Having recently published a novel about the suffrage movement of 1913-1919, my interest was piqued when I discovered Diana Forbes’ debut novel Mistress Suffragette. I purchased a copy on Kindle and began reading, curious to find how the stories would parallel each other, and whether the main character would share similar traits with my own Hattie Robinson Barton, protagonist of In the Fullness of Time.
I found that Mistress Suffragette is set in the Gilded Age, two decades earlier than In the Fullness of Time. The story begins in the same year as the financial Panic of 1893, at the onset of the Progressive Era of social activism and political reform, coinciding with industrialization that was bringing the country into the modernized world with its introduction of telephones and electric lighting and refrigerators.
Penelope Stanton is a feisty young beauty whose father has lost his shipping business in the panic. Her mother is determined to match her daughter with a wealthy suiter who can save the family from ruin. At the Memorial Day Ball in Newport, Rhode Island, Penelope attracts the unwanted advances of millionaire banker Edgar Daggers, a notorious philanderer and predator of helpless young women, who promises her financial security and invites her to live in New York as his wife’s secretary–a polite way of saying that she has been sanctioned by Daggers’ wife to become his mistress.
When Penelope’s parents learn of the arrangement and demand that she move to New York to take the Daggers up on their offer, she flees to Boston, to escape Mr. Daggers and to seek work of her own choosing. There she finds employment speaking on behalf of the Woman Suffrage Movement, which will ultimately become the cause to which she dedicates her life.
Although she is headstrong and determined to maintain her independence, she is conflicted by her feelings for Mr. Daggers, who continues to pursue her and press her to accept his favors and the financial security that becoming his mistress would entail. She fights against the passion he stirs in her, knowing that if she succumbs, she will lose her reputation and her honor, which is really the only thing of value a woman possesses. If only a woman could work, could hold on to her wages and property, could stand on her own financially. Then, she could make her own decisions and be free to love a man without fear of reprisal or loss of status. But the battle to attain a woman’s rights to a fair wage, property, and the franchise, is yet to be won.
Penelope’s struggle to resolve her need for independence and self-fulfillment with her desire for a loving relationship with a man, will take unexpected turns before she finds a satisfactory solution. She will have additional encounters that cause her to question her taste in men altogether.
Her story is not unlike that of Hattie Robinson Barton, who struggles two decades later, albeit in rural South Carolina rather than urban Boston and New York, to reconcile her passion for woman’s suffrage with her duties as a wife and mother.
Unlike Hattie, who is surrounded by a loving husband and family, Penelope has lost not only the financial backing of her parents, she is deprived of their emotional support as well. However, she is a bit more socially connected and worldly than Hattie, and lives in the Northeast, an area of the country that is generally more tolerant of the changes both women seek on behalf of their gender, one in 1893, the other in 1913. Though Hattie has the support of family, she faces an unsurmountable battle against the male supremacist politicians in her state when she joins southern suffragists in seeking an amendment to the South Carolina Constitution giving women the right to vote.
The elements of the stories differ in setting, place, and period. However, both embrace the themes of coming of age, strong female characters determined to make a difference in the world, and the universal desire of the human heart to be independent, and at the same time bound in love to another.
Anyone who enjoys women’s historical fiction will find Mistress Suffragette an engaging and easy read. It’s one of those books best consumed with a cool drink, an easy chair, and a good view of the ocean. And when you finish it, you might consider reaching for a copy of In the Fullness of Time.