A reader has asked me whether I see Isabelle Forster, the main character in Comets, as an early feminist.

Her wish to escape some of the constraints of 19th century upper middle-class society by becoming a teacher, and her desire to be recognised not for her physical attributes but for her lively mind, hardly qualify as feminism, even in the context of the 1830s. There must have been countless women, in the Cape Colony and elsewhere, who shared these views. Marriage and motherhood were in most cases the only acceptable path genteel girls were allowed to follow. My reference to the excessive tightening of Isabelle’s stays before her mother took her to visit the establishments of the upper merchants, is intended to symbolize the constraints on her young life. “Men of that class were known to admire the hour-glass figure, not the more natural shapes that occurred on girls of the lower orders.”

I don’t want to give away the story to those who have not yet read Comets, but I think that, if Isabelle is to be considered an early feminist, this might be based on something that develops later in the novel. It dawns on Catharine, the newly-emancipated slave woman who has been observing Isabelle closely, that “it was possible for a woman to have power even if it was exercised so subtly that men might not be aware of it”.

Catharine notices that “men had manifest power – even slave men had power within their own spheres – but some women who knew how to weave their intelligence with their instincts had power too”. And Catharine tries to look within herself for similar resources.

Ultimately, however, Catharine “could not help admiring her mistress’s ability to venture with apparent impunity into a province more usually populated by men”. What does she mean? And is this the aspect of the story the reader had in mind when she raised the question of feminism? But maybe feminism doesn’t come into the story at all! I’m afraid you’re going to have to read Comets and make up your own mind – and then I’d love to have your opinion. Click here to drop me a line.

Clive