The Last Kingdom – BBC 2


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Two episodes into this, I still can’t make my mind up about it – although I do wish that people would stop drawing comparisons between this, a historically-based series, and Game of Thrones, which is fantasy. Our hero, Uhtred, is fictional, even if he is partly based on Uchtred The Bold (who lived a century and a half later), but the events of the time were real enough, and so were many of the other main characters – notably, of course, Alfred The Great. So it should not be being compared with fantasy!

I’m afraid I haven’t read the book – I’ve read a couple of Bernard Cornwell’s books, but his style doesn’t particularly work for me – but I’m very pleased to see the BBC covering this often-neglected period of English history, i.e. the second half of the ninth century. Uhtred, originally Osbert, the son of a Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon ealdorman is taken prisoner by the Danes and raised as the foster son of a Danish earl, but later tries to regain his own lands and title from his uncle. The History Channel’s entertaining Vikings series does an excellent job of covering things (although a generation or so earlier than this) from a Viking viewpoint, but the Anglo-Saxons get rather neglected.

One major problem, and the directors of Vikings have pointed this out when criticised for alleged historical inaccuracies, is that so much about the “Dark Ages” is … well, dark! OK, we’ve got the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but really we know far less about the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms than we do about, say, Rome in the age of the Caesars. And fact and legend are all muddled together! However, one Anglo-Saxon name with which surely everyone in England is familiar is that of Alfred the Great, the only monarch of England (unless you count Canute, and he’s better known as Canute the Dane than Canute the Great) to be known as “the Great”, and he turned up part-way through last night’s second episode.

It’s a shame (a great shame, in fact!) that the “Willy, Willy, Harry, Steve,” rhyme and those royal family trees you can buy at historic places only ever seem to go back as far as William the Conqueror. OK, it gets very confusing before then, with different kings in different parts of England, but it’s significant that both William and his son Henry I chose wives, queens, who were descended from Alfred the Great, and the fact that the Royal Family can trace its lineage back to Alfred is important, because Alfred and his immediate descendants were so important.

He was only a prince at this stage, so he hadn’t burnt any cakes yet! Come on, these traditional stories are important too! And the way he’s being portrayed in the programme, as someone quite small and slight, and scholarly rather than soldierly, is probably pretty accurate … more so than the image we tend to have of Alfred as a tall, blond, strapping warrior king, as he’s depicted in his statue in Winchester :-).

Anyway, we shall see how things progress now that Uhtred and Alfred have teamed up. So far, it hasn’t really been all that gripping, but it’s early days yet and hopefully it will get better. I hope so, anyway. The Anglo-Saxons deserve some attention!


The Stuarts in Exile – BBC 4


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I was expecting this programme to be about … well, the Stuarts in exile. Or about the Fifteen, seeing as we’re just coming up to its tercentenary. I was therefore rather bemused that Clare Jackson chose to spend quite so much of it having a go at the 1st Duke of Marlborough. She spent way more time talking about him that she spent talking about either the Glorious Revolution or the Fifteen, and the Stuarts’ life in exile barely got mentioned at all!

I should point out that Marlborough – plain John Churchill, as he was in 1688 – and I go back a long way :-), to when I “did” the War of the Spanish Succession as my “special subject” at university. Clare Jackson’s problem with him seemed to be that he changed sides in 1688 and kept a toe in both the Hanoverian and Jacobite camps in the later years of Queen Anne’s reign. Well, yes, but so did a lot of other people. Not that many people openly came out in support of William of Orange until he’d actually landed, but, once he had, most people backed him. And Robert Harley, who switched sides from the Whigs to the Tories and became the leader of the Tory faction and a very senior government minister, actually engaged in secret correspondence with the French – with whom Britain was at war – with a view to making James Edward Anne’s heir. None of that got mentioned, did it? Maybe Clare just liked the idea of being filmed wandering round Blenheim Palace. The clue’s in the name, love – Blenheim Palace: it’s all about the War of the Spanish Succession. This programme was supposed to be about the Jacobites.

