Within the structure of any society there are those who would map out the lives of their children to fit into the perfect mold that they foresee for them. Penelope Stanton’s parents have handled the suitors they deem worthy of her but yet Penelope falls prey to her own wiles and weaknesses. Not wanting to attend a specific ball to meet young men as potential suitors she gets tangled in a short but elicit romance with Edgar Deggars a married man who has other things on his mind and talking is not one of them. Cornering her after a dance and making his intensions known, a wife not far away Penelope learns just how far her parents will go in order to get her to do what they want even if it means moving in with this man and his wife and becoming his mistress. Strong minded yet innocent in some ways rather than succumb to their wishes she and her friend Lucinda escape to Boston and become part of the suffrage movement. Meeting the people in charge and finding herself on the podium explaining why she feels dressing for success is her way and not conforming to their way of thinking, the applause was great and the corsets still her way of declaring her independence. Something happens and she is injured causing her mother to become a part of her daily life and refusing to move back home with her father and sister, Lydia. Meeting Verdana was her spark to change but knowing she is engaged to her ex-fiancé bothers her even though after a while she does not really care nor is Sam anyone with courage to speak or fend for him. Enter Stone Aldrich who was also injured along with her and who manages to ingratiate himself with not only her but with Verdana and Lucinda too. At times things seem complicated and she appears to be drawn to him until he makes it clear they are just friends or pals. She seems to just want someone to care for just her as who she is and when someone stalks her and creates a voodoo doll in her likeness what she and Stone do is priceless letting readers know she is a force. The Movement allows her to have money to pay her own way but it sparked controversy among many of the residents where she lives and even her own mother refuses to accept her choices. Little does she know that her mother informed Deggars and his wife of here whereabouts and knowing him we all realize that his way of controlling her and his methods of taking her into his bed and ensnaring her in his web are just about to begin. Penelope wanted the usual marriage and children but her parents want her to work and support them leaving her with just about nothing and even stating that in order for their debts to be paid she had to help paying them. Penelope is outspoken and has been chosen as the spokesperson for the movement but unfortunately things that she wants might not always come to fruition. With basically no one to really guide her or support her ways she seems to find her way into controversial situations, making rash decisions during a time period when women in the Gilded Age in New England like Penelope are floundering, struggling and hoping to find their own way in society. The book begins with her saying that it’s like a gun was pointed at her head in order to get her to submit to her father’s wishes because of the Panic of 1893 and the losses encountered by her father’s bank. So, when Edgar Daggers comes into the picture and steals some illicit kisses she finds him hard to resist and refuses to become at least for a while his personal secretary using the Movement as her shield. Verdana Jones is the catalyst in this movement who enjoys wearing bloomers and not corsets that confine you and she defends the term “Irrational Dress,” that she, Penelope feels that corsets and petticoats offer some structure in a world that unravels as I speak, I quote. Having to wear petticoats in layers growing up I would definitely have sided with Verdana. But, Daggers is very much in the picture and will she allow him to enter her life, control her movements and take away her need for independence? The incident with the bike ride in skirts is hysterical as that is how she got injured and meets Stone. Of course I think that many people might like those Beecham’s Pills that cure headaches when you think about some of the pain relievers today but added in using them for a hangover. The use of these Heroin pills brings us to the freedom and availability of drugs even back in the 19th century.
Becoming more involved in the movement and then being forced to return home when Lydia became ill with TB and George her suitor claimed to want to own her home and pay off her family’s debts but what was his real motive. Things spiral in many directions as Penelope joins forces with Amy van Buren and Katherine St. James a close friend of Quincy Aldrich who happen to be Stone’s brother. Meetings, speaking engagements, Susan B. Anthony coming into the spotlight and women wanting to vote as well as fighting for Negros to be able to vote too. The Suffragette Movement was big, the change of dress for women seriously astounding and of course those of us who prefer comfort to feeling closed in the Rational Dress sounds positively great. But, Mr. Daggers seemed bent on having Penelope and she fell for his wiles and his persistent until something happens and she realizes what a mistake she has made. He is powerful, money is no object and his wife could care less if he sleeps with everyone on his staff as long as the money train does not stop and points in her direction. But, the scene that I loved the most is when Penelope outs George about the special Property Law that reveals something valuable about her mother’s house and what Lydia needs to know about what will happen if she marries him and gives over her property and independence. What she does at the end is priceless and for those of us a male out won’t dupe that for money and who could care less about Lydia the final result was you have to read it for yourself.
When Penelope finally realizes what Mr. Daggers really is and the depths that he goes to in order to satisfy himself as he devalues the women he wants, what she finally does when she finally confronts him and realizes what he’s done is well the perfect revenge or maybe justice sort of served.
Will she stop seeing him? She works for Amy will she take her back? What about Lucinda and Lydia will they remain with her or will Lydia fall back into her old patterns with George? The ending is just the beginning for the Movement and as we all know women finally did get the vote in 1920 and that was just the beginning for making sure our voices were heard loud and clear. The research into the Panic of 1893 is extensive and author Diana Forbes brings to light the Gilded Age, the transformation of women’s dress, dress codes, proper decorum and independence as Penelope Stanton sets the way for change. Sometimes bad choices turn into experiences we learn from as the author takes us back in time when a woman’s place was in her home and married running a household to the uproar of the Suffragette Movement that changed the course of history, how women were viewed and gave us a voice that we now know will never be silenced. The real events and the fictionalized ones are noted in the author’s note as you learn more about Stone Aldrich who painted trash cans and his unique art hoping for the one perfect deal. The epilogue will tie it all together but first read Penelope’s story, get to know her from the start and realize that no matter how hard her father tried no one would ever stick a gun to her head and run her life ever again.
Fran Lewis: Just reviews/MJ magazine