Escaping the constraints of life as a village schoolmistress, Lilia Brooke bursts into London and into Paul Harris’s orderly life, shattering his belief that women are gentle creatures who need protection. Lilia wants to change women’s lives by advocating for the vote, free unions, and contraception. Paul, an Anglican priest, has a big ambition of his own: to become the youngest dean of St. John’s Cathedral. Lilia doesn’t believe in God, but she’s attracted to Paul’s intellect, ethics, and dazzling smile.
As Lilia finds her calling in the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, Paul is increasingly driven to rise in the church. They can’t deny their attraction, but they know they don’t belong in each other’s worlds. Lilia would rather destroy property and serve time in prison than see her spirit destroyed and imprisoned by marriage to a clergyman, while Paul wants nothing more than to settle down and keep Lilia out of harm’s way. Paul and Lilia must reach their breaking points before they can decide whether their love is worth fighting for.
I read Impossible Saints based on a review from someone I trust. It is a fascinating glimpse into the suffragette movement in Britain which I know little about. The author clearly did her research and wove historical details in seamlessly along with Lilia and Paul’s story. The juxtaposition between Paul’s traditional and religious ambitions with Lilia’s progressive goals creates a narrative which really made me examine my own beliefs and opinions. The characterization is extremely well done. Paul and Lilia are complex people with human emotions and reactions. These aren’t perfect fictional people, but those who act badly at times and wrestle with their own imperfections.
As well-written as Impossible Saints is, I had mixed feelings about it. I loved the history the author included and the focus on an era I don’t see much in fiction. I learned so much about the early suffragettes in Britain. It was interesting to learn that though all suffragettes had the same goal, there were differing opinions as to how freedom and votes for women should be achieved. Though united in a common cause, some felt that legal means such as protests and speeches would accomplish their mission. Others felt that more violent means such as destruction of property would garner quicker results. It is to the latter group that Lilia belongs.
My main problem with this story is that I found it difficult relating to or understanding Lilia. She is a character very different from myself, aggressive, confrontational, impatient and driven to action. I often find myself disliking such women or uncomfortable around them. Lilia’s single minded purpose also blinds her to the consequences of her actions. Though she is willing to assume the risks for her choices, she is completely oblivious to how the results of her actions affect those who care about her, particularly Paul. On the other hand, I also see how Lilia’s nature is well suited to her role as a leader within the movement. I also can see how women/people like her are necessary in a fight against injustice.
Paul is just as passionate in his objectives as Lilia is. But his nature is to keep everything concealed. I loved how he pursued Lilia in spite of their differences and the obstacles between them. I also appreciated how he kept an open mind and was willing to listen and support Lilia even when he disagreed with her. That is a very rare quality in fiction and in reality. That’s not to say Paul is perfect. Not at all, he struggles with unforgiveness, pride and hatred unbecoming to a clergyman. Paul’s willingness to face his own moral weaknesses and take responsibility to change is remarkable. This quality put me firmly on his side, especially when it came to his relationship with Lilia. Her treatment of Paul made it hard for me to root for her when compared to his persistent love for her.
Though I found Lilia’s personality and certain actions abrasive, overall I think Impossible Saints is a fascinating and educational look at an interesting time in history. It gave me new insight into the early fight for women’s rights. I gained respect and compassion for women like Lilia who sacrificed and experienced terrible things in the fight for freedom. I definitely recommend this book.