Plenty of other things didn’t get mentioned either. If you’re going to talk about the Duke of Marlborough, then you really need to talk about the Duchess as well. William would probably have succeeded in 1688 without the support of John Churchill, but it could’ve got very awkward if he hadn’t had the support of Princess Anne, whose close friendship with Sarah Churchill was certainly a factor in deciding her actions at that time and continued to be important for many years afterwards. But where were the references to Sarah? Come to that, if you’re going to try to associate the Churchills with the Jacobites, you really need to point out that Arabella Churchill, Marlborough’s sister, had been James II’s mistress, and that, as a result, the Old Pretender’s half-brother, the Earl of Berwick, was Marlborough’s nephew. Not mentioned once.

Oh, and, speaking of nephews, there was no mention of the fact that William of Orange was James II’s nephew, as well as being his son-in-law, nor of the fact that Louis XIV was James II’s cousin. I hate to sound like some sort of gossip magazine, but these things were actually relevant! Louise Marie, James II’s daughter, who was born after the Glorious Revolution and sadly died at the age of 19, wasn’t mentioned at all. Nor, and this really was ridiculous, was the Duke of Gloucester, Anne’s son, who lived until the age of 11. It was never really likely that he was going to survive to adulthood, because of his many health problems, but it was his death in 1700 which prompted the Act of Settlement and brought the Hanoverians into the equation. Rather more significant than the gardens at Blenheim Palace, however nice they may be.

(And it’s a minor point, but it seemed very odd to talk about the Jacobites marching on Newcastle but finding the city’s gates barred against them without mentioning that this is why the good people of Newcastle are referred to as Geordies – the supporters of George!)

Oh dear, I’m being really negative, aren’t I? It wasn’t that the programme wasn’t interesting, just that it didn’t seem to focus on the most appropriate areas! Anyway, it did eventually get round to talking about the Fifteen. The semi-forgotten rebellion. Whilst coming back from a visit to Pitlochry this time last year, I saw a signpost for Sheriffmuir, and it took me a minute to think why I knew the name (it’s the site of the major battle of the 1715 Jacobite Uprising). That’s pretty strange, really. Everyone knows the name Culloden! And the defeat of the English Jacobites at Preston isn’t talked about much even in Preston itself, not the way that the Civil War Battle of Preston and the Jacobite advance through Lancashire in 1745 are. Wandering slightly off the point, Clare Jackson referred to it as the last battle fought on English soil, but there’s a debate about that: most people would say that it wasn’t really a battle and that the last actual battle fought on English soil was Sedgemoor.

So why is the Fifteen the forgotten rebellion? Really, it’s the one that should have succeeded. In 1688, the “political nation” was fed up of James II, and most other people still remembered the Civil War, or had heard about it from older generations, and just didn’t want any more trouble. By 1745, more than half a century had passed since the Glorious Revolution, the Hanoverians had been in situ for over thirty years, England and Lowland Scotland were doing very nicely in the Union and you’d’ve thought that the chances of a Jacobite restoration were long past. In 1715, there should have been a very real chance of James Edward taking the throne. There’d been those secret negotiations with Harley & co. If James Edward had had the nous to do what his great-grandfather, Henri “Paris is worth a mass” IV of France had done, and change his religion, he would probably have been named as Anne’s heir. As it was, George I had become king, but he hadn’t been there very long, he was very much an unknown quantity, and there was a lot of discontent with the powers that were because of the South Sea Bubble and so on.

But James Edward was a worse than useless leader, Louis XIV died in the middle of it all, the Earl of Mar made a mess of things, and the Government handled everything very well – better than the Government of 1745 was to do. And then … well, not very much happened. After the Forty-Five, the authorities came down on the Highlands like a ton of bricks, broke up the clan system, even banned the wearing of traditional Highland dress. And the Forty-Five became a romantic Lost Cause. And it had its romantic stories, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his hair-raising adventures, Flora MacDonald, wee bonnie boats over the sea to Skye. And, the Battle of the Boyne, part of the original Jacobite campaign of 1688-92, is seen as a symbol of Loyalism and Protestantism in Northern Ireland and marked with an annual Bank Holiday to this day. I don’t know what on earth William of Orange would make of the Orange Lodge marches, and I’m not sure what Charles Edward would make of being remembered as some sort of romantic tragi-hero, but they both have their places in popular culture, whereas James Edward and the Fifteen just … well, don’t, really.

