I often wonder how girls and women coped in the past, imprisoned in domesticity and denied intellectual lives. The liberation of girls and women – the thing which means we can study alongside boys and men, and have the same careers – is, in the grand historic scheme of things, so recent. I think that living even half a century earlier than I have would have sent me mad. A recent TV programme on the lives of women in the UK in the fifties – lives which were often spent entirely on domestic chores – left me feeling very sad and thanking heaven for my washing machine.
I’ve just finished reading The Lie Tree, which is set in the middle of the nineteenth century. The central character, Faith, is driven a little mad by frustration, and by grief. On the cusp of adulthood, Faith is full of simmering fury at everything society tells her about her own gender. Expected to think only of her domestic duty and her future marriage, her brain is ravenous for knowledge and desperately frustrated by every barrier thrown up by the men around her. They belittle her and tell her that her brain quite literally isn’t big enough.
Everything else in the book – the mysterious death of her father, the sinister tree that feeds on lies, the feuds of families and friends – are set in the context of Faith trying to make sense of the world and to find a place where her intellect can thrive.
France Hardinge’s research sits lightly on the page, so the reader learns – without knowing that she is learning – about everything from how the Victorians posed the dead for photographs, to the brutal efforts to get left-handed children to write with their right hands, to the challenges of truly objective scientific research, to the emotionally charged debates of the time about evolution and faith. It’s a hugely ambitious book, but it’s a pacy, seductive read, and I highly recommend it.