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 :-).