By: Tory Tanguay
Must-read historical fiction for fans of Marie Benedict and Tracey Enerson Wood, based on the real-life of Britain and Ireland’s first woman veterinary surgeon.
I have worked in veterinary medicine for almost 20 years, seven years of which I’ve been a veterinarian. With March being Women’s History Month, I found myself wondering about the women who have gone before me in the field. Who were they? What struggles did they have? What oppositions did they face in a field that used to be completely dominated by men? (Veterinary medicine is by far and away a female-dominated field right now.) Then, I came across this book, The Invincible Miss Cust by Penny Haw. I had never heard of Miss Aleen Isabel Cust before but once I read the synopsis, I knew I had to read it.
This historical fiction novel tells the tale of Miss Cust, the first Irish and British female veterinary surgeon, born in Ireland to an aristocratic English family in 1868. I felt a kinship with Aleen because like her, I knew from a young age that I was destined to work with animals. It was my calling in life as it was hers. Her family, however, is strongly opposed to the idea for back then women were only (supposedly) good for getting married, keeping house, and having babies. Her family is absolutely horrified by the idea of her not wanting to marry and wanting to go into the field of veterinary medicine as the only acceptable occupations for women were wife and maybe a nurse or teacher. Even then, a lady of her breeding should not demote herself to something as menial as working. But “haters gonna hate” and Aleen pays them no mind and pursues her dream of becoming a veterinary surgeon.
This is truly a book that took me on an emotional roller coaster. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I laughed, I cried, I got angry, and I celebrated in Aleen’s joy, while reminiscing about my own journey through veterinary medicine (all full of the same emotions). The first half of the book seems to stick decently to research performed by the author, but the second half seems to turn into more of a story of romance with much creative liberties taken. This second part seemed to drift away from the feelings and tone originally established by the author and was a little unexpected. The romance doesn’t really seem to go anywhere and honestly seems to be slightly thrown in as it seems to be a complete deviation from Aleen’s established personality and mindset. Not to say that people don’t fall in love on life’s journey, they absolutely can. It just doesn’t work for me.
I gave this book four out of five stars. I do especially recommend it for those interested in the history of women in veterinary medicine. It most definitely sent me down a rabbit hole of doing my own research on women in the history of vet med as well.