When we think about the first wave of feminists, we tend to be thinking not so much of the first pioneers, but of the later, radical women, the suffragettes and the truly freethinking women Sheila Rowbotham portrayed in Dreamers of the New Day. Yet in the 1860s there was an initial, cautious flowering of women saying what were then radical things, like married women should have some rights of their own – to their bodies, their property, their children – but still very cautious, and trapped within the framework of mid-Victorian thinking in which simply not being a doormat made them very nearly beyond the pale.
It’s in this milieu that Emma Donoghue has set her latest novel, which is based, very closely we learn from an informative postscript, on a famous divorce case of 1864, Codrington v Codrington, in which a pillar of the British establishment, Vice-Admiral Codrington, set out to prove his wife guilty of adultery, and thereby secure a divorce, while also showing that he hadn’t connived in her actions, or allowed them to run so that he could secure the said divorce.
This is a dense, gripping tale, by the end of which you’ll know a lot about Victorian divorce law, and a lot about the central character, not either of the main legal protagonists, but Emily Faithful, “Fido”, a leading early feminist who established a printing press, training women typesetters in the face of sometime violent industry resistance, and was at the heart of an early feminist core. She’s a fascinating character, as Donoghue presents her, and I’m pleased that she’s been rescued by this book from historical oblivion.
Her naivety and innocence in the face of the scheming, exploitative Helen Coddrington – a classic case of an intelligent woman with nothing to do with her life except cause mischief – is sometimes frustrating to the reader, but always believable, as is her almost disastrous lack of legal understanding. It can only increase our admiration for women such as her, the cossetted, protected, knowledge-deprived daughter of a rural clergyman, who set out to tackle a hostile world on their own terms, with the odds stacked full against them.
Some reviewers have found the book too packed with historical detail and the author’s research, but I didn’t find it so – the colour fits easily within the fastmoving narrative, and the characters are none of them black and white, but highly believable shades of grey.
A gripping read – I read it in one sitting long after I should have turned the light out. Definitely recommended if you enjoy historical novels, or are interested in First Wave feminism.