TITLE: Things a Bright Girl Can Do
AUTHOR: Sally Nicholls
RELEASED: September 2017; Andersen
GENRE: YAHistorical Fiction
KEY INFO: young suffragists, relationships, class, world war 1, activism
REPRESENTATION: female main characters, lesbian, potential trans masculine character, queer relationship, mental illness
CONTENT NOTICES: white feminism, trans coded character, PTSD, poverty, violence
‘When they writes up the history of this war,’ said Nell’s mother. ‘I hope they tells about the wives and children starving to death!’
‘They won’t,’ said Nell, gloomy socialist. ‘It’ll be all “Our Boys”, and everyone enlisting and people doing without chauffers to help the war effort.’
As a working-class person who identified so hard with Nell, it is perhaps unsurprising that I found her to be the best character of the book and there were times when I became frustrated with how often her story became sidetracked by a, frankly quite irritating, romance with May (my least favourite character by far). While I felt that May’s character offered some interesting perspectives on suffrage and war from a pacifist Quaker pov, her character was wholly unlikeable, grandiose, immature and sanctimonious to the point of distraction. And although I did enjoy Evelyn’s character a lot in the beginning, as her story moved away from suffrage, education and family towards an out and out romance with her best friend, Teddy, I became quite bored with Evelyn’s character development towards the end of the book. However, I did think it was valuable to have multiple perspectives on and approaches to the events of 1914-1918 across the different classes. Having said that though, I felt that particular characters and storylines could really have been deepened to give a better look at the socioeconomic and political lives of the time, and I wish that the end of the book did not feel so rushed.
On the topic of Nell and gender, I have a lot to say about this because I think that there has been a total misreading of Nell’s character (in my opinion). As a trans person, Nell’s experiences and feelings towards her gender identity absolutely scream of Nell being trans too, and I find it frustrating that this hasn’t been spoken about very much, instead, Nell and May’s romance is being portrayed as “gay suffragette’s”. Why do I think this? Well, I feel that there are some clear indications at points throughout the book from her attitude towards clothes, symptoms of gender dysphoria, and other people’s reactions towards her androgyny in a way that is different from other masculine fictional women, for example, Kay in Sarah Water’s The Night Watch.
Here are some of the most prominent examples, but there are many more littered through the entire book:
“‘I dunno, she said briefly. Cos I looks such a guy in petticoats.’
May sensed a lie, sensed the wall and retreated. Then, cautiously, she said ‘Mama has a friend who dresses like you. I mean, she wears her hair short, you know, and all her friends call her Cyril… What would you call yourself if you could?'”
The above quote occurs about a third of the way through the book. Already I had been getting trans vibes from Nell, and to see it laid out so plainly made me really excited about her character development, although sadly it never develops much beyond this point.
“If Nell had been the boy she sometimes thought she ought to have been, she would have treated May”.
The use of ought to have been here, I think, speaks strongly of Nell’s feelings of gender dysphoria which she continuously displays throughout the book.
“Other girls, mostly, didn’t much like Nell either; she wasn’t quite a girl and she wasn’t quite a boy, and that made them wary and a little contemptuous… Other girls felt like a different species to Nell. She’d decided as a child that she wasn’t one of them, and as an adult that feeling had only grown”.
“‘Look here, I ain’t being funny, but you know this is the girls’ dorm, right?… And then, ‘I ain’t trying to cause offence, right, but what are you? Peggy sez you’re a girl, but you ain’t, are you?'”
Like many other trans people, this is a conversation that I have had countless times throughout my life and is just one example of many of the way that other people interact with Nell on account of her gender presentation.
Whilst it could, of course, be that Nell is just a masculine woman, and that is absolutely fine, I just feel that these experiences so clearly mimic experiences of trans people that, in my mind, Nell is definitely a trans character. Naturally, everyone is entitled to their own opinions about this but I would urge other readers to at least consider this to be an option rather than a total erasure of these experiences in Nell’s story. It is also disappointing that the author did not take this part of Nell’s identity further, instead focusing on the romance between Nell and May.
Overall, I did really enjoy Things a Bright Girl Can Do, and felt that with some minor improvements this book could definitely have received 4 stars from me! It’s well-written, observant, critical, witty, and makes some excellent comments on suffrage and the war through the very enjoyable medium of YA fiction. It’s so important that more stories like this continue to be written, especially as historians are relentlessly slow in including these experiences in historical narratives.