I bring you another one of the books from Rosie’s Book Review Team. This one helped me discover the story of a woman I had never heard of. And it is a great story.
The Invincible Miss Cust: A Novel by Penny Haw
Aleen Cust has big dreams. And no one—not her family, society, or the law—will stop her.
Born in Ireland in 1868 to an aristocratic English family, Aleen knows she is destined to work with animals, even if her family is appalled by the idea of a woman pursuing a veterinary career. Going against their wishes but with the encouragement of the guardian assigned to her upon her father’s death, Aleen attends the New Veterinary College in Edinburgh, enrolling as A. I. Custance to spare her family the humiliation they fear. At last, she is on her way to becoming a veterinary surgeon! Little does she know her biggest obstacles lie ahead.
The Invincible Miss Cust is based on the real life of Aleen Isabel Cust, who defied her family and society to become Britain and Ireland’s first woman veterinary surgeon. Through Penny Haw’s meticulous research, riveting storytelling, and elegant prose, Aleen’s story of ambition, determination, family, friendship, and passion comes to life. It is a story that, even today, women will recognize, of battling patriarchy and an unequal society to realize one’s dreams and pave the way for other women in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
About the author:
Penny Haw is the author of The Invincible Miss Cust, a work of historical fiction based on the life of Britain and Ireland’s first woman veterinary surgeon; The Wilderness Between Us, winner of the WFWA 2022 Star Award in the general category; and a children’s book called Nicko, The Tale of a Vervet Monkey on an African Farm. Before turning to fiction, she was a journalist and columnist with bylines in many of South Africa’s leading newspapers and magazines. She lives near Cape Town.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
This is the first time I come across this author; she is a journalist and has published other works of fiction before, but this is her first book in the historical fiction category. She has chosen a fascinating topic, and her touch when it comes to making use of her research is pretty light. In the author’s note she includes at the end of the book (where she also clarifies what is factual and what is not in this novel about Aleen Cust, the first woman veterinary surgeon in Britain and Ireland) she says that, for her, the best historical fiction is that where a reader cannot tell where the facts end and where the imagination of the author starts, and she manages that in her debut in the genre. The novel contains more factual information than I thought as I was reading it (some of it I found quite surprising, although perhaps not so much the more I thought about it), this being a case where reality is more incredible than fiction.
The story follows the life of the protagonist, from a young age, in Ireland, which she misses terribly when she has to leave due to her father’s death, and we see her grow, be educated with her brothers, become interested in animals (like her paternal grandmother), and decide that she would like to become a veterinary surgeon. Queen Victoria was very old-fashioned in her ideas about gender equality, especially in her old age, and although women had started attending university (in Edinburgh) to become physicians, becoming a vet seemed an even worse idea for a woman, because according to the establishment it was more immoral, less dignified, and less suited to the “weaker” sex. She faces pretty tough opposition, at home with her family and in society at large, and it does take quite a few lucky coincidences, some male support, and an iron determination, to get as far as the university. And even then, the obstacles appear unsurmountable at times.
Women’s rights, Victorian conceptions of morality and the role of women in Victorian society, the situation in Ireland, the role social class plays in one’s future, the importance of reputation and how much that weighs and rules personal decisions (at least at that time), familial bonds (real families and created or chosen families), religion, prejudice, animals and their care, advancements in veterinarian science, friendship, ambition, love… Those are some of the themes we find in this novel. And for those who wonder, there is romance as well, although, as with everything else in Miss Cust’s life, a somewhat unusual one.
