This is the heartwarming and remarkable story of Aleen Isabel Cust, England’s first female veterinary surgeon, and a book I thoroughly enjoyed. The author explains that while the main character is real and many of the events in her life are recorded, this is not a biography. But what she’s created is completely believable.
Aleen Cust’s first memories are of her life in Ireland with her aristocratic family. She loves their animals, especially the horses, and delights in racing and hunting on horseback with her brothers. She is also unusually educated for the time because she gets to share her brother’s tutor. But she also knows that many of the opportunities given to her brothers she can’t share because she is a girl. Nevertheless, when she first meets a veterinary surgeon, she is struck with the idea that this is what she wants to be.
When her father dies, the family has to leave Ireland for England because he had been an overseer of land owned by someone else. Leaving their beloved horses and dogs behind, Aleen vows to return once she achieves her dream. When she tells her mother of her plans for her future, and the family, especially her mother, is appalled by the idea and emphatically forbids it, citing the shame it would bring on them.
When she meets and is drawn into a family that is friends with her own, she finds their daughter shares the same passion for her own life and career. This young woman is allowed to go hunting and will train as a nurse, and Aleen’s dream is reignited. But the only thing her overbearing mother will allow her to do is train as a nurse, which she soon finds is stultifying and stifling. Working in the city instead of the country and the patriarchal relationship between physicians and nurses make her resentful. She quits.
After some years, the heavens align (I can’t reveal how!) and she finds a way to attend the New Veterinary College in Edinburgh, which sets her on the path to her dream but which alienates her from her family forever. The trials of school and her training thereafter make a wonderful read, but what she does with the rest of her life is nothing short of amazing.
Using available research, the author has crafted a wondrous story of Aleen’s ambition, determination against all odds, and battle for equality that is won with courage, passion and friendship. The storytelling is riveting and filled with tension. The reader is left wondering How could she have done this? when reading about Aleen’s daily challenges and obstacles and the years it took her to accomplish her goal.
Each of the characters comes alive and the reader becomes invested in their lives as well, and one can’t help feeling the same about the dogs and horses that run through Aleen’s life. The complexity of Aleen’s relations with various members of her family, especially her mother and older brother, is both frustrating and difficult to absorb, so different from the present day, and the reader can feel the conflict between Aleen’s loyalty and love for them and her absolute certainty that the family’s plans for her future are not something she can accept.
The historical background of England and Ireland from the late 1800s through WWI is meticulously presented and I learned a great deal about the treatment of the horses that were central to the war. The author did considerable research on veterinary surgery of the time – I am very impressed.
In short, this is a terrific read about a woman in the trenches of the war against historical patriarchy and appallingly unequal societal norms. It is also colorful, personal, and filled with warmth and passion.
I reviewed the author’s previous book, The Wilderness Between Us, and gave it five stars. The same for The Invincible Miss Cust.
About the author:
Penny Haw is also the author of 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. She worked as a journalist and columnist for more than three decades, with bylines in many of South Africa’s leading newspapers and magazines before yielding to a lifelong yearning to create fiction. Her stories feature remarkable women, illustrate her love for nature, and explore the interconnectedness of all living things. Writing is her profession and lifelong passion. She lives near Cape Town.