Gather ‘round, readers, as I explain why Courtney Milan’s The Suffragette Scandal is perfect.
It takes place in 1877. The female protagonist is Frederica “Free” Marshall, the Owner and Editrix-in-Chief of the Women’s Free Press, a newspaper “By women—for women—about women.” She, her press, and her livelihood are being targeted by an angry and powerful man. Free says at one point when explaining how she knows the anger and power of the man she’s up against: “I told a man I wouldn’t bed him, and so he burned my house down.” It turns out that the male protagonist, Edward Clark, knows the man who is targeting Free and happens to dislike him very much. Edward, a master forger of both other people’s writing and of metal, has a history full of secrets and tells Free from the get go that he is an untrustworthy scoundrel. But they like each other immediately and fall in love easily, and every second of it is perfection.
Free is a woman who knows herself through and through, her worldview is clear, and her purpose is singular and mighty. Edward’s identity was hollowed out by a series of personal tragedies years earlier and in Free, he finds someone he not only admires but whose self-confidence he seems to crave. During the conversation between them that Edward would later refer to as the moment when he fell in love with Free, he says to her “Every time we talk, you turn my world upside down.” She responded in typical Free fashion: “You’re wrong again. The world started out upside down. I’m just trying to set it right side up.” Later, Edward, speaking to Free’s brother, says, “One of these days, you’re going to realize that your sister doesn’t need a man who follows the rules. There are too many rules and only one of her.” Any woman who imagines herself or desires to be someone who pushes boundaries will adore this pair.
And so, while the book is ostensibly about Free, it is really about all women who speak out about inequality, sexism, and social injustice, women who push boundaries. It is also about, then, the very annoying and sometimes dangerous things that women have endured for centuries for the mere act of daring to speak. For those of us who dodge trolls on social media and hateful emails in our inboxes on the regular, lines like the following resonate well beyond their 1877 context: “Ugly letters were inevitable. They came no matter what [Free] did; they were the price for accomplishing anything. There was no point worrying about them.” Or take when Edward says to her, “Your cause may be just. But you’re delusional if you think you can accomplish anything. Rage all you want, Miss Marshall, but you’ll have more success emptying the Thames with a thimble.” Free immediately responds in the way all of us who have ever been mansplained to our work or our passion respond, “What I don’t understand is why you think you need to lecture me about this all. I run a newspaper for women. Do you imagine that nobody has ever written to me to explain precisely what you just said? Do you suppose I’ve never been told that I’m upset because I am menstruating? That I would calm down if only some man would put a child in my belly? Usually, the person writing offers to help out with that very task.”
Free then takes up Edward’s metaphor of emptying the Thames with a thimble (a metaphor that Milan credits in her author’s note to Melissa McEwan’s idea of teaspoons in a sea of injustice) and she says,
“Do you think I don’t know that the only tool I have is my thimble? I’m the one wielding it. I know. There are days I stare out at the Thames and wish I could stop bailing.” Her voice dropped. “My arms are tired, and there’s so much water that I’m afraid it’ll pull me under. But do you know why I keep going? Because I’m not trying to empty the Thames. Look at what we’re doing with the water we remove. It doesn’t go to waste. We’re using it to water our gardens, sprout by sprout. We’re growing bluebells and clovers where once there was a desert. All you see is the river, but I care about the roses.”
Edward, near the end of the book, says to Free, “Let me be your thimble carrier.” I cried my face off. What person who spends their days fighting injustice doesn’t want a partner — in whatever sense: a lover, a friend, a co-worker, a parent — who will help them carry thimbles so that they can nurture the gardens they love so dearly?
This is such a small piece of what makes this book perfect. It has humor as well as plenty of exasperation at the things that men do and say and think and assume. Edward and Free have a bumpy section in their relationship and Milan is so honest to the characters and allows them to be honest with each other in a way that is both refreshing and sometimes frustrating and heartbreaking. There’s also the delightful minor plot of the romance of Free’s partner at the press, Amanda.
And here’s the best part: when you finish this book, you have the whole rest of the Brothers Sinister series to read. And while The Suffragette Scandal is my favorite of this bunch, I loved each novel and novella on its own.