This is my second read from this year’s Carnegie Shortlist, and it is a far more complex novel than I had anticipated from the cover. Taking its title from a 1914 book, 301 Things a Bright Girl Can Do, Nicholls gives us three bright girls who each become a part of the struggle for female emancipation in the early Twentieth Century. Evelyn is set for a conventional existence within the middle classes. She’s been refused the chance to study at Oxford and is increasingly bitter about the curtailing of her freedoms. May, the daughter of a ‘vegetarian, a suffragist, a pacifist, a Quaker, a Fabian, a Bolshevik Sympathiser and a believer in Rational Dress for women’, has grown up in a highly politicised world and holds deep-set convictions about just how the world needs to change. She meets Nell, a working-class girl who prefers to dress in boys’ clothes, at her first suffrage meeting which turns violent. The two girls begin a relationship but Nell, coming from a background of grinding poverty, has to be far more pragmatic about the way forward than the idealistic May.
It is through Nell’s character that I learned a good deal about the impact that the war had upon those left at home. Terrifying ineptitude in bureaucracy leads to many families struggling for necessities, and Nicholls brings the sheer drudgery of the war effort home very effectively. There’s a nod towards the way women were put into roles which could prove highly detrimental to their health – Nell becomes a ‘canary’ in a munitions factory, her hair turning yellow through exposure to TNT – and the vulnerability of women in wartime is highlighted. It is usually the Suffragists who come to the aid of those women who are struggling, and they come across far more positively than the Suffragettes in this novel.
Nicholls also focuses on the divisions that open up between the responses to the war from the various suffrage groups. All three girls have their ideals challenged and see their worlds upended. All three begin to realise the cost of these ideals, and have to ask themselves if the cause is ‘worth dying for’. Ultimately, of course, we know the outcome of the war, and the outcome of the fight for votes for women. What this novel does brilliantly is capture the different struggles, with all the nuances, of the different groups involved. It brings a period of history to life from a new angle for younger readers, and is a fascinating historical novel for all ages.