it weren’t worth it, going to prison and that, for a cause? Bet they ain’t saying anything like that to the boys at the Front, is they?”

As Sally Nicholls’ new novel begins, it’s spring 1914 and women do not have the vote. Three teenage girls are about to involve themselves in that fight, and their story is first charming, then exciting, then moving and finally inspiring.

By chance, May encounters Nell in the crowds outside a public meeting at the Bow Baths Hall. The speaker is Sylvia Pankhurst, a campaigner not only for women’s suffrage but the rights of working-class women like Nell, whose large family struggle on the breadline. Nell is an outsider in her own community, swaggering in her brother’s breeches and only interested in boys for the opportunity of a scrap: she’s also not averse to carrying a nightstick to Pankhurst’s talk (though only in defence against anticipated police violence). May, by contrast, is used to a more middle-class, less aggressive form of protest: though she idolises Boudicca, “if I was [her], I wouldn’t go to war, because I’m a Quaker and we’re pacifists … I’d use diplomacy and political wiles instead. Miss Aitchison said it wasn’t ladylike for women to involve themselves in politics.” She and her mother are proud Suffragists, but Pankhurst’ s political message resonates with them: she is thrilled by the fervent atmosphere of the talk and, both personally and politically, by Nell. Having borrowed her mother’s copy of Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex, she is not for one second ashamed about pursuing her. As much as the story of their political fight, this is almost immediately the story of their rapidly intensifying relationship.

 Equally by chance, May sells a copy of Votes for Women to young Evelyn; of the three she has seemingly the most conservative home scenario: quiet life as a dutiful daughter, respectably paired with her childhood sweetheart, Teddy, and discouraged by them from pursuit of a University degree. Yet, of the three, she will undergo some of the greatest physical hardships of the cause, and her dream of an Oxford education is not to be easily dismissed. Nicholls’ novel follows these three individuals, their families and lovers as they fight, suffer and pursue extraordinary adventures in the four years leading through the darkest of times toward the coming of the Representation of the People Act.

Syrett’s illustration to Sharp’s story ‘Anyone Else’s Prince’

The period is faultlessly evoked. Each detail is deftly painted in, without crowding the mental image like a naff costume drama. Moreover, character dialogue is perfectly captured. In an interview with the In the Reading Corner podcast, Nicholls describes reading novels of the time, including children’s literature like E. Nesbit’s, which we know (like middlebrow fiction) frequently offers us a clearer window onto social mores than literary fiction. As a side-note, I’m startled to learn that Nesbit was not herself involved in the cause of women’s suffrage, whilst Nicholls’ interview for In the Reading Corner has introduced me to the work of Evelyn Sharp, a campaigner in the Pankhurst mould but also a prolific children’s author, whose fairy tales are available on Gutenberg along with their beautiful stylised illustrations by Nellie Syrett, and who provides Nicholls’ book with a brilliant epigraph. Sharp’s fairy tales remind me strongly of her contemporary Frank Baum’s, and wear their radical politics on their sleeve: “The boys in my country are so brave,” says Princess Winsome, “that … [they] stop all the games by fighting about nothing at all; and it’s dreadfully dull when you’re a girl, isn’t it?” It’s a mannered style though, and Nicholls’ characters speak to with a zeal and looseness that is decidedly Nesbittish, not glowing like silver but glinting with steel.

These are women raised with not-so-great expectations for their future (particularly Nell) who nonetheless relish life:

May, to Nell, was like opium. Like brandy on a cold day. Like an electric shock. She made everything blaze. What did all the petty mess of manners matter when there was May there, waiting?

1910 poster by Alfred Pearce

It’s an educational book (with the odd concession to younger readers – or not-very-young readers like me, who need more context) but it’s as much an education in what it felt like to be living through rather-too-interesting-times: caught up in a mob or undergoing a hunger strike, and more particularly once Britain slips into war. I have rarely seen a depiction of the home front so nightmarish, even in Hilary MacKay’s glittering The Skylarks’ War. Perhaps it is the portrayal of Nell and her family, already impoverished, being pushed closer and closer to breaking point: perhaps it is the subtle but obvious parallels to jingoistic attitudes of today. Nicholls’ magic trick in Things A Bright Girl Can Do is to show us an historic event that we feel we know, and make it uncomfortably raw. We all know – and it feels inevitable — that during both World Wars, women took on jobs left vacant by fighting men, but here we consider the sense of loss and desperation that led to this first violent shift in consciousness. We know full well that policy changed somewhere, but we reflect here on changes in mentality:

I feel like my brain is being rewritten [a character writes], all my nerves unravelling and reknotting themselves – it’s disorientating, of course, but it’s perfectly thrilling too. I feel like I’m unfolding, and I’m just wild to see what I’m going to unfold into.

It’s a dangerous choice, following each of the three women by turns with equal attention. Much simpler to take one girl on her journey through the maelstrom, have a few cameos from major figures, and end on a brilliant victory. Yet the novel’s structure makes a page-turner of a complex, lengthy process for which (we think) we already know the outcome. Each young woman’s approach to the cause is subtly different, and each has their heroism in different circumstances. We cheer them on for their radicalism, all the more for the ambivalence and often outright abuse from their peers.

Nicholls’ approach reflects her unwavering fidelity to the complexity of the campaign: not as streamlined or logical as we might like it to be, as messy and complicated and full of difficult choices as real politics (as life itself) continues to be, a century later. What do you believe in, and what do you believe in doing about it: persuasion, activism, sacrifice? It was a powerful experience to read this novel in the same year I read Old Baggage, the witty and moving novel of the Suffragette cause ten years after their (partial) victory 1918; but Things A Bright Girl could equally be read alongside 2017’s The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which describes the journey of one girl toward political expression. We are living in an era when Young Adults will be more likely to be marching, painting banners and involving themselves in political struggles (whether like Evelyn, May, Nell or Boudicca). This will make an inspiring read for them.

PS: Note to publishers — more LGBTQ historical YA, please!

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