Things A Bright Girl Can Do combines fact with fiction in the stories of three girls: Evelyn, May and Nell, each from diverse backgrounds and their experiences through the Suffragette movement and the beginning of WWI.
Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres. Things A Bright Girl is an illuminating account of British social history spanning 1914 – 1917 in its exploration of different responses to the war and collective action as well as prevailing attitudes and laws governing gender and sexuality. A real eye-opener was the absolute poverty many families (such as Nell’s) found themselves in whilst their loved ones fought in the war (I had wrongly assumed they were financially recompensed) and the work of the Suffragettes in supporting those in hardship in creating opportunities social enterprise to help women earn an independent and fair wage. Having lived and worked for some years in the East End, I’m fascinated by the rich history of the East End (Silvertown by Melanie McGrath is one of my favourite books); Nicholl’s observations of life and activism in the area during this time felt well drawn and moving real with places you can visualise now such as Poplar Public Baths, Roman Road, [Nell’s work at a jam factory in] Silvertown.
I liked how Nicholls explores, without sensationalism, the sacrifices each character makes juggling what is expected of them as a young woman, sister, daughter, student, employee, wife with articulating and fighting for what they believe in, and feel. I particularly liked Nell’s story and voice: her courage and tenacity in the face of adversity and felt Nicholl’s presentation of gender and what constitutes masculinity thought-provoking. I did feel thought that some aspects of Evelyn’s later years were left unresolved and opportunities missed to explore the devastating impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (then known as shell-shock) on her husband Teddy.
All three ‘Bright Girls” experiences show how inequality and prejudice in all its aspects effects everyone. The novel is inspiring in that it shows us how far we have come as a society, yet it reminds us that there is still a long way to go in terms of ensuring free access to education for all across the world, gender-based expectations, equitable pay and decent working conditions, combating intolerance and prejudice in terms gender and sexuality.