Authorgraph No.226


hen we meet at the Ashmolean Museum’s restaurant in Sally Nicholls’s home town of Oxford, the author begins by quoting George Bernard Shaw: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to

adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

It’s an apposite summing up of not just the suffragette movement in general, which is the backdrop to Nicholls’s latest book, Things a Bright Girl Can Do, but also the novel’s three main characters. Evelyn, Nell and May are captivating and infuriating in equal parts – and certainly ‘unreasonable’ enough to want to shape an unfair world to their view of justice. The three are teenage suffragettes from wildly different backgrounds and Nicholls’s epic book covers their lives and loves against the backdrop of the course of the First World War.

It’s a fast-paced read that shifts between the characters every couple of pages or so, keeping the action moving yet still packing in a wealth of historic detail. Nicholls deftly weaves in real historical events and people and there is a fascinating depth of social history, telling the story of those who are usually invisible in writing of and about the time, from the East End poor to the female pacifists arguing against the folly of the ‘Great War’.

She’s brilliant on such details as the sheer weight of clothing that Edwardian women struggled under – and not a minor detail if you consider, for example, how constraining full skirts, stays and petticoats might be when trying to break through a police barricade. She is also revealing on the grinding poverty the war left women and children in when the main breadwinner was away fighting, and the daily, soul- destroying trek around Poor Law Guardians, Relieving Officers, Labour Exchange and pawn shop in an effort to get work and money for food.

Nicholls admits that, unusually for an historical novelist, she frequently found the research process for the book ‘boring’, although she enthuses about some of the original sources she uncovered. ‘One of the things that the research really does teach you is quite how biased a view of history you get,’ she remarks. It wasn’t research that Nicholls necessarily expected to be doing in her next book after the acclaimed middle grade adventure An Island of Our Own, which was shortlisted for the Costa award and the Guardian children’s fiction prize, among others.

Sally Nicholls Interviewed by Michelle Pauli

Unusually, Things a Bright Girl Can Do was conceived over a lunch with Charlie Sheppard, Nicholls’s editor at Andersen Press. Sheppard had decided that she wanted a ‘book about suffragettes’ and that Nicholls was the person to write it, given that she’d written a short story, Going Spare, for the anthology War Girls about the two million ‘spare women’ of the 1920s and 30s who were left single after millions of young men died during the first world war. Nicholls and Sheppard discussed suffragettes and suffragists (the less radical campaigners) and decided that suffragettes were the more interesting – ‘you really do want to be writing about the people throwing the petrol bombs if you’re writing a novel’. Then, ‘she just kind of waved at me and said ‘go off and write it’!’. Which, Nicholls adds, was ‘quite daunting’. Not least because ‘being a suffragette isn’t a plot. It’s a background, a setting. You need characters who change and develop. You need things that happen. You need an emotional journey.’

‘And then I’m afraid I just quite lazily thought, a love story’s got its own sort of plot. It’s a bit like Titanic. You don’t say, well, I’m going to write a film about the Titanic sinking. Because that’s not a plot. That’s a documentary. You say I’m going to write a story about two people who fall in love and who happen to be on the Titanic and that gives

12 Books for Keeps No.226 September 2017

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