This book has been reviewed a couple of times on this site already. Scoota100 was lukewarm on it while Rachel liked it a lot. I’ll go a bit more in detail in this review in case this helps you decide whether to read it or not.
The story follows Anabelle, a country gal working as an unpaid maid for her brother. She is painfully intelligent and is bursting at the seams with frustration over the fact that due to an accident of birth, she’s at the whims of her asshole brother rather than in charge of her own destiny. She maneuvers him to let her go away to Oxford, which has recently started accepting female students, after agreeing to pay him what is effectively a bribe of 2 pounds a month. Anabelle is at Oxford on a scholarship from a group of Suffragettes, so part of her schooling is mandatory activism. Her first day canvassing she meetcutes Sebastian (a Duke and lifelong member of the Tory party which strongly opposed women’s rights including suffrage) who is required by the Queen to help the Tories win against the Liberals, who are for the most part in support of suffrage.
There are a lot of things I really love about the plot as well as how it evolves. First, I love how angry Anabelle is. It is this poisonous anger rooted in both her intense, under-utilized intelligence and the clear-eyed understanding of how intensely unfair her situation is. That this anger is so often not only justified in the experiences we see her have but validated by the men and women around her (rather than being told she needs to learn to make do with her lot) is indescribably satisfying. It also makes watching her relationship with Sebastian bloom so satisfying, because even in romance, it is very rare to have angry (not feisty, not sassy, not mopey) heroines who find partners that not only get the anger, but celebrate it. Yes, Anabelle is angry and she has every right to be. She literally punches an asshole right in the damn face for groping her friends. Fuck yes, Anabelle. You be your bad self.
I also really love that for all her progressiveness, she’s not all that interested in the suffrage movement to start beyond the money they give her to attend school. We often forget that most activists are forced into it by circumstances. That outside of a tiny group of people, society typically doesn’t care much for progressive ideas. Certainly, as a spinster by choice and a woman with no money let alone assets to bring to a marriage, a campaign to amend the Married Women’s Property Act is completely irrelevant. This amendment, were it passed, would not change her circumstances at all, or that of most women. Anabelle is an academic first and foremost, and what she really wanted to do was learn. If it wasn’t for the men in her life blocking her from this, she probably wouldn’t have ever cared a whit for any of the suffrage movement and who can blame her? This kind of activist is the most common kind. People who mostly get what they want don’t take to the streets.
And to that point, she is, outside of her brilliant mind so full of genius there is no space in it at all for any fucks to give, pretty normal for the time. She wants to get married and have kids, she simply knows the cost to her, because of the laws of the time, make it impossible for her to both have a family life she wants and the freedom to pursue her academic interests. It is therefore not at all surprising to me that when presented with an option wherein she may have both, she takes it. There are, particularly at the time, no better alternatives to being married to a dude you love (and who loves you) who has a ton of money and who will stand by you as you continue to pursue both political and professional goals. I would argue that such a relationship remains quite rare today as well.
We don’t get to see much of the consequences of that decision beyond an offhand reference, but I’m okay with that. First of all, it’s the first of a series. I don’t doubt that as we focus on other characters, Anabelle and Sebastian will pop in to show us how they’re doing. Secondly, obviously it’s bad! I don’t think we need to know every pound and every ally and every position that Sebastian lost to know that him marrying a penniless peasant would have extreme consequences for him – particularly in the genuinely spectacular manner he did it in (and my oh my is it spectacular). You don’t need to look further than Harry and Megan to see that even know, these kinds of marriages apparently still have the potential to literally shatter monarchies. And frankly, it’s still not as much as she sacrificed, since husbands had a scary amount of power over their wives (locking up an annoying/opinionated wife in bedlam for the rest of her life just because was a pretty popular activity).
I love how much time is spent on the suffragists and their arguments. I love how much time was spent on them arguing against absolutely nonsensical arguments that were 100% used to justify excluding women from public life in all its forms. I still remember reading the Supreme Court of Canada decision in law school that held that women couldn’t run for public office just because they weren’t explicitly excluded from the definition of Person in the Act because what next, DOGS running for office? And this was in the 1920s. These absolutely ludicrous arguments were not only made, but broadly believed, and it was satisfying to see a character be so composed as she responds to what would make me flip a goddamn table. It was less satisfying (though accurate) to show that while she had logic on her side, until someone with a penis and land spoke in her favour, she was still just an unnatural woman and proof of the dangers of overeducating females. She probably still was after as well.
If you usually don’t bother with historical romances because of how inaccurate they are, this is definitely one to pick up.