Okay, first thing’s first: raise your hand if you picked this book up because you heard ‘lesbians’ and ‘suffragettes’ in the same sentence.
I’m mostly kidding, but also a little bit not. Because, truthfully, that was absolutely one of the deciding factors for me! This book has, shamefully, been sitting on my shelf for almost a year now, and it’s taken me this long to finally pull myself together and pick it up. All I knew of this story, besides the fact that a few of my friends had already given it glowing reviews, was that it featured three young, bright girls, each with their own stories and own motives, but all striving for the same goal: votes for women. Aside from that, all I knew was that it happened to feature a romance between two of the girls, a fact that drew me in immediately! Gay suffragettes? I’m sold.
Having now read it, I’ve certainly seen a fair share of mixed reviews as far as this book goes. While plenty seem to have enjoyed it, I’ve noticed a lot of the pacing, as well as the characters themselves, have been something of a disappointment to many. A fact which I can understand, in a lot of senses, but which certainly wasn’t the case for me personally.
In fact, I thought the pacing, and the opening of this story, was actually really wonderfully done. We are introduced to three excellent young girls, as expected. The three of them live their own, separate lives, all three of whom lead vastly different existences, surrounded by different cultures and societies, and yet their paths all cross and their stories intertwine.
Evelyn, the eldest of the three, is a young woman who wants more out of life. Plucky and outspoken, Evelyn wants to go above and beyond the life that has been decided for her, the planned future already somewhat set in stone from a time when she was merely in nappies. Evelyn doesn’t want a future of being solely regarded as Teddy’s wife – Teddy, her childhood best friend, who she is expected to marry once of age – and to say goodbye to her own identity and freedom the second she walks down the aisle. Evelyn doesn’t see a future of raising children and cooking dinners and being reduced to no further than the kitchen and the bedroom. She is a girl who wants to be given the same opportunities that any man might have, the same opportunities that Teddy, and even her brother Kit, are given. In fact, while her older brother is indifferent to his education and the future that has been so readily handed to him, Evelyn yearns for the chances he so squanders and disregards, she longs for the chance to prove herself at an elite college, to have an education, to perhaps some day be something more.
And then we have Nell and may, both of around the same age, and yet two characters could not be further apart. Nell, a young girl from a large family, who has grown up with the bare minimum, and has learned to survive off in whatever way that she can. Whether it be by donning a newsboy cap and some suspenders and presenting herself as a boy to gain work, or by using her fists and fighting her way through a crowd. Nell, though one of the LGBT+ characters featured, is closeted, and has a much more sheltered view of the world than young May does, in some regards. While both are eager to stand up for the rights of women, and to earn what’s rightfully theirs, their upbringing shines a very bright light down upon their obvious differences. May has spent her whole life with only her mother, and their maid. Pacifists that they are, they believe in fighting the good fight with their words, and never with their body or with weapons; much to the incredulity of young Nell, of course. Very confident within her sexuality, May has been well aware of her attraction to girls from an incredibly young age, and has been lucky enough to be raised by a mother who is loving, open, and accepting of all identities, and of her right to love whoever she wishes. Lucky to be living and to be raised within an environment that is not only loving and accepting, she has been exposed to a wide array of girls who love girls, both young and old, and has never been taught to believe that such a thing could be wrong. Nell, indeed, did not have the same luxuries in many ways.
What I enjoyed the most about the first portion of the book, I think, was that though there may have seemed like very little action to begin with, it allowed us time to get to know each of the girls, both individually, and within their dynamics with each other, and other characters. We got to regularly see all three of them in their own, familiar environments, as well as watch characters such as Nell react to May’s world, and vice versa. And, quite honestly, to begin with, these girls may not have seemed overly likeable. May, enthusiastic and sweet as she is, exhibits an incredible naivety in the way that she not only views the world, but in the way that she views her relationship with Nell. Nell, indeed, can be rash and standoffish, and perhaps selfish in her lack of consideration for – despite her home luxuries and grander way of living in comparison to Nell – May’s own interpersonal problems. The two soon begin to experiment and to explore their romantic and sexual connection, in a way that teenagers often do. What I found refreshing about this, personally, was the fact that it read, quite simply, just as every other heterosexual relationship between two teenagers often would, be it in a book, a television show, or a movie. So often we’re subjected to these two teenagers who, within minutes of meeting each other, are beyond infatuated, and are soon declaring their love for one another without a seconds notice. As unrealistic as it might seem to some, and a little over the top, I felt like it perfectly accented the simple way with which May views the world, and just how easily teenagers do succumb to such ‘puppy love’.
