Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Tomorrow (or today, depending on where you live and when you read this), the US commemorates the 95th anniversary of the acknowledgement of women’s right to vote in all US elections. The US wasn’t the first country to acknowledge women’s right to vote; that distinction belongs to New Zealand. But it was a major event that was decades in the making.
Today, let’s turn the spotlight on a novel that evokes what is arguably the beginning of the era of national-level campaigning for women’s suffrage. Let’s take a look at Miriam Grace Monfredo’s Seneca Falls Inheritance, the first in her historical series featuring librarian Glynis Tryon.
It’s 1848, and Elizabeth Stanton has asked Glynis to talk to as many of the local women as she can to see who would attend a meeting to discuss women’s rights and women’s suffrage. Glynis isn’t comfortable doing this, as she’s not by nature a real extrovert. What’s more, she’s already been told that her position as librarian depends on her not upsetting the Board who hired her. That includes not making ‘inappropriate’ books available to women and young readers; it also certainly includes not getting involved in the heavily controversial debates about women’s rights. Still, Elizabeth Stanton is a persuasive and determined person, so Glynis speaks to a few people.
In the meantime, the town of Seneca Falls has lost two of its most prominent citizens. Friedrich Steicher and his wife Caroline have been killed in a terrible accident on the Erie Canal. It’s assumed that their son Karl will inherit their wealth, and at first, there is no one to contest his claim. Then, a woman named Rose Walker comes to town. She seeks Glynis out, since it was Steicher who first hired Glyins, and the two were friends. She wants very much to find Karl Steicher, but before she can, she is murdered.
It’s soon discovered that the victim had a very particular reason for her trip to Seneca Falls. It’s revealed that she was Friedrich Steicher’s daughter from another relationship, and that she wanted to claim her half of the inheritance. This immediately makes her half-brother the prime suspect, since he would have much to lose if she won her case. But there are other possibilities, too. And even though Glynis suspects that Karl Steicher may be guilty, there’s really very little evidence, other than his motive, to connect him with the case. And he does have an alibi for the time of the murder.
Glynis works with her beau, Constable Cullen Stuart, to find out the truth about Rose Walker’s murder. She also works, in her own way, to lay the groundwork for the famous Seneca Falls conference that started the campaign for women’s suffrage in the US.
Although this novel has the beginnings of the US women’s suffrage movement as its backdrop (more on that shortly), the main focus is the mystery at hand: who killed Rose Walker and why. In that sense, there is a whodunit approach to telling the story. The solution to the mystery falls out from the evidence and from what the characters involved say.
The novel takes place in 1848, and Monfredo places the reader there in a number of ways. There are details of dress, daily life and so on that depict what it was like to live in Western New York at that time. Along with physical and geographical details of the area, readers see the social structure of the day. Women’s roles are the primary focus, and we see clearly why so many women were dissatisfied with their social and political status. Along with this discussion, there’s also a look at social class. We also see the roles played by freed slaves and those who had escaped slavery.
There is also historical detail about the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement in the US. As Monfredo points out, many activists in that movement started their lives of political activism by working for the abolition of slavery. As Glynis muses in the novel, it must have been very surprising – even disconcerting – to many male activists when the women who had done their ‘grunt work’ began to insist on the same rights for themselves as they demanded for slaves.
Women’s suffrage and other women’s rights were by no means universally supported, not even by all women. Mofredo shows this in the way the various characters, both male and female, react to Elizabeth Stanton’s proposed conference. While many men oppose women’s rights, there are some who are more open to the idea. And as Glynis speaks to the women of Seneca Falls, we learn that plenty of women weren’t particularly interested in such an event. Some were content with their lives, or least accepted their lot; some didn’t want to call attention to themselves; and some were afraid of how they would be treated if they did show interest in the women’s movement. Glynis herself is at times ambivalent about the whole thing. On the one hand, she certainly resents the way she and women she knows are dismissed. She is appalled at the way husbands are allowed to treat their wives, and so on. But she doesn’t want to lose her job by being too political. What’s more, she’s not entirely unhappy with her life. There’s also the question of whether political activism will do any good anyway, since then-current attitudes are so deeply ingrained.
It’s worth noting at this point that for those interested in more historical background, Monfredo provides historical and biographical information about the events and people involved in the women’s movement of that time. There is, at least in my edition of this novel, an Author’s Note at the beginning, and a set of historical notes at the end, both of which provide background information.
Seneca Falls Inheritance is a traditional-style whodunit that takes place against the backdrop of the beginnings of the US movement for women’s rights. It features a protagonist who, rather reluctantly, gets involved in both the murder investigation and the movement. And it provides the reader with historical information about the time and place when the murders occur. But what’s your view? Have you read Seneca Falls Inheritance? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 24 August/Tuesday 25 August – Bitter Wash Road – Garry Disher
Monday 31 August/Tuesday 1 September – A Bad Day For Sorry – Sophie Littlefield
Monday 7 September/Tuesday 8 September – Berlin Game – Len Deighton