Review: A Proper Education for Girls by Elaine di Rollo (Vintage)


A Proper Education for Girls by Elaine di Rollo
Published by Vintage and out now in paperback

Out of the three books I’ve been reading about women in different situations in history the only one so far I’ve finished so far, and I might not finish the other two if I’m being completely honest, which says more about me as a reader than the books themselves. Part of it is going to come down to how connected as a reader I can be to a characters situation and how that makes me feel and part of it is that I’m more excited by the extraordinary than the ordinary.

And A Proper Education For Girls is extraordinary but at the same point it makes a serious comment on how women have been seen and how far we’ve come. In other words, I was entertained and educated but didn’t feel like I was being preached to. I really felt that I was in these characters shoes.

All this is making A Proper Eduction into some serious and stiff tome but far from it. Lillian and Alice are the bright twin daughters of the eccentric and rich Mr Talbot, who resides in a massive mansion filled with innovations, armour, botanical specimens and a sprawling collection of curiosities. So the environment is far from ordinary. The women in the girls lives are a collection of Aunts who keep warm and play cards in the tropics of the palatial greenhouse.

This leaves Mr Tablot as the dominating parental influence and at a time where women had a place this doesn’t  give either girl with much freedom. But both of them overcomes their situation in the most surprising and fascinating way.

Lillian married and packed off off with a missionary to India where who is expected to be the little wife but having a sickly and weak husband means you either do it yourself or you don’t get vary far in a place like that. And Alice has her rather large hands full with looking after the collection at the house. Both should be occupied enough not to cause Mr Talbot any more trouble.

Thankfully, Mr Talbot has forgotten that he’s given them curiosity and individuality that once out can’t be suppressed. And that’s where the novel takes us on a journey where each woman from there own trying circumstances grow and fight through the disapproval around them.

There is also an exploration of Victorian double standards when it comes to woman by seeing them as both Ladies (in terms of needlework and fashion and other feminine pursuits) and those supplying the more animal needs of Gentlemen.

The whole way through I found myself routing for both to succeed for very different reasons though I got it completely wrong as to what I thought would be the best ending for them. That’s my problem for being a man and a romantic I guess.

Elaine di Rollo has created her own historical world and allowed Lillian and Alice to educate and inform this reader about how people shouldn’t be constrained by what other people think and it’s all done with a fun look at the world and the people that make it up. For it’s moments of needed darkness there are several moments of pure joy  especially when both succeed in their own individuals ways.

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