Then there is Evelyn, who seems to be taking on brave mission after brave mission, risking herself for the suffragette movement, but always with her own motives. She reads as slightly selfish and, quite honestly, a little bratty in the way that she approaches scenarios. While it’s obvious that she never has any ill intent, and that she only wishes to be seen and to be heard, she often approaches scenarios with a rather childish manner, making it hard even for the reader to take her seriously at times. I found this to be quite a good narrative viewpoint, personally. We see her constantly making these brave, dangerous decisions – always to the dismay of poor, sweet Teddy – but only ever in an attempt to upset her parents. Every single one of her actions always seemed to hold an extra motive, and her intent always fell just a little short from being just right.
Personally, all of these aspects, though they may read negative, were actually even greater selling points for me. The book opened by endearing us to each of the girls, and then as their stories progressed, we find ourselves frustrated and disagreeing with them, questioning their motives and wondering just what they’re trying to achieve, in many ways. Then, as the story continues, and the element of war, with men such as Evelyn’s brother, Nell’s own father, enlisting into the army and the whole of Britain on high alert, you begin to see cracks where you never expected to, and strengths in all the most unexpected places. Each of these girls, the causes they’re fighting for, their own personal relationships, and their own inner strength, are all individually called upon and put to the test. We see them struggle and grow, make poor decisions and excellent ones too. We see them disagree, we see fall outs and heartbreak and anguish, and that’s barely the icing on the cake. I found that each time jump, too, brought something fresh to the story, even if it wasn’t necessarily positive. Getting slight glimpses into Bill’s perspective (Nell’s brother), and seeing the contrast between the two, and the way the war, the ever changing world, and their own self doubt impacted their relationship with one another, was so intriguing, and even separated from the romance which might have initially drawn some readers in. To get to actually see all the different shapes and sizes of these families, their financial situations, the levels of support in which surrounded them and the way that it was presented differently for each family, even while still being positive in its own light; all of this brought an intriguing new angle to the story, and made the transition between each POV quite easy. In fact, I often find myself getting a little tired if a book has a tendency to flit between multiple POVs, sometimes finding it confusing trying to wrap my head around too much unnecessary information, or a sudden change in the style of writing, or the narrative. Or, sometimes I just find myself impatiently waiting to get back to the characters I prefer. Not here, though. Instead, I found myself intrigued to see what was happening with Evelyn, May, Nell, and even Bill, in all their individual struggles and triumphs.
I shan’t go on too intensely, as I don’t actually want to spoil the book for anybody that might wish to read it, but I found the development of each of these girls, and their stories, was gripping from the very start and through to the end.
Another particular note that I found quite intriguing was the way in which Nicholls spoke of war, and each different narrative on the matter. Each of the girls had a very different outlook on what the war would entail, and whether or not it was a good or a bad thing. The way with which this was handled was so gorgeously done, and I appreciated so enormously the fact that Nicholls addressed the genuine ignorance, and naivety, that tended to arise on such a severe topic. The horrors and traumas of war are so frequently romanticised, even now in 2019, and to see each of the girls come to their own realisations, and to experience such growth as far as their understanding of the world they’re living in goes, was a gift in its own right. I felt as though it was an excellent way to start a conversation about a topic that so many do skirt around. We’re all conditioned to be loyal to our country, to wish for our own victory in a war, and to never think of the innocent lives being lost on both sides. So many people never consider just why we seem to resolve to killing and destroying, and in fact don’t consider that perhaps in winning such a war, we’re only making the world a more dangerous place, as opposed to the utopia that many dream of. In fact, the further you dive into the story, it becomes clear that each character, each narrative, and their own personal viewpoint on things such as war, pacifism, and such forth, begin to bend and break and evolve, devolve, and evolve once more. We see arguments from all angles, we see the hatred and the venom that people so often spew, often accentuated in such times of peril, just as we see the trauma and the gut wrenching fallout of such events. We truly see people learn and understand that all actions have their consequences, and that war and violence should never be romanticised just for the sake of a little (perhaps, often, misplaced) patriotism.
Overall, I really loved this book. It had its highs and its lows, starting out quite sweet and endearing, showing us the optimism and the enthusiasm that each of these characters had, all their fight and drive. As the book goes on, a lot of that enthusiasm dwindles, be it because of obstacles in their personal lives, a snag within the suffragette movement, or because of the war itself. While the story certainly doesn’t end on a low, I appreciate the way that Nicholls did handle the story telling. This is not a book to read if you are looking for a fairytale happy ending, and for everything to be wrapped up in a perfect, neat bow, but all the same I think it still manages to be the perfect end to such a gripping story. It’s gentle and it’s sweet, but it still remains realistic. After all; this war did, in fact, take place, as did the suffragette movement. And while Nell, May, Evelyn, Teddy, and all weren’t real historical figures, the battles they fought were every much a reality. These are not characters who stay the same, nor are they merely black and white. Indeed, we watch them grow, in a social, academical, and personal aspect. They evolve, and they change, and they are flawed. They’re young, and they’re fighting; for a better future, for happiness, for love, and for the right to simply be.