A Gilded Age comedy of manners? Perhaps. Certainly paying homage to luminaries such as Jane Austen, the Brontes, and Edith Wharton, Mistress Suffragette is less a romance than a bildungsroman crouched in terms of historical fiction. This coming of age story succeeds because it uses its era to reveal to us the intense, some times messy as well as banal, maturation of its protagonist, Penelope Stanton, and by proxy, the age itself.
To my mind, quality historical fiction uses its setting and its characters to reveal to readers how and why what we experience in the present had its seeds in the past or is still a struggle. Poor historical fiction grafts onto the past concerns of the present and usually ends up reading stilted or ham-fisted. History is difficult for what is true and what is truth are never so clear in our collective memory. A skilled author threads the needle allow readers to feel they’ve gotten a glimpse into the past as it really was while feeling their current state revised and refreshed. Fortunately, Diana Forbes is one such author.
It is late 19th century New England, known now as the Gilded Age, and our hero Penelope Stanton is coming out of a collapsed engagement just as her father’s business faces collapse due to the Panic of 1893, a depression that crippled most of the nation for several years. Throughout the events of the novel, Penelope is attempting to navigate a course that will find not just her but her family stability and security in the upper middle class world they have grown accustomed. But these waters are filled with obstacles for Penelope such as the lecherous, wealthy scion Edgar Daggers and her growing interest and involvement with the women’s rights movement.
Forbes places Penelope in the little known Rational Dress Movement sect of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She finds a confidence and grace in oratory as she spars with the leader of the Rational Dress Movement, Verdana Jones. A contentious friendship quickly blooms between the two. However, Penelope is never really of any one particular sect of the nascent women’s rights movement, which we know today as First Wave Feminism. Instead, she is always looking to bring together disparate parts of the movement to affect what she sees as real change rather than cosmetic:
“Rather than fretting about Irrational dress,” I pressed, “we should concern ourselves with what is irrational in our society, which to me is that all the men seem to earn a living while all the women sit at home fussing about whether their parlors will pass inspection. We’re taught to want nothing more.”
Penelope’s story is the travails of not just discovering she wants more but of achieving it. Here is where the novel is at its highest quality–Penelope finding herself through her own actions and force of will.
It is also a window into workings of any progressive movement, always made of up persons with their own foibles and motives often at odds with the it. For example, although Verdana rightly sees how women have been forced to dress a major site for resistance and is able to flesh this notion out more fully and convincingly alongside Penelope’s counterpoints, Verdana is ultimately looking for celebrity over emancipation.
Verdana is able to hold this stance, because she is ignorant of her own financial and cultural privilege, a fact that Penelope sees immediately. The pairing is compelling and vital for even today Fourth Wave feminism is fighting similar battles as it brings intersectionality to the fore.
To see the inklings of the issues confronting feminism today existing in this depiction of feminism when it first arose is heartening, showing us the great continuum that is the progressive struggle. Forbes is deftly able to craft characters that aren’t mere cut-outs but flesh and blood allowing readers to at once sympathize and criticize them.
We find in Penelope a woman who is literally fighting her urges that she knows are bad for her but culturally ingrained–this is done in the form of Edgar Daggers who seduces and abuses Penelope into becoming his mistress. She is also coming to terms with the world outside her own privileged background, seen in her liaison with Stone Aldrich the stand-in for the Ashcan School of American painting.
And, finally, we watch as she earns the confidence to trust in herself to save her mother’s estate and her fifteen year old sister from having to marry a man twice her age with designs on the family’s fortune. It is not just Penelope’s involvement with the Suffrage Movement, but all of these experiences that lead her to conclude, “I knew just the right person to carry the message forward. Me.”
Readers who enjoy the speculative historical fiction of Diana Gabaldon as well as the literary fiction of Edith Wharton will find Diana Forbes’ novel more than suitable. Forbes is well at work on a sequel and has stated she envisions a series to spiral out from Mistress Suffragette. If she is able to maintain the level of historicity and drama of her first book, then I am certain it will be well worth readers’ time.
Diana Forbes is a 9th generation American, with ancestors on both sides of the Civil War, living and writing in Manhattan. When she is not cribbing chapters, Forbes loves to explore the buildings where her 19th Century American ancestors lived, loved, survived, and thrived. She is passionate about vintage clothing, antique furniture, ancestry, and vows to master the quadrille in her lifetime.