Nicholls moved on from the small Quaker school to a large comprehensive, which suited her better. A degree in philosophy and literature at Warwick University followed, then the Bath Spa MA in writing for young people. There she won the Peters Fraser Dunlop prize for the most promising writer on the course and a deal for Ways to Live Forever, her hugely successful debut novel about a boy with leukemia, which went on to win the 2008 Waterstones children’s prize.

She seems almost embarrassed how straightforward it was. ‘I always feel a bit of a fraud,’ she says, laughing. ‘You do school visits and stuff and you feel like you want to say, oh I have 97 rejections in a big pile and I’m like well, actually, it was… unusually smooth.’

However, Things a Bright Girl Can Do represents something of a departure for Nicholls, and not only in the way it was commissioned. ‘I’ve not written a book like this before,’ she says. ‘This is the first full novel I’ve written that’s been third person and it’s the first novel I’ve written that’s had more than one principle character.’ It also covers an arc of time and cast of characters that range far wider than her previous work, along with a subject matter that is close to her heart. Asked how she wants teenage girls to feel after reading and she immediately responds, ‘I want them to be inspired. These are women who transformed the life that we live. It didn’t just happen. It was fought for – physically fought for. And that’s part of our history, that’s our social history.’

Things a Bright Girl Can Do, Andersen Press, 978-1-7834-4525-7, £12.99 hbk Ways to Live Forever, Marion Lloyd Books, 978-1-4071-5933-1, £6.99 pbk

An Island of Our Own, Scholastic, 978-1-4071-2433-9, £6.99 pbk War Girls, various authors, Andersen Press, 978-1-7834-4060-3, £6.99 pbk

you a plot to hang your scenes of drowning men and screaming…’

Evelyn’s love story is a socially sanctioned romance with a suitable young man, yet it still faces challenges, firstly as a result of her activism, which sees her imprisoned and on a vividly and harrowingly described hunger strike, and then later when her fiancé is fighting at the front and returns home traumatised. In contrast, the second love story, between Nell and May, crosses a class divide that proves more of a hurdle than the necessarily hidden nature of their love. That was a deliberate decision by Nicholls, who says, ‘I read The Well of Loneliness and the standard narrative is ‘oh it was all dreadful and I was excommunicated by my family and I had to go and throw myself off a bridge’ type story. I very deliberately didn’t want to write that story. Because it’s just been so overdone. I read quite a lot of people on Twitter saying, “can we have a story about lesbians where people don’t die or come out and get disowned. Can we not just have love stories?”’

Whereas alongside the suffrage campaign, Evelyn’s personal fight is to go to university and Nell is battling poverty and her sexuality, May on the face of it has the easiest home life with a mother who not only accepts but supports her daughter’s Sapphism, as May describes it.

Yet May’s mother’s principles are uncompromising, to the extent that she is prepared to see her daughter’s treasured possessions removed by a bailiff (who lives with them for six weeks in an historically accurate and horrifyingly amusing scene) due to her refusal to pay her taxes – no vote, no tax. May herself is heartbroken at home and ostracised at school as a result of her unyielding pacifist views, based on her Quaker faith.

Nicholls also had a Quaker upbringing, attending a Quaker school for three years before it closed down, and remarks that, ‘it’s only when I’ve grown up I’ve realised quite how unusual a background it is. There’s a bit in the book where May says, ‘well of course I’m antiwar, I’m also pacifist and anti-famine, isn’t everybody?’ That was what my childhood was like. The Quakers were, obviously we don’t want to die in a bloody battle, why would you?’

Michelle Pauli is a freelance writer and editor specialising in books and education. She created and edited the Guardian children’s books site

Books for Keeps No.226 September 2017 13

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