One last thought. Seeing as so much of this programme was about the Duke of Marlborough rather than about the Stuarts or the Hanoverians, I shall finish up by pointing out that our next monarch but one, Prince William, is descended from the Hanoverians, from (albeit via the “bend sinister”) the senior line of the Stuarts through Charles II, and from the 1st Duke of Marlborough. I’d love to know if he ever thinks about that!

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory


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I’m surprised that Philippa Gregory chose to call this book “The Taming of the Queen”, because Katherine Parr deserves to be remembered as a scholar, a religious reformer, a clever courtier, a kind woman who created a family for her stepchildren, and a survivor, not as someone whose spirit was broken. The book doesn’t really show her as being “tamed”, and Philippa Gregory says in her afterword – I’m so glad she now includes afterwords to explain which parts of her books are fact and which are fiction, because the absence of those explanations in her earlier books really annoys me! – that Katherine was “tenacious” and “an educated and highly intelligent reformer” … so why give this book, in which she is the central character, narrating it in the first person and in the present tense, such a negative title?!

Oh well! Despite the title, I think this is one of Philippa Gregory’s best books.  For a start, there’s nothing in it which is historically inaccurate, or far-fetched.  There are things which have obviously had to be fictionalised because we can’t know what really happened, such as whether or not Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour were lovers before her marriage to Henry , and what went on behind Katherine and Henry’s bedroom door – there’s one distressing scene in which Henry whips and beats Katherine but, sadly, it’s not hard to imagine that happening – but the political and Tudor family events are all portrayed accurately.  No wild flights of fancy involving Perkin Warbeck really being Richard of York, Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur having a passionate marriage, Henry being the father of Mary Boleyn’s children or Elizabeth and Robert Dudley being lovers!

She also says in the afterword that she doesn’t know why Katherine Parr isn’t better known. I certainly agree that Katherine Parr deserves to be better known.  It’s ridiculous that Jane Seymour, who seems to have said next to nothing on the subject of religious reform, is regarded as some sort of Protestant heroine, whereas Katherine Parr gets overlooked.  It’s also very sad that her scholarship isn’t recognised.  However, I suppose her story just doesn’t have the human interest value of a king dumping his loyal wife in favour of a glamorous younger woman, the Gothic horror of the way in which Mary’s “Turn or Burn” reign is portrayed, or the glory of Elizabeth’s triumph over the Armada.  I once, rather bizarrely, ended up having a discussion about Katherine Parr and Anne Askew with a National Trust volunteer at Lyme Park, and we both said afterwards how much we’d enjoyed it, because neither Katherine Parr nor the last few years of Henry VIII’s reign in general get anything like the attention they deserve.

The fear and uncertainty of those years, Henry’s vacillation between different attitudes towards religious reform, and different factions at Court, come across very well. Henry himself is portrayed well too.  There are so many different images of him, some better known than others – Bluff King Hal, a monster and a tyrant, a romantic, a suffering man in poor health in his last years, a king removed from reality and obsessed with crazy ideas about conquering France, a scholar, a Catholic, a reformer, a megalomaniac- and really we get all of them in this book, without the combination of all those different facets ever seeming unbelievable.    The book is told from Katherine’s viewpoint and so it does show a Protestant view of things and a … I want to say “feminist”, but that word doesn’t really work for Tudor times, but I can’t think of one that does so it’ll have to do!  A Protestant view of things and a feminist view of things!  The people who come across as “baddies” are Archbishop Stephen Gardiner, Thomas Wriothesley, and the Duke of Norfolk.  The reformers, even John Dudley, are all shown favourably.  And, incidentally, I think that putting the words of the Tilbury speech into Katherine’s mouth was going too far, but I think we can accept that Katherine did have a great influence on Elizabeth, and on Lady Jane Grey as well.

