My readers here know that I love to read and review novels about suffragettes. This year I've reviewed a YA mystery dealing with suffragettes here and a novel about a suffragette in South Carolina here. Mistress Suffragette by Diana Forbes is a debut romance taking place in America during the Gilded Age.
I rarely read or review romances. I like unusual books, and romances tend to run to formula. So when I got the request for this review, I had to take a look at what was being said about Mistress Suffragette on Goodreads. It sounded like there would be more emphasis on the context than I would normally find in a historical romance. This is why I accepted a review copy, and I am now posting an honest review.
There is a repeating pattern for all three of the suffragette novels I've read this year. It seemed to me that the protagonists aren't as strong or as interesting as supporting characters. I always find this disappointing. In my review of In The Fullness of Time by Katherine Stillerman which is the second review linked above, I speculated that the authors may think their protagonists are more relatable.
When we first meet Penelope Stanton, the protagonist of Mistress Suffragette, she's sheltered, spoiled and somewhat shallow. She makes the occasional witty remark, but frankly I found her thoroughly unsympathetic. I told myself she would improve when she stopped being under her mother's thumb. She did improve. She began to be more thoughtful. Yet throughout the novel, Penelope ends up being swayed by those who surround her. Some of her worst decisions could only be explained by the proximity of a strong minded individual over-riding her judgment. She seemed to lack self-determination.
I preferred Verdana, a feminist activist that Penelope encounters after she leaves home. Verdana's focus is on women's clothing reform to increase mobility. Verdana is bold within the context of her period. I liked her self-acceptance and genuine desire to help other women. For much of the book, Verdana's cause is more central than women's suffrage. Yet I enjoyed Verdana's expansion of Penelope's consciousness by introducing ideas and experiences that were foreign to her.
Speaking of new experiences, I thought that the scene in which Penelope learns to use a gun and becomes an instant sharpshooter unrealistic. If you've ever tried to handle a gun for the first time, you know that there's a kick that will be unexpected. It tends to throw people off. Diana Forbes should have consulted with someone who knows guns when she was writing that scene.
I was also irritated by certain character name choices. Names like Daggers or Stalker sound like mustache twirling villains in staged melodramas from the period that Forbes was writing about. Real people weren't likely to have names like those. I felt that they were heavy handed and predictable. They would be more appropriate for a satire.
So although there were characters and moments in Mistress Suffragette that pleased me, the book definitely did have flaws. Judging from reviews, some readers may overlook those issues. I am hoping that Diane Forbes learned from the experience of writing this book and will produce better work in the future.