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>> The rights of women

The rights of women

The rights of women

SALLY NICHOLLS's latest novel, Things a Bright Girl Can Do, is set at the turn of the twentieth century, a time when women had no vote and limited freedom or opportunities.

The story follows three girls as they grow into young women, exploring the everyday lives of women of the time and how a lack of emancipation limited their lives and opportunities.

As each of the characters is drawn into the fight for women's suffrage, Nicholls explores the impact the movement has on their lives, as well as the wider changes forced by World War I.

We asked author SALLY NICHOLLS to tell us more about THINGS A BRIGHT GIRL CAN DO:

Q: Why did you want to visit this period in history and to explore women's rights?

A: I write books for all sorts of different reasons, sometimes it's about a character, or the story, or an historical period.

When I wrote All Fall Down, I wanted to write about the Plague. For Things a Bright Girl Can Do, my editor contacted me to suggest I write a book about the Suffragettes. I thought it was an amazing idea and said 'Yes!', so the theme of Edwardian Britain came along.

I wanted to write about women for whom the suffrage movement was an important personal struggle, so the experience of being involved would be transformative. I also wanted to ask, what can be so important that you'd give up your life for it?

Q: Where did you go to research the period and the women's suffrage movement?

A: This was something I knew very little about before I started writing the book. Some novelists really enjoy doing the research for their writing but I'm not one of those authors; I'm not interested in what underwear people wore but I knew we need to get it right. So I ploughed through books about the Edwardian period, and some autobiographies, for example by Sylvia Pankhurst - who wrote two - and Evelyn Sharp, the editor of Votes for Women.

It was easy to find out about how the day to day lives of my characters might have been spent but I also wanted them to speak like the Edwardians, it's a fun language to write, so I read several Edwardian novelists.

I also read some children's books like Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) and Daddy-Long-Legs (Jean Webster). One of the most useful was Rilla of Ingleside, one of the Anne of Green Gables sequels written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, which is about Anne and Gilbert's youngest daughter. Rilla was a teenager in 1914 and her story turns a lot of our notions about the war on their head. When Rilla's brothers go off to war, she is very clear that they have gone off to hell.

We have this idea that people at home didn't know what was going on in the trenches but they did. While we also feel sometimes looking back on history that the war seems pointless, Rilla thinks they are fighting against evil and for freedom.

Q: Why did you decide to follow the lives of three women in the novel?

A: My editor thought it would be good to see people from various backgrounds so I had to think carefully about how I could do so. 'I'm a suffragette' is not a story and I've read books with a lot of descriptions of marches and hunger strikes but that's not a plot. The key to a plot is, what do the characters want and how are they going to go about getting it? So in my novel, each of the three characters wants something and being a suffragette is a way to get this.

Evelyn, for example, wants to go to university but her parents won't let her. There was nothing open to women like her, apart from being a companion or a governess.

With May, a suffragist, I wanted to know what it would have been like to be anti-war in that period. Conscientious objectors were seen as cowards and accused of being too scared to go to war. I grew up in a Quaker family so I thought that would be an interesting area to research.

Q: Your third character, Nell, introduces issues around gender and sexuality. What sparked the idea for Nell's dilemmas?

A: I liked the idea of the women's suffrage movement being transformational. I remembered reading newspaper articles from the time that talked about the campaigning women being 'mannish' and 'unsexed' characters, and they were probably lesbians - women with a real incentive to change society. Being a suffragette - or Suffragist as Nell and May were - would help give you the power to make a political change and a romantic change, and that is Nell's story.

So the story is about three women and there are two love stories that drive the plot. There were so many other things to explain, about the effects of going on hunger strike, how the First World War affected the working classes and so on, that there wasn't room for a complicated plot.

I also wanted my characters to have different view points and to disagree with each other profoundly so that we question all their assumptions, and our own. Today we think of the suffragettes as heroes but at the time, most of us would probably have thought of them as idiots.

Q: Can you explain how you developed the women's different backgrounds?

A: Two of the characters, May and Evelyn, face the agony of being gentry but not having any money. A lot of Evelyn's life was based on books like Noel Streatfield's autobiography of her childhood, A Vicarage Family, which describes what they would do on Sundays, what a governess does in a day and how they managed their clothes, in which Streatfield describes the agony of having a party dress made with sleeves of a different colour.

There are so many books about middle class children but not about lower class children so for Nell, who came from an impoverished family, I read Round About a Pound a Week, a Fabian study that asked women to write down what they bought each week for dinner and breakfast and looked at issues like how they lived and slept with eight people in two rooms or what happened when the dad was ill and couldn't work.

As we see with Nell's family, the government had to bring in conscription during the war as thousands of men wouldn't sign up because the family needed their income. If your main wage earner goes off to war, how will you pay the rent and support the family?

Q: Were there any surprises for you during your research?

A: I was taught at school that women got the vote as a 'thank you' for all the important work they took on during the war while the men were away fighting, but I found that that isn't true.

By 1913, the suffragettes were clear that the government would have to give them the vote. They were aware that they had pushed the government and that the tide of public opinion was moving in their favour. So the reason that they didn't get suffrage in 1913 was because the government didn't have a face-saving way to do so because there was still an anti-suffrage feeling within the party.

The war was a gift in terms of making changes to how men got to vote (very few could before then) and then they could also give the vote to women as a 'reward' for their war efforts. Women at the time were furious about how it was portrayed.

Q: What would you like readers to take away from your novel?

A: What I hope they will take away is how much social change the suffragettes managed in such a short space of time. In 1911 they wanted to have the ability to have their own job, rent a flat and live as they chose to and they thought that they could achieve it.

Why was having the vote so important in all this? Once they had the vote, women got the right to see their children after divorce, they began the fight for equal pay, and for pensions.

These changes started to happen through the '20s, '30s and '40s, so it shows how quickly these women managed to revolutionise the social order. Instead of elderly and disabled people being looked after at home, usually by the women, the government had to step in and start to care for them. They achieved so much that had seemed impossible up to then, so their efforts show us how managing social change is achievable.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do, published by Andersen Press on 7 September 2017


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