My review of “The Invincible Miss Cust” by Penny Haw
‘as much a pioneer in her particular sphere as, for example, Mrs Pankhurst, of women’s suffrage fame, was in hers, and the opposition encountered was as great in the one as it was in the other.’
So said The Times of London in its obituary following the death, in 1937, of the first female vet to practice in Britain and Ireland. Now her story has been brought brilliantly to life by South African writer Penny Haw.
She was the fourth of six children of an aristocratic Protestant family, born in County Tipperary where her father was a land agent. As many will know, land agents, like the landlords they served, were a despised species in Ireland not least because of their role in the Great Famine which had certainly not been forgotten in 1878 when her father died and the family fled Ireland.
Aleen was ten, already devoted to dogs and horses, and had made up her mind that she wanted to be a vet. From the perspective of the twenty first century it would be easy to suppose that, for someone with her background and resources, obtaining the necessary education would be easy. That would be a mistake. Young ladies were supposed to marry and take on the life of a society hostess, obedient to the expressed wishes of Queen Victoria who told William Gladstone in a letter “Let woman be what God intended; a helpmate for a man — but with totally different duties and vocations.”¹
Aleen’s mother was a ‘Lady of the Bedchamber’ to the queen, her older brother Equery to the Prince of Wales (later to become King George V). So the idea that these elevated positions in Victorian society might be jeopardised by Aleen’s career choice must have terrified them. Aleen’s share of her father’s inheritance was controlled by her brother so she was unable to use it to finance her studies. She chose, instead to train as a nurse, but remained determined to find a way to follow her dream. She was supported in this by her Guardian and his wife and daughter who became, in effect, a surrogate family.
Most of the official biographies state that she used “a small private income” to fund her studies which she began in Edinburgh in 1895. In Ms Haw’s version of the story it was her younger brother’s early death that provided that income. He was, it…