4 out of 4 stars
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“The best protection any woman can have is courage.” – Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Imagine your life having to attend society balls with your mother, along with her schemes to find a wealthy partner for you to marry. You feel her watching every move as you try to appear to be enjoying the evening. The stress factor might go up a bit if you were the eldest of three daughters. You know they are waiting their turn to look for romance. As the eldest you are expected to secure a marriage partner first. You might feel like you had a proverbial gun to your head. This is the situation for our protagonist, Penelope, in Mistress Suffragette by Diana Forbes. The book is a work of Historical fiction and romance, but more importantly, it demonstrates how our protagonist moves from a self-deprecating young person into a strong woman. She becomes aware of her self-worth fully capable of asserting herself when needed.
Penelope comes from an upper-middle-class family with traditional values. She is expected to marry well or gain a suitable teaching position enabling her self-sufficiency. She is seventeen years old, on the cusp of womanhood. It is 1893; the banking system is in turmoil affecting both the family and her prospects for a good marriage. After being introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Daggers, by her cousin Sam, she finds their proposal of assistance is not what it seems. She runs away with her friend Lucinda to Boston.
Lucinda introduces Penelope to the Women’s Suffragist movement. At one of these meetings, they meet Verdana who is speaking in favor of rational dress. She prefers bloomers as they allow for freedom of movement. Verdana believes the women's traditional dress is restrictive and unhealthy. Penelope is fond of bustles and layers of skirts. Will Verdana persuade Penelope to throw them off and choose the path to freedom?
Forbes’s writing style is enjoyable and witty. Along with well-developed characters, this combination provides a story that is lively and entertaining. The themes in the book are timeless. Blending historical facts and fiction the author describes the conditions that many of the suffragists may have found themselves in. The vivid details of the locations, filthy streets, squalid conditions, sights, and smells, are carefully crafted to bring this story to life.
My favorite character was Mrs. Amy Van Buren. She was influential in New York’s high society and a strong supporter of the Suffragist campaign. She was the mother figure, Penelope did not have. Amy encouraged Penelope, protected her and helped her to find a passion for the movement. I felt she made a difference in Penelope's life, a difference that was not motivated by self-interest.
I also appreciated Penelope’s character. I enjoyed seeing her transition as she matured into a young woman, courageous and steadfast in her beliefs. Forbes reveals Penelope’s struggles with her feelings and the attraction of Mr. Daggers. I like how the author depicts the conflicting emotions Penelope experiences. Forbes expressed it best through Penelope’s thoughts, “It’s been said that if women could remember the pain of childbirth, we’d never have more than one child. And maybe my feelings for Mr. Daggers were like that, too.” That helped me to understand her character in a more complete way. When Penelope stands up to a detractor at one of the Suffragist rallies, this seems to be a turning point for Penelope. Slowly, she finds her way and her courage, challenging those that would harm her or the ones she cares about in both a commendable and amusing fashion.
Penelope’s mother was comical in her relentless pursuit of a wealthy suitor for her eldest daughter. Verdana appears to be a strong character. However, as the plot unfolds, her weakness is revealed. The secondary characters are equally multifaceted and well-developed. The author displays an amazing talent for bringing out a character’s good qualities as well as their less endearing ones.
I did not locate any major grammatical errors in this novel. It appears to be professionally edited. I found nothing in the book that did not appeal to me, though there did seem to be a lack of a strong male character. The execution of the story was remarkably well done, bringing all pieces of the plot neatly together. The ending was both satisfying and surprising. My rating is 4 out of 4 stars.
I would recommend it to those who like Historical Fiction, a light romance, or a story with strong female characters. I would caution that this book does deal with physical abuse, though I did not find it to be overly graphic in nature.
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