HarperCollinsPublishers, Australia, 2023
I think the thing about historical fiction that appeals to so many readers is the way it ties the present to the past. In writing a story about the growth of the suffragette movement in late 19th century and early 20th century Britain, Tania Blanchard has cogently placed the advancement of women’s rights on a continuum which includes the modern reader’s world.
Main character Hannah Todd has dreams of working for the betterment of women across the whole of society. Fresh from university, she moves to a country village to help her parents when they buy a pub there. She’s trained as a teacher and has hopes for her own professional future as well as for the children who come under her care.
Early on she is delivered a dose of harsh reality when she learns about the living conditions of many of her pupils and the limited means of so many of the women and families in the rural village. She also finds herself trapped in the village as the health of her father deteriorates and she is needed to help her mother in the pub.
Her initial response to these challenges is both to rail against them and to acknowledge the sense of duty she feels. Meeting a young man with whom she immediately feels an affinity, and then much more, further adds to her inner turmoil.
She’s always been determined not to marry because marriage would require her to leave her profession and to abandon her independence and many other legal and personal rights.
However, it is not so easy to govern the heart or one’s sexual passions, no matter the consequences.
The specifics of her case are of course a means to explore the inequal burdens of family, marriage and child-bearing in the society of the day. Indeed the parallels with the present are obvious despite the passage of time and changes to the law. The moral burden of that sense of familial duty often falls heavily on women it seems to the present day.
It is Hannah’s connections with the suffragette movement both locally and then when the national body is formed that allow her to see a life beyond the one she has chosen through this sense of duty and in following her heart.
She is a person of great moral courage and one who loves with sincerity. She will not abandon her family when times are tough. She finds the tug of the heart equally unjust in its consequences as much of society’s rules, but in the end she must decide what it is that matters most to her.
In this book we are ever sympathetic to women and their plight. We witness brutality, the cruel hand of fate and the indifference of society. We see how the patriarchal system resists change and the surrender of an iota of power and self determination to women.
We also see how class and poverty deal an even more unequal hand to women than men when laws denying their rights are held fast by governments and lawmakers, the wealthy and powerful. We rail at the powerlessness of women in Hannah’s world and in so much of ours in the twenty-first century.
This is not, however, a book that leaves us with a sense of hopelessness. We are confident in the capacity of the women portrayed to somehow effect positive change. Their camaraderie and genuine support for one another is the big change maker and their mainstay. Their intelligence, problem solving capacities and wit are so evident that we take cheer and believe, as Hannah does, that a better world is possible. And, for Hannah, at the core of all betterment there is love.
The author’s thorough research has ensured a sweeping work that will please readers with an interest in social history.
Readers with a penchant for romance will feel equally satisfied with a story in which the strong female lead is allowed to know her own mind whilst being wholly human in her need for a rich and mutually respectful loving relationship with the object of her desires.
Thank you to HarperCollinsPublishers for my review copy and to Tania for an enjoyable and informative conversation about history and this book.