Another point well made is that Katherine was a Northerner. That always tends to be overlooked, which annoys me!    It’s also interesting how much is made in the early part of the book about the fact that Katherine didn’t come to court until shortly before her marriage to Henry, and that she therefore wasn’t that well-informed about what was going on there, and maybe not even about the religious issues, before then.  I’d never really thought of that before, but it’s a valid point.

Katherine’s tragedy is that she died so soon after Henry’s death set her free, and that her short marriage to Thomas Seymour was marred by his pursuit of her stepdaughter Elizabeth. What would her life and her influence have been like, had she lived longer?  We’ll never know that, but she deserves a lot more recognition than she gets and hopefully this book will draw more attention to her.  I can never quite make up my mind about Philippa Gregory, largely because of the way she’s included wild flights of fancy in some of her books and not explained that she’s done so, but that isn’t a problem with this book; and I think it’s one of her best.



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This was quite a powerful film which did a good job of conveying the determination of those involved in the suffragette movement and the sometimes horrifying way in which they were treated by the state. However, it was limited in its scope – and why, oh why, did it have to be so London-centric?

The film makers were certainly determined to show viewers just how much some of the suffragettes put into the campaign for votes for women, even sacrificing their own homes and family lives in some cases, and, without ever sensationalising it, to show us the sheer brutality used against these women by the state. Beatings – and, by most accounts, the beatings suffered by some women at demonstrations were even worse than those shown in the film – and the horrific use of force-feeding.  Despite the treatment of the suffragettes, despite the deaths at Peterloo a century earlier, the 1066 and all that version of history teaches us that Britain became a democracy through peaceful parliamentary reform, none of that revolutionary carry-on that they had going on in France.  It’s important that we remember that it actually wasn’t all that peaceful.  There was even the sense of a war going on, with militant action being taken and the authorities keeping leading suffragettes under surveillance.

The film also reminded us that the struggle for women’s rights wasn’t only about the vote. The way in which mothers were denied rights in matters relating to their children, and discrimination against and even mistreatment of women in the workplace, were all covered – and we were reminded at the end that, in some countries, women are denied equal rights even now.

It ended with the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby in 1913, the best-known incident in the history of the suffragette movement and the one which really drew mass attention, not just in the UK but across the world, to it. Moving original footage of vast numbers of people lining the streets as her funeral cortege passed through was included.  For some reason, the character was only ever referred to or addressed by her first name until the end, as if they didn’t want you to realise who she was … unless I’m making something out of nothing there.  It was patently obvious who she was, but I did get the feeling that it wasn’t meant to be!  There is some debate over what happened on that day, whether or not she actually meant to give her life, and the film was ambiguous about that: the idea seemed to be that her intention was to present a WSPU banner to the King, and that she only decided to run out on to the racetrack when she was unable to gain admission to the Royal Enclosure.  But surely she must have realised that running out at a racehorse galloping at full tilt was going to result in death or serious injury?  And would anyone have made a decision like that just on the spot?  We just can’t know for sure.

Moving on – was that the right point at which to end the film? Well, there wasn’t time to take the characters through the First World War, on to the granting of limited female suffrage in 1918 and on, at last, to the granting of the vote to women on the same terms as men in 1928.  And maybe that was the problem with a lot of things: there just wasn’t time in the film to cover everything that arguably should have been covered.  It was limited to a very small group of characters, and almost all of the action revolved around the central character, played very well by Carey Mulligan.  We learned that she’d lost her mother when she was only 4, because of an industrial accident caused by working conditions, and that she’d then been abused by her boss for most of her girlhood.  Then she became involved with the suffragette movement, was put in prison, and, as a result, was thrown out by her husband, who then had their child adopted by strangers.  Yes, this all made very important points about the position and treatment of women and girls at the time, but did it all have to happen to one character?!

Furthermore, there was mention of the fact that the WSPU was split, with some members in favour of violent action and others opposed, but it was only really mentioned in passing; and the NUWSS – the suffragist movement, which worked on the principle of peaceful campaigning only – wasn’t mentioned at all. And we were told that the husband of the character played by Helena Bonham Carter belonged to the Men’s League in support of votes for women but, other than that, we were given the impression that everyone who wasn’t an active suffragette was directly opposed to the suffragette movement, which certainly wasn’t the case.  On top of that, the fact that, at that time, many men were also denied the right to vote, was pretty much completely ignored.  I do appreciate that there’s only so much you can fit into 100 minutes or so, but I did feel that the scope of this film could have been wider.

