I was recommended Gone to Pegasus because of my interest in colonial women. The setting is Dunedin, New Zealand and we are in 1892, on the cusp of the historic victory that gave votes to women in 1893.
The women in this story are not all flaming suffragettes. They come to their decision to support the legislation through personal circumstances and through necessity. I like the balance of this. They’re not fighting men, they’re just practical women who realise how they can best contribute to society. How obvious it seems now.
Between the rallies and the proselytising, there are three other topics in this story which illustrate the historical context.
There is a man with mental illness, and Tess Redgrave’s handling of this is wonderful. She doesn’t shy from the Victorian description of the different as “lunatics,” but rather than the abusive treatment which is often a gratuitous cliché of the times, she has the man kindly treated in the asylum, by caring staff who offer rest and healing. Of course, there is no real understanding of what ails him and love and compassion only go so far.
There are explorations of relationships: the intimacy of women’s friendships, love, fidelity and the vagaries of marriage.
The cover of the book, with its wide keyboard, illustrates the main theme, which is the power of music for communication. There are some lovely pieces where our heroine, Eva, who is a shy bird, finds connections to people through her piano; her friendship with the wilder Grace comes from the giving and sharing of player and listener. Eva goes exploring to the romantic Cold Lakes and finds music everywhere. She “hears” the mountains. I like to think this is synaesthesia – when she looks at the mountains she hears a sonata, but it might be the more literal sound of the wind and birds and streams that inspire notes and rhythm. Either way, it’s lovely. (I’m writing this looking over a bay to densely wooded hills and trying to hear their music).
There is quite a lot of back-story in this short novel, and we slip in and out of tenses as the spotlight goes back and forward in time. There writing is pared down to make these flashbacks little dips into memory, but I did occasionally find myself losing track of the main story as my interest grew in the women’s pasts. There is certainly enough here for a longer novel and I would have liked to spend a bit more time with Grace in India and get more insight into the relationship of Eva and her husband before his distress.
We have so few stories of early New Zealand women who feel authentic, and tend to draw our colonial women either as unlikely kick-ass heroines, or survivors of terrible suffering. But in truth, suffrage for women was probably won by hundreds of gentle, intelligent women like Eva, who voted for a bit more control over their own lives.
We can look back and thank them all.