*If you are new here, WELCOME! For The Invincible Miss Cust, I provide your book club with a brief summary, food ideas and a recipe, and discussion questions in that order!
The Invincible Miss Cust is Penny Haw’s first historical women’s fiction novel, but I hope it isn’t her last. The novel follows Aleen Cust as she grows up in Britain and ultimately becomes Britain’s first woman veterinary surgeon.
Aleen Cust defied seemingly insurmountable odds from both society and her own family in order to study in the field, practice, and finally become the first licensed woman veterinary surgeon in Britain.
The story of her life was absolutely fascinating and the author, Penny Haw, was able to sprinkle in just enough storytelling to weave together a stirring tale of ambition, romance, and friendship.
Set in the late 1800s in England and Ireland, the book details how difficult it was for women at the time to aspire to any career.
Even though I love historical novels and that was a major selling point for this novel, I also loved learning about the animals alongside Aleen and reading about her work as a veterinarian at the time.
Aleen Cust was an absolutely fascinating, courageous woman and Haw has done a masterful job telling her story.
This novel is a definite book club pick. If you haven’t filled out your schedule yet, add this one to your list!
The Invincible Miss Cust is a novel chosen through Book Club Bites’ collaboration with The Best of Women’s Fiction podcast (and I’m so glad I read it!).
I’ve provided book club questions and delicious food ideas for The Invincible Miss Cust and a special recipe for you! So if you are looking for book club ideas and more, keep reading!
Check out these fun bookish gadgets…
Here’s a brief summary of The Invincible Miss Cust:
From the publisher:
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.
For The Invincible Miss Cust Food Ideas:
Aleen is far too busy working towards her MRCVS designation to stop too often and describe the food she is eating. Which was okay with me as a reader. Haw packed so much of Aleen’s life into the book, I was glad she didn’t waste too much space on food descriptions. Still, there were a couple of mentions of meals.
Here are a few of the food ideas from the pages of The Invincible Miss Cust :
- Bertie takes Aleen to tea after he stops the fight – tea, delicate sandwiches, petit fours
- Bangers and mash
- Colcannon at Mrs. Doyle’s (see author note at the end of this post) – potato and cabbage dish
- Lots of tea
Luckily, if you aren’t sure about what to create for a British inspired menu, Penny and I came up with a recipe for scones with cream and jam.
Serve these warm, flaky scones alongside tea in your best tea set for your book club to indulge in while discussing The Invincible Miss Cust.
The recipe makes a batch of 10 scones, but you can double if you have a large book club!
A few tips on cooking British Scones:
Here are a few tips to help make your cooking experience the best it can be!
1) Make sure you use cold butter. Use a pastry cutter to “cut” the butter into the flour mixture until pea sized pearls of butter are scattered throughout. If your butter is too warm, it will simply mash into the flour. The pearls of butter make the flaky texture of the best scones.
2) You can add more sugar if you want sweeter scones. These are only slightly sweet. Double the sugar if you like sweeter scones.
3) Do not overwork the dough after you add the wet ingredients to the dry. Be careful to form into a dough with firm movements, but don’t overwork. You’ll know if you’ve overworked the dough if it becomes springy to the touch (at that point the dough is dense and has lost the potential for flaky goodness).
4) Pat the dough into a disk, don’t roll it out. Use the palm of your hand to help. Make the disk at least 1 inch high. Higher if you want sky-high scones.
Whether you choose something from this list or try this fabulous recipe for British Scones, I hope these food ideas will get your creative juices flowing to host your book club for The Invincible Miss Cust!
The Invincible Miss Cust Book Club Recipe:
British Scones with Jam and Cream
- 2 cups flour
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
- ½ cup unsalted butter diced
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 2 large eggs divided
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- Clotted cream for serving
- Strawberry Jam for serving
- Preheat your oven to 400°F.
- Whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl. Set aside.
- Dice the stick of butter. Make sure it stays cold. Cold butter is what makes the scone’s texture.
- Once diced, add the butter to the flour mix. Using a pastry cutter, gently cut the butter into the flour until a rough crumb mix is achieved. The butter should appear to be about pea size in the mix. Make sure you work quickly. The goal is to keep the butter cold until it reaches the oven where it will do its magic and create flaky scones.
- Quickly whisk together the wet ingredients in a separate bowl – heavy cream, ONE egg (reserve the second for later), and vanilla extract.
- Pour the wet ingredients into the flour and butter mix. Mix together until everything is moistened and forming into a crumbly dough, but try not to overwork the dough. The goal is to keep the butter cold and in small pea-sized bits for the best scones.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and form into an 8-inch disc (about an inch high).
- Using a 2 inch cookie cutter, cut into 10 scones.
- Separate the slices and place on a parchment lined baking sheet.
- Whisk the remaining egg. Using a pastry brush, brush the tops with the egg. Bake them for 15 minutes until golden brown on the tops.
- Serve topped with butter, clotted cream, and jam.