It could certainly have been wider geographically. All right, it was based around a few fictional characters, and it was probably easier to have them being Londoners so that there were no issues about how they were going to get to Westminster to protest, etc … but one of the biggest problems in this country is the way in which politics is so focused on London, and I wasn’t very impressed that this film went so completely along those lines.  Come on – the WSPU was founded in Manchester, the Pankhursts came from Manchester, the militancy campaign got going after Christabel Pankhurst and Saddleworth millworker Annie Kenney were thrown out of the Free Trade Hall and  carted off to Strangeways … and the directors of this film couldn’t even get Meryl Streep to play Emmeline Pankhurst with a Manchester accent!  (I don’t know what accent she was trying to use, incidentally: it was very strange!) Emmeline Pankhurst only actually featured in one scene, and Sylvia Pankhurst, who was heavily involved in the East End of London, didn’t feature at all.

All right, I’m being parochial! My old school is very proud of the fact that Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst were once pupils there.  They never tell you that all three of them, especially Christabel, hated the place … er, but never mind!  I remember my wonderful history teacher proudly telling us that the Pankhurst sisters were amongst our predecessors at the school, whilst we were studying the suffragette movement as part of our GCSE course … and then being rather bemused when someone helpfully responded by pointing out that Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins was a suffragette.   Sorry, I’ve got totally off the point now!  To get back to the film, it would have been nice to have had at least a bit more acknowledgment of the fact that the suffragette movement didn’t, and British politics in general don’t, revolve solely around London.

However, as I’ve said, you can only show so much in an average length film, and this film did make a lot of very important points. Some critics have said that it’s too serious, but what do they want, jokes and laughter about firebombing and force-feeding?  It does a good job, even if it could perhaps have done a better one.

Witch Hunt: A Century of Murder – Channel 5




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I live a few minutes’ walk from the route of the X43 Trans Lancs Express bus service. Whilst buses operating along all the other Trans Lancs Express services have very pretty long-stemmed red roses painted along their sides, the X43 buses, which link Manchester with the borough of Pendle, have broomsticks painted along theirs, and are referred to by the bus company as “The Witch Way”. Call in at one of the Pendle tourist offices – you’ll find one in Barrowford, alongside a café which does very nice jacket potatoes, and one outside Boundary Mill in Colne, opposite a Thorntons chocolates outlet – and you’ll find all sorts of leaflets telling you about “Walking With Witches” and “The Lancashire Witches Driving Trail”. Newchurch-in-Pendle, thought to be the site of Malkin Tower, where the Pendle Witches allegedly held their covens, even has a witch-related gift shop.

It does my head in. The Pendle Witch Trials resulted in the judicial murder of ten people. An eleventh, an elderly woman, died in prison. It wasn’t some sort of Disney film. Hundreds of people were executed for witchcraft in the British Isles, most of them during the mass witch-hunts of the 17th century. All right, all right, the Pendle Tourist Board’s just trying to help the region’s economy and I suppose they can’t really be blamed for that, and Pendle’s probably a special case because William Harrison Ainsworth decided to romanticise it all. But it still does my head in. It’s a horrible part of our history.

And, as this programme, excellently presented by Suzannah Lipscomb, pointed out, it was really James I – James I and VI, I should say – who kicked the mass witch-hunting off. He had this bee in his bonnet about witches, and he was responsible for the North Berwick witch trial in 1591, and then brought his obsession with witches to England when he succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603. He even wrote a book about witch-hunting. There were witch-hunts in many parts of Europe – and, although witch-hunting is associated with Calvinism, witches were executed in areas with Catholic or Lutheran authorities too – but it’s James who really has to take the blame for the witch-hunting in the British Isles and in New England.