Aleen is the protagonist, and she tells us the story in the first person, so we are direct witnesses of what goes through her head, of her frustration, her determination, and her iron will, but also of her hesitation, her attempts at ingratiating and reconciling herself with her family, always trying to make them understand and see things from her perspective. She is trapped between trying not to disappoint her family or inconvenience them (as two of them have a connection to the royal family), and at the same time fulfilling her life’s vocation. Although this makes for a frustrating read at times, and I think most readers will feel the need to shake her and tell her to forget her family at times, it also feels realistic and appropriate to the era. There have always been historical figures who seemed to have been ahead of their time, but this is not a woman who grew in an enlightened or liberal family with progressive ideas, and she is presented as somebody who couldn’t see why women couldn’t study or do the same things as men, but she didn’t necessarily want to totally change the social order, and she mostly tried to avoid calling attention to herself, especially in the early part of her career. Some aspects of her personality are difficult to understand from our perspective, but she is not a woman of our time, and she achieved great goals, although perhaps more quietly than some of her better-known contemporaries.
There are plenty of other characters in the novel, and also, as you can imagine, plenty of animals. Some of the people are portrayed in more detail than others, especially those who had a great impact on Aleen’s life, and I particularly liked her friend Dorothy, who is always supportive (and whose personality is also pretty peculiar). Dorothy’s parents and her brother also play a major part in the story, and, in some ways, behave more as a family toward her than her real family. They encourage her and help her, in contrast with her own family, who never, not even once (apart from her brother Orlando) put her happiness and her wishes first. That is never a consideration for them. Professor William Williams is also a great character and somebody fundamental in getting Aleen to finally become a vet, there is Willie Byrne, the veterinary surgeon, in Ireland, who gives her a chance to practice, and whose role is much more than that (but you’ll have to read about that). Her family, by contrast, I found very difficult to warm to. Their attitude is understandable, perhaps, given the historical time and their position, but not everybody behaved the same way, and, let’s just say they were not my favourite characters. She meets many others who help or hinder her, although none of them manage to stop her. Of course, this is all from her perspective, although the author includes extracts from real documents, articles, letters, etc., and that gives us a pretty accurate picture of what kinds of prejudices and opinions she had to fight.
I have mentioned animals, and animal lovers will enjoy this book (although there are some scary moments as well). The author explains that one of her friends is an Irish retired vet, and his assistance was invaluable in making sure the book was accurate when it came to both, veterinary procedures and science, and also to the descriptions of Ireland. I enjoyed this aspect of the book very much, and I felt the author reflects well the protagonist’s interest, as she spends more time looking and talking about animals and procedures than she does about people.
The book follows the story of Miss Cust in chronological order, although it does not get us to the very end of her life, and there are some small jumps forward, focusing on the most relevant aspects of her story. This is not a book full of descriptions of clothes, accommodation, habits, and customs, and, in that sense, it is perhaps thinner in detail than some other works of historical fiction, but because the story is told in the first person by a character whose interests are not those, it is not surprising. Aleen makes some observations and reflects upon certain aspects of life that will give readers pause and make them wonder what life must have been like in those conditions, but those who prefer a story that doesn’t stray from the main plot and the action and does not go into unnecessary details will feel right at home. This does not mean that the author’s writing is not compelling, and there are some lyrical and beautiful moments, especially when the protagonist is contemplating nature and admiring animals (well, and some men as well). No complex terminology is employed, and people not familiar with veterinary science don’t need to worry about that.
The book also includes, apart from the author’s note, a bibliography for those who might want to dig deeper into the biography of Miss Cust and the people around her (although the author’s summary of the factual information contained in the novel is very informative), a set of questions for book clubs (and this book would be perfect for book clubs, as there is much to discuss), and the acknowledgments. I recommend reading all those as well, especially for those who like to learn how a book came into being, and the process involved.
This is a great read, about an actual historical figure I knew nothing about, a determined woman, whose life is fascinating, with all its contradictions and its complications. Her achievements are inspiring, and anybody interested in women’s history, especially in Britain and Ireland, in the Victorian period, animal lovers, the history of veterinary science, and anybody who likes a well-written book with a strong protagonist whose life is extraordinary will enjoy this novel. Also recommended to book clubs. I look forward to Penny Haw’s future projects.
Thanks to the author, to Rosie and the members of her team for their ongoing support, and, most of all, thanks to you all for reading, sharing, liking, for always being there. Keep smiling!