14 Feb The Invincible Miss Cust by Penny Haw
The inspiring story of the UK’s first female veterinary surgeon
Hands up who has heard of Aleen Cust?
Not me, before I picked up this fictionalised story of her life.
And yet this woman’s name deserves to be emblazoned with the likes of suffragist Millicent Fawcett, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and the UK’s first female doctor, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.
For in the late nineteenth century, she blazed a trail for other women to enter the Royal Society of Veterinary Surgeons – though hers was a long hard struggle, only officially recognised later in her life.
The story introduces us to Aleen as a feisty girl of 6, living a tomboy life with her brothers in Ireland, where her father is a land agent. It’s the death of her beloved dog that inspires her to declare her intention to be a vet – an ambition scoffed at by her whole family.
After her father’s death, the family move to England, and Aleen finds encouragement from her guardian’s family, the Widdringtons. But without financial backing from her own family, she can’t afford to train as a vet even if any college were to accept her.
Then a progressive new veterinary college opens in Edinburgh, Aleen is left a sum of money, and suddenly she has a way to pursue her dream.
It’s a long hard journey from Edinburgh to her country practice in Ireland, where she is allowed to practise her calling without an official certificate, and it makes a fascinating story.
A woman of spirit, courage and determination
Aleen is the perfect heroine. As the daughter on an aristocratic family, with close ties to Queen Victoria, she could have enjoyed a comfortable life of privilege, but instead she chooses to focus on what matters to her most.
She’s got spirit, courage and determination, and never gives up on her dream. She is loyal to her family, despite their disdain for her calling, and a good friend. She has passion for animals and for people, but is never sentimental, and never sees herself as any sort of heroine.
The people around her are skilfully drawn – all characters from real life, like her friend Lady Dorothy Grey; Professor Williams, the progressive head of Edinburgh’s vet school; and Irish country vet Willie Byrne, the man who accepts her as his equal, but lets her down in other ways.
The book is beautifully researched, giving a real sense of time and place. The story’s settings are vivid and immersive. Whether we’re in rural Ireland, an English county estate, or the bustling streets around Edinburgh’s university, we’re drawn perfectly into every moment.
Penny Haw’s prose lends itself to rich descriptions of nature, and she’s great at sketching in the background to her character’s life, so we can enjoy the image of Aleen galloping around the countryside on her beloved horses, enjoying the peace on an English country garden with her friend Dolly, holding her own in a university dissecting room, full of antagonist young men, or with her arm up to her elbow in a cow’s nether regions.
The historical background of the troubles in Ireland as it moves towards its fight for independence have their place in the narrative, as do the horrors of WWII, when Aleen volunteers in France to help look after the thousands of horses drafted into the war effort.
But the story itself is about one woman – and what a woman she is!
Her struggles, her perseverance and her triumphs deserve to be better known, and I’m so happy I got the chance to read this fascinating account of her life and work.
About the Author
Penny Haw is long-time South African journalist and latter day author who written articles for Business Day, Sunday Times, Financial Mail, Sunday Independent, The Weekender and many other leading South African publications. Her first book, NICKO, THE TALE OF A VERVET MONKEY ON AN AFRICAN FARM is a children’s book, first published by Penguin Random House South Africa in 2017 and inow included in middle-grade school curricula.
More reviews of historical fiction based on true life heroines
- The Flames by Sophie Haydock
- The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul
- The Midwife of Auschwitz by Anna Stuart