The Wool-Pack by Cynthia Harnett (Facebook group reading challenge)

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This is a children’s book, the 1951 Carnegie Medal winner, set in Oxfordshire in 1493, about Nicholas Fetterlock, the 12-year-old son of a wool merchant. On the plus side, it was absolutely packed with detail about the period – what people wore, what they ate, how the wool was spun and sold, what people did for entertainment, etc. On the minus side, not very much actually happened! There was a plot about wool being stolen and sold illegally, but it didn’t really kick off until halfway through, and then, when the kids (Nicholas, his betrothed and a servant) caught the thief out, it was by sneaking into his barn whilst he was at the dentist (OK, the barber-surgeon!) and marking the sacks so the authorities could catch him later on – there was no real drama.

Very early on, there was some scene-setting with a bit of background information about the Wars of the Roses and how we were now in the eighth year of the reign of Henry VII, and Nicholas met some Italian merchants who told him about the Medici family and what was going on in Florence. There was also an uncle who was hoping to join John Cabot on a voyage to “the Indies” (slight historical fail there, seeing as Cabot didn’t arrive in England until a couple of years later!) and told Nicholas about Christopher Columbus. But national and international events didn’t really come it, and were barely mentioned after that: it was more about the daily lives of the Fetterlocks, and the Bradshaws (a very Lancastrian-sounding surname for a Southern family!), the well-to-do family of Cecily, the girl to whom Nicholas’s dad had betrothed him.

I’m pleased to say that Cecily was a very feisty girl who was fully involved in such adventure as there was! It’d be interesting to know what modern editors would make of Nicholas’s dad telling him that wives should be beaten into obedience, though. There’s a major ongoing argument about historical novels for children, and the extent to which they should reflect the attitudes of the times when those attitudes are not acceptable today. I’m pretty sure that that particular line would be struck straight out now!

The historical detail was amazing – there was just so much of it. I don’t know that all of it was 100% accurate, but, apart from the thing with John Cabot, there was nothing that was definitely inaccurate. The clothes they wore, the food they ate, the way in which the table was set, all the details about the wool trade and about the actual preparation of the wool, the church services … there was just so much information pouring off every page. Little details, like Nicholas being expected to kneel for his father’s blessing, and fake hermits asking for alms, and people returning from Santiago de Compostela disembarking from ships with cockleshells in their hats. There was a wonderful description of a fair, and we also heard about compulsory archery practice. I don’t think I’ve ever read a children’s book so rich in period detail. It was fascinating.

But not very much actually happened …

The drama, such as it was, involved one of the local men involved in transporting the wool colluding with the Italian merchants to steal it and smuggle it abroad, where it’d be sold illegally – which would have got Nicholas’s dad thrown out of the Staple, the powerful wool merchants’ guild which held a monopoly on wool exports from England. Nicholas, Cecily and Nicholas’s servant Hal uncovered the plot, and, thanks to them, the baddies were caught and Master Fetterlock’s name was cleared – but, as I’ve said, it wasn’t exactly a case of a thrilling showdown! And smuggling wool … OK, the wool trade was absolutely crucial at the time, but, as far as excitement goes, it’s not exactly up there with finding escaped Royalists/Jacobites or Napoleonic French/Nazi German spies hiding out at the bottom of your garden, which is more the sort of thing you usually get in children’s historical fiction.

Enid Blyton would have had them getting locked in the barn and having to work out some way to escape. G A Henty would have had the thief coming home unexpectedly, tying the kids up in woolsacks and throwing them on board a ship bound for the Continent, whereupon they would have joined Columbus’s second voyage, got caught up in the French invasion of Italy, captured Perkin Warbeck or possibly all three. Going home and just waiting to hear that the marked sacks had been traced was a bit tame! Children’s books don’t necessarily have to be full of dramatic adventures – as a general rule, no-one tends to get tied up and thrown on