Today’s team review is from Frank.
Find out more about Frank here https://franklparker.com/
Frank has been reading 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 he 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 seems, the only member of the family who was sympathetic to her ambitions. She was 32 when she completed the course in William William’s New Veterinary College but the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons refused to acknowledge her qualification, not because it was obtained in Williams’s college – all the men in her class were accepted – but because she was a woman.
Nevertheless, Williams recommended her to another former student, William Byrne, who had a practice in County Roscommon. Now, as if it was not enough that she was a woman trying to do a job traditionally reserved for men and deemed ‘indecent’ for a woman, Byrne was a Roman Catholic and an Irish Nationalist. The potential for conflict was obvious but he was sufficiently impressed by her proficiency in the profession to support her. In fact he did much more than that. Most sources claim that they became lovers, one even suggesting that they had two children, both born in Edinburgh and adopted.²
In Ms Haw’s hands this period in Aleen’s life, and the sometimes tempestuous relationship between the two vets, is where the book is at its most emotionally engaging. Aleen’s invincibility is matched by the indomitability of both, leading to passionate disagreements as well as mutual love and admiration. Equally impressive, and often comedic, are her encounters with clients who doubt her ability. She simply takes charge, enlists the help of her detractor and proves by example that their prejudice is misplaced. Yet another character trait is revealed by several unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation with her mother and brother. Ms Haw’s portrait of a strong woman with a soft centre makes this a compelling narrative.
Aleen’s appointment to the part-time post of veterinary inspector by Galway County Council caused another dispute with the RCVS, as well as consternation in the locality. The Western News editorialised: ‘The county council have made an appointment in the horse and brute kingdom which appears to us at least disgusting, if not absolutely indecent … We can understand women educating themselves to tend women – but horses! Heavens!’³
By then she had established her own practice a few miles away from Byrne’s, partly in response to the inevitable rumours concerning the pair’s relationship.
Following the outbreak of World War she was appalled at the conscription of horses to the army. She enlisted herself as an army vet, in defiance of the army’s rule that such a role was inappropriate for a woman. She drove her own car to France and spent the war tending to injured and traumatised horses.
Back in Ireland she was faced with that country’s War of Independence and the brief but bloody civil war that followed the creation of the Republic, which partitioned 26 counties from the 6 most loyal to the Crown. That same year (1922) she was finally given her diploma by the RCVS. Sadly, her car having been commandeered at gun point by republicans, she reluctantly decided to retire to England where she led a quiet life breeding dogs in Hampshire.
In this centenary year of her recognition by the RCVS several events have taken place in Ireland to celebrate the life of this remarkable woman. The publication of Penny Haw’s book is both timely and necessary.
¹ “How Queen Victoria Condemned the Women’s Rights Movement”, Libby-Jane Charleston, honey.nine.com.au, 2020. https://honey.nine.com.au/royals/queen-victoria-womens-rights/2fe4214b-cbf5-4e61-b57e-62296c85d379
² “Against all odds: The story of Aleen Cust”, Vet Record Careers, 29th September, 2018. https://www.vetrecordjobs.com/myvetfuture/article/story-of-aleen-cust-britains-first-woman-vet/
³ “Aleen Isabel Cust, 1868-1937” https://www.herstory.ie/news/2019/5/22/aleen-isabel-cust-first-woman-veterinary-surgeon-in-britain-amp-ireland
Aleen Cust has big dreams and no one―not her family, society, or the law―will stop her.
Born in Ireland in 1868 to an aristocratic English family, Aleen knows she is destined to work with animals, even if her family is appalled by the idea of a woman pursuing a veterinary career. Going against their wishes but with the encouragement of the guardian assigned to her upon her father’s death, Aleen attends the New Veterinary College in Edinburgh, enrolling as A. I. Custance to spare her family the humiliation they fear. At last, she is on her way to becoming a veterinary surgeon! Little does she know her biggest obstacles lie ahead.
The Invincible Miss Cust is based on the real life of Aleen Isabel Cust, who defied her family and society to become Britain and Ireland’s first woman veterinary surgeon. Through Penny Haw’s meticulous research, riveting storytelling, and elegant prose, Aleen’s story of ambition, determination, family, friendship, and passion comes to life. It is a story that, even today, women will recognize, of battling patriarchy and an unequal society to realize one’s dreams and pave the way for other women in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.