Once this sort of thing starts, it’s very hard to stop. People were denounced as witches by friends, neighbours, even members of their own families – sometimes through ignorance, sometimes because people bore a grudge against them. The alleged witches, mostly women, were often horribly tortured. Birthmarks, the supposed marks of the Devil, were seen as a sign as witchcraft, and, although it wasn’t mentioned in this programme, the horrendous sink or swim test was often used. If you floated, you were a witch. So you were killed. If you didn’t, you died of drowning.

James was a very intelligent man, and it puzzles me why he did have this obsession with witches. Suzannah Lipscomb’s argument, one which makes a lot of sense, was that he never intended for any of this to happen: his book argued that witches should only be convicted where there was some sort of rational evidence against them. Although, even then, what sort of rational evidence could there have been?

The second and final episode in the series, to be shown tonight, will focus on Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General responsible for over 300 killings of alleged witches during the Civil War. It’s got to be telling that this did happen during the Civil War, when other forms of authority had broken down, but the practice of witch-hunting took place over a far longer time period.

The word “witch-hunt” still exists in our language today, and it’s generally used to describe attacks, these days usually in the media rather than physical, on people against whom nothing’s really been proven. Things get out of hand. People attack other people sometimes out of genuine belief that they’ve done wrong but without any evidence, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes because of personal enmity and often because it’s easy to believe what someone else tells you. In the 17th century, in particular, this resulted in torture and, in many cases, in execution. It’s a horrible, frightening part of our past, and one which needs to be remembered, and remembered as what it was.

Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2


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Having recently launched into a bit of a rant on Facebook about certain politicians acting as if they think it’s 1878 again, I was rather interested to find the events of 1878 coming up in the first episode of this fourth series of the wonderful Great Continental Railway Journeys, which saw Michael Portillo travelling from Sofia to Istanbul. Complete with his beloved Bradshaw’s Guide!

Bulgaria isn’t a country which is particularly well-known in Britain, so it was really good to hear the talk about its struggles for independence and how it preserved its national identity during the years of Ottoman occupation. However, my point about 1878 was that most of the politicians at the Congress of Berlin seemed more intent on having a go at Russia than on addressing the issues they were actually supposed to be addressing, just as today’s politicians are doing over the Syrian crisis, so I wasn’t very pleased when a historian to whom Michael Portillo spoke in Istanbul made out that Russia was the only country hoping to benefit from the decline of the Ottoman Empire. What a load of rubbish! Then, when the subject of the Young Turk Uprising of 1908 arose, the fact that Austria-Hungary took advantage of the resultant chaos to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina was completely ignored. Bah!!!

Oh well. It was still good to see Bulgaria taking centre stage, and it was also good to be reminded that there’s a street in Sofia named after Gladstone, who spoke out against the Bulgarian massacres and actually was more concerned about the Balkans than about having a go at Russia! Things then moved on, along the route of the Orient Express, towards the Turkish border, which, as we were reminded, was, in 1913, the year in which Portillo’s edition of Bradshaw’s guide was published, a war zone.

One of the central themes of Great Continental Railway Journeys has been that, in 1913, there was a general sense of peace and optimism across Europe, with hardly anyone having the faintest inkling that their world was soon going to fall apart. Not so in the Balkans, of course. The Balkan Wars which immediately preceded the First World War tend to be overlooked now … although, occasionally, in particular with regard to the UN referring to the Republic of Macedonia as “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” because Greece got stroppy about the name, we are reminded that there were considerable disputes over borders and territory when Ottoman control of the area collapsed. And I think it’s important to remember that the idea of the Balkans as “the tinderbox of Europe” wasn’t and isn’t only about what became Yugoslavia.

Anyway. On to Istanbul … and a picture of refugees from the Balkan Wars arriving on Turkish shores. I don’t know exactly when this programme was put together, but I’d love to know whether or not that was originally intended to be part of it or whether it was shoehorned in when the current refugee crisis intensified during the summer just gone.

Istanbul is, as Portillo pointed out, one of the world’s great cities, the point at which Europe and Asia meet, and crucially placed strategically because it’s on the Bosphorus. We saw him visit the Aghia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar and try some Turkish delight, and we also saw him visit one of the city’s lesser-known sights, a British cemetery where many British service personnel who lost their lives during the Crimean War and both world wars, particularly the First World War, are buried.

