Until, that is, Jo started taking them out to dance at the speakeasies. Jo’s precise control of their nightly escapes earned her the nickname “The General” among her eleven sisters. The girls live for their nights of dancing and for their momentary respite from their father’s control. But one day, Joseph Hamilton announces his plans to marry them all off, and Jo knows it will be up to her to lead her sisters to safety.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club was perfect, and I don’t even know how to begin to tell you why. What I liked best was probably the fact that this is a very personal story that also explores the systemic roots of gender inequality with subtlety and precision. The Hamilton sisters are prisoners in their own home because they live in a system that makes them dependent on male kindness, and they have the misfortune of having an unkind father. But even if they’d had better luck, their circumstances would still be untenable because the power imbalance would be there nonetheless. This is what Jo realises when she considers the prospect of being married off:
The girls could hope that these husbands, wherever her father planned to find them, would be kinder and more liberal men than he was. But the sort of man who wanted a girl who’d never been out in the world was the sort whose wife would stay at home in bed and try to produce heirs until she died from it.Hoping for kindness and mercy from someone with the power to make your existence miserable should they decide not to grant it is no way to live. And so what remains is escape, and a desperate attempt to make a life in their own terms in a world where the odds are against them.
Jo knew that much.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a novel in the tradition of Consequences, Thank Heaven Fasting or Alas, Poor Lady: all early twentieth century stories that deal with women’s limited choices and the dire consequences of their lack of recourse. Each of these novels made me think about how sometimes I actually need unrelenting tragedy — I need stories that humanise the ones who didn’t get away and don’t for a moment slip into finger-pointing. I need stories that recognise that not overcoming an overwhelmingly unfair social system is not an individual failing.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a little different, in the sense that the Hamilton sisters are lucky enough to escape in the end (but oh, at such a cost — at a cost high enough that it feels wrong to use the word “luck”, even if I mostly mean it in the sense of chance). This is a story of resistance, and I need those too because they remind me that it’s possible to make it in a world that’s far from a level playing field. They provide a sort of hope that’s absolutely essential to me. At the same time, sometimes I worry that a hyperfocus on stories of individual triumph against (or, more accurately, escape from) unfair social systems encourages us to forget that, as Kameron Hurley so well puts it, “we cannot effect true change alone”. All this to say that when we do tell these stories, I want them to be written as sensitively and intelligently as this.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club works so well largely because it’s too smart to ever be smug. Jo and her sisters are remarkable characters in the sense that they’re complicated and well-written women, but there’s no inherent quality to them that helps them escape when women like E.M. Delafield’s Alexandra Clare didn’t. There’s a lot of luck inside the enormous bad luck of being a woman in a world where women are treated like chattel. Their escape is therefore terrifyingly precarious — the result of blind chance as much as anything else — because it happens within a social system where other women remain disempowered and trapped. The narrative acknowledges this, and it presents them (and us) with a tentative and fragile happiness that they nevertheless cling to desperately because what else do they have? It’s such an enormous relief to see these girls and women on their way to a sort of happiness that it feels like the only ending I could have accepted. But that feeling is all the stronger due to the knowledge that it might not have been so, through no fault of their own.
The other thing I was drawn to was the fact that The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a study of what it’s like to love in extremis. Jo, the Hamilton sister we get to know best, is hardened by despair and fear and so much love. She’s so used to being a General when her sisters need her to be one that it becomes impossible to ease into being a person. But we’re never allowed to forget the humanity under her battle scarred surface, and her relationship with her sister Lou is portrayed with such depth and emotional exactitude that it kind of broke my heart.
Perhaps you need context to fully understand why the following quotes moved me so much, but I thought I’d share them anyway:
She and Araminta each held out one foot, but Jo had the satisfaction of seeing her sisters in dancing shoes that fit. Araminta’s were apple green, and Rebecca’s were red, and somehow Jo couldn’t stop smiling.They read it too: The Literary Omnivore
(They were such a little thing, but they weren’t — they were the freedom that came after the prison.)
She was still trying to discover how people related to each other, and how you met the world when you weren’t trying to hide something from someone. It was a lesson slow in coming.
They had been factory girls after all, at least for a while, and from the looks of things it had been rough going.
She didn’t want to push them. General Jo would have, but some things were too fragile; reunions were one of them.
But those days were gone, and she sat in her little studio and sighed, and only hoped that none of them would choose something that would make them unhappy later.
There was nothing else she could do for them now, except give them a place to dance.
It was an alien feeling to watch them making choices on their own, choices that might be wrong (were wrong—he didn’t deserve one damn daughter wishing him a fond farewell), but she was trying hard to be a sister now, and not a General.
Some things you never stopped missing.