‘Things a Bright Girl Can Do’ by Sally Nicholls (Upper KS3+)

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.

Ms Harrison

Things A Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls was a interesting book to read. I loved how it explore the Suffragette movement, and how it makes the reader feel like they are living in the 1900s; whether it be society thinking that the campaign for women’s votes was a charade, or receiving an education which had clear gender-based limitations. The book is amazing in its own way.

Summary: the book has a few main characters: first, Evelyn, a fairly wealthy, upper-middle class young woman who comes from a respectable family, and her great friend Teddy. Teddy wants to marry Evelyn in the near future, but Evelyn would like to do all that later as she is set on studying at university; in the early 1900s however although women could go to school, they could not get a degree, they were barred from voting, having a say, or being able to live lives freely like men did. Evelyn’s brother Kit is studying at the esteemed Oxford University and Evelyn cannot see why she can’t go as well, and so in frustration she decides to join the Suffragettes, a group of women who have the same question,” Why can we not do things men can do? The only difference is sex.”

The two other key characters are May, who comes from a middle-class, progressive family, is curious, intellectual, fierce, and unapologetically queer—or, in her words, “Sapphic”. And Nell, whose family is working class, is quiet but good at fights and sports and all the things that boys do—in fact, she’s queer too, though less sure about what it means and how it works than May.

My thoughts: If I am being totally honest, I did find that parts of the book weren’t as gripping as others. I loved the idea about it being revolved around the time before the war, the fight for the women’s suffrage, the fight to standardise same-sex marriage, but it didn’t seem to be as good as other books I’ve read. Of course, this is just a personal opinion, and I’d love to hear your opinion on the book!

Reviewer:  Mahdi Amin, Year 7