Next week’s programme will be set in Austria and Italy, probably more familiar territory for most viewers, but I’m so glad that Bulgaria and Turkey have been given a look in, and the important events of 1877-1878 and of the Balkan Wars of the early 1910s discussed. There has been some negative talk about the countries of the southern Balkans of late, partly because of concerns over immigration from Romania and Bulgaria and partly because of the financial crisis in Greece, and maybe part of that’s because these are countries whose history and culture are not as well-known in this country as they could be. It’s nice to see at least one of them getting the attention it deserves.

Probation by Jessie Fothergill


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This book, by the author of The First Violin, is set during the Cotton Famine (I’m so excited at having found another book set during the Cotton Famine!), with most of the action taking place in the town of “Thanshope” – which is so obviously Rochdale that I don’t know why she didn’t just say that it was Rochdale! And it all comes across very, very well :-).

The Cotton Famine, despite the amount of poverty and distress that it caused, does have quite a romantic image – the idea of the brave, hard-working people of Lancashire, imbued with the ideals of self-help and independence, struggling through this difficult time whilst trying not to lose their pride, and, despite everything, staunchly supporting the Union because the Confederacy was seen as standing for slavery. To this day, we’ve got a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Manchester city centre. It wasn’t quite all as noble and romantic and one-sided as that, but there’s plenty of truth in the idea all the same, and Jessie Fothergill got that all across very well, without going overboard in favour of the romantic image as it might have been tempting to do.

Along with the ideas of the cotton workers’ attitudes goes the image of the mighty King Cotton brought low, and, to understand that, it’s first of all necessary to understand just how powerful the image of the cotton industry was at this time, and how successful the British cotton industry had been. I tend to get very carried away when I’m writing about this, and I wasn’t even born until over a century after the Famine ended! However, again, it’s important not to go to OTT, and Jessie Fothergill managed it very well. She also made the point, often ignored, that the problems were due partly to overproduction in the preceding years, not solely to the Unionist blockade of the Confederate ports.

Also, as I’ve already said, it’s an excellent depiction of Rochdale – not only geographically and economically, but also politically. The recent revelations of the horrific abuse carried out by Cyril Smith have unfortunately cast a big shadow over Rochdale’s more recent Liberal history, but let’s not dwell on that: this was Rochdale in the age of John Bright, who was born there, and Richard Cobden, who for a time was the town’s MP. Free trade in those days was known as Manchester Economics (and don’t get me started on the city council selling off our beloved Free Trade Hall to the Radisson group, bah!), and Whig/Liberal/Radical feeling was strong across many parts of Lancashire in the 1860s, but Rochdale probably has a stronger tradition of Liberalism than any other part of the area. Although this was obviously well before the days of universal suffrage, and even before the Reform Act of 1867, there were still strong working-class views about politics, and that came across well in the books as well.

Parts of the book are also set in Manchester, very accurately described as you’d expect from an author who was originally from Cheetham Hill :-). There’s a bit set in Germany as well, but, unlike with The First Violin, there aren’t any names which were “borrowed” for the the Chalet School books!

OK, here endeth the essay on the Cotton Famine! What about the actual characters? Well, we got a broad range of characters – the hard-working cotton operative eager to better himself, his equally hard-working but more down-to-earth sister, their invalid brother, their baddie stepfather, the goodie millowner who was eager to help his operatives when the mill closed, the baddie millowners who were on the financial fiddle, the pretty girl whom two different men were after and the early feminist. I particularly liked Helena, the young woman who was passionate about women’s rights and who was presented very favourably. Of course, it ended up with the goodies pairing off, getting married and living happily ever after, but it took them a while to get there. My one gripe is that there was a two year gap in the middle of the book and I’d like to’ve seen more of what happened during it, but maybe that would have made the book too long.

I really am chuffed about finding this! I don’t know how much it’d appeal to anyone who doesn’t know the area and the historical background, but it definitely appealed to me :-).