- Serve with tea, using your finest china tea set. Imagine you are in the drawing room at Newton Hall with the Widdringtons and Aleen.
More Fun from Penny Haw:
Please insert a short description of your recipe and why it relates to your novel. Include any information you think readers would enjoy!
Scones, cream, and jam a la THE INVINCIBLE MISS CUST Aleen Cust was born in 1868 in Ireland to an aristocratic English family. Is there anything more English than tea in the drawing room with scones, cream, and jam? I’m certain Aleen, Dorothy and Bertie regularly consumed the delicacies at teatime in Newton Hall after a long ride to the beach. Though not aristocratic, my great grandfather father immigrated to South Africa from Yorkshire, England to South Africa in the late 1800s. He brought with him many English traditions, including the love scones, cream, and jam, which he passed on to my grandmother.
Good food and a good book go hand-in-hand. What is your favorite food to enjoy while reading?
I have a great fondness for nuts. There’s nothing nicer than munching on a bottomless bowl of mixed nuts—almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamias, pecans and hazelnuts—while sipping a glass of Chenin Blanc and reading.
Did you sample any interesting food while researching this book? Or experience anything exciting while researching?
When, in 1900, Aleen arrived in Athleague in Ireland to begin working with Willie Byrne (chapter 20), she stayed with Mrs Doyle in the village. During the first evening in the Doyle home, Mrs Doyle served colcannon, which is a traditional Irish dish made primarily of potatoes and cabbage. While researching colcannon, I realised that the dish was the same as one my husband grew up eating in the Netherlands and which I adopted and regularly make at home in South Africa during winter. In the Netherlands, it’s known as “stamp pot”. I wonder how many variations of colcannon or stamp pot there are around the world and what different names they have?
The Invincible Miss Cust Book Club Questions:
*WARNING: May contain spoilers!
These book club questions were kindly provided by the author and/or publisher. Please use only for your book club and do not reproduce them.
- How did the time Aleen spent at Newton Hall in the company of Lady and Major Widdrington and Dorothy influence the woman she would grow up to become?
- Aleen’s landlady in Edinburgh, Mrs Logan at one point says, “It is possible to outgrow family, you know.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
- One of the reasons the RCVS gave for wanting to prohibit women from becoming veterinarian surgeons was that they lacked the physical strength to do the job, the same excuse used by the U.S. military to prevent women from enlisting in certain areas. Do you think this is a valid reason that women should be excluded from some professional endeavors?
- Even though Aleen’s family tried with all their might to keep Aleen from pursuing her dreams and didn’t support her at all, she was still concerned with drawing attention to her case and further humiliating her family. To the very end, she still hoped for reconciliation with them. If you were in her position, what would you have done?
- Aleen scored the highest marks of her class at New Veterinary College. But rather than being a cause for celebration, her classmate and the principal recommended adjusting her scores so as not to call attention to her proficiency from the RCVS. Do you agree with the decision to do so? Do you think it was necessary? Do you think the outcome would have been any different had she submitted her actual scores?
- Aleen had many advocates along the way who supported and encouraged her to pursue her dream despite the obstacles set before her—Professor Williams and the New Veterinary College, Mr. Andrew Spreull, the Widdringtons, Willie Byrne. Do you think she would have accomplished her goal of becoming a veterinary surgeon without their backing?
- When children—even today—are asked what they want to be when they grow up, one of the most cited careers is veterinarian. Had that ever been a dream job for you? What did you want to be when you grew up and how did your answer then differ to what you do today?
- Discuss how Aleen was able to win over and earn the respect of her peers and clients. How would this have been different had she been a man?
- Aleen and Willie kept their relationship a secret, mostly because of their differences in religion, nationalities and the social statuses of their upbringing. Do you see these kinds of barriers still existing today?
- Dorothy Widdrington expressed to Aleen that she was not sure she wanted to marry, that she wanted to do something else with her life. Ultimately, she does marry though. Why do you think she ultimately decides to do so? Do you think it was a personal choice? Pressure from her family or from society? Or some other reason?
- Bertie offered to marry Aleen when he discovered she was pregnant with Willie’s child. She initially accepted but then reneged after she lost the child. Do you agree with Aleen’s decisions? Or do you think Aleen should have committed to Bertie? If she had married Bertie, how would her life and career been affected?
- Were you surprised that none of Aleen’s family—her brothers or sister—were willing to reconcile with Aleen and they didn’t show up to the celebration when she received her official RCVS certificate?
- The word “ambitious” is often used as a negative trait when applied to women but a positive one when referring to men. What other attributes or descriptive words can you think of that connote something different for women than for men?
Find Penny Haw:
Penny can be found online!
Don’t forget to check out the fabulous Best of Women’s Fiction podcast where Penny Haw discusses The Invincible Miss Cust and more: HERE.
Have you read The Invincible Miss Cust? What did you think? Did it satisfy you or were you left wishing for more? What are some similar books you’ve read?
Until next time, Happy Reading!
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