Susannah, A Lawyer: From Tragedy to Triumph
by Ruth Rymer
Rape. Sexual Harassment. Deeply ingrained, gender-based social mores. Victim blaming. The Denial of a woman’s identity. Trafficking in women (daughters) for social and economic advancement. Any one of these topics could be the subject of a lengthy body of work, but Ruth Rymer manages to draw all of the most common challenges facing women in the 19th century into Susannah’s journey from the halls of Mount Holyoke to the defendant’s chair, to a seat in one of the top firms in Chicago to read law before taking the bar exam. In Susannah, A Lawyer, Ruth Rymer manages to bring to life the complex world of intelligent women in a time where attending college was for meeting husbands, not for building careers.
One challenge of writing historical fiction is establishing the time and social climate in a period that is not in an unimaginable past in a relatable, clear manner. Conveying the differences between current social perspectives and perspectives from the past is a challenge for any historical fiction author. Add to that the need to unveil similarities between past and present social issues (sexual harassment, for example) that may seem simplified and “solved,” and you have a task that few authors are capable of negotiating effectively. At first glance, the layer upon layer of circumstantial bad luck that Susannah encounters from the first chapter to the last seems to be an almost over-saturation of political and social points. But when taken in conjunction with the period in which Susannah, A Lawyer is set, and the impact that historical fact plays on the pursuit of a law degree by a woman, her obstacles, and the strategies she employs in overcoming those obstacles, the laundry list of assaults by friends, family, and society all become representative of the struggles women of the 19th century faced collectively. In this respect, Rymer’s juggling of controversial issues (both in the 19th century and now) with historical accuracy and engaging dialogue makes the comparison between Susannah and the reader inevitable.
Don’t mistake Rymer’s accessible writing for lack of sophistication. Susannah is full of well researched detail of language, social mores, apparel, and customs of diverse groups of people. Rymer’s experience in law is immediately evident but not intimidating, and through the voice of Susannah, readers are able to encounter reading law with the same confidence she does. Rymer creates a cast of memorable and three dimensional characters that are fallible and real. Few are absolutely despicable. Few are completely lovable. Because of the range of experiences and actions of her characters, Susannah becomes more realistic, and the end of this novel leaves the reader expecting to hear the next installment over tea in the salon tomorrow rather than waiting for a sequel. Susannah becomes a character readers grow frustrated with because of her naivete in social situations that modern readers are all too familiar with, but at the same time the audience can’t help but root for her to stand up for herself, to challenge barriers and to be the path blazing woman the title promises.