4 out of 4 stars
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Welcome to the world of 19th century America’s East Coast elite in this enduring debut novel by Diana Forbes. Mistress Suffragette tells the tale of Miss Penelope Stanton, the daughter of a well-to-do Newport, Rhode Island family who is hiding a devastating secret. The Panic of 1893, a serious US economic depression, has seriously affected her father’s business and therefore threatens the privileged lifestyle that they take for granted.
In a last attempt to find acceptable suitors for her and her younger sister Lydia (before their social status is compromised), the Stantons attend the Memorial Day Ball where there are bound to be many eligible bachelors. While Lydia catches most every man’s eye, Penelope attracts the attention of the handsome, charming, wealthy, and newly married Mr. Daggers. After a flirtatious dance, Mr. Daggers leads Penelope to an unoccupied part of the mansion where he kisses her passionately and expresses his deep desire to be with her. Both excited by his passion, and guilt ridden by its unseemly nature, Penelope flees the room determined to forget him entirely. However, Mr. Daggers is not so easy to forget.
Already begrudgingly teaching classes to young girls to offset the family’s financial crisis, a letter inviting Penelope to move to Mr. and Mrs. Daggers’ New York home is greeted enthusiastically by Penelope’s parents. Too ashamed to admit to Mr. Daggers’ scandalous actions, Penelope tries unsuccessfully to convince her parents that she should stay in New Port rather than living and working in New York. When it comes time for her to leave, she avoids the situation by accompanying her friend Lucinda, who is determined to join the Women’s Suffrage Movement that is growing in Boston.
The next part of the story details Penelope’s adventures in Boston, her involvement with the Women’s Suffrage and Rational Dress Movements, her new friend Verdana, and the uncomfortable situation that arises when her overbearing mother finds her in Boston. After a brief return to New Port, Penelope finds herself in New York and once again within reach of the relentless Mr. Daggers. This story relates the difficulties and limited choices for women during the late 19th century while eloquently explaining the struggles between the desire for independence and social propriety.
As a long-time fan of historical fiction, I consider this book a terrific addition to the genre. Words like “chignon,” “brougham,” and “bloomers” are in keeping with the time period and transport the reader back in history. The mention of well-known suffragists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, keep the story feeling real. I looked up several historical references during the reading of this novel, and while some events were slightly altered to enhance the story, Ms. Forbes superbly wove facts into her work of fiction. Additionally, she excels at creating mental images: New Port ballrooms, cramped Boston apartments, and teeming New York City streets. I was truly carried back in time.
Her characters are rich and engaging. Just when I thought I had one of them figured out, they did something unexpected; much like people do in real life. Penelope is a complex character who struggles with the social faux pas of being associated with the new Women’s movement and her desire to create her own path. She understands the irrationality of corsets and bustles, but appreciates their beauty. She wants to be in a passionate relationship with a man, but doesn’t want that relationship to cause shame for her or her family. Her thoughts and insights are humorous and endearing. These issues of independence, social acceptability, and romantic relationships remain relatable issues today.
Mr. Daggers is a desirable, yet married man. Is his marriage an arranged sham, like so many of the time period? Is his wife happy to have him out of the house and away from her, so long as he’s discrete? Or is he simply an old-fashioned playboy trying to take advantage of any attractive young woman he meets? This book keeps you wondering and second-guessing to the end. One minute you’ll be rooting for Mr. Daggers to leave his wife, and the next you’re hoping he gets run over by a horse.
Penelope’s family, including her parents, sister Lydia, and cousin Sam, are on the outskirts of the novel, yet they have enough depth to make them believable. As in real families, there are disappointments, hurt feelings, and arguments. There are realizations, sacrifices, and reconciliations. The only character that disappointed me was Penelope’s friend, Lucinda. After a strong opening, she all but disappeared from the story. I would have liked her to have a stronger presence.
Diana Forbes combines emotion, humor, history, and love to create a story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. It’s a romantic, historical, coming-of-age novel rolled into one and I rate Mistress Suffragette 4 out of 4 stars. There are a few sexually explicit scenes, making it inappropriate for young readers. I found a few errors, but believe it to be professionally edited. I recommend this novel to all lovers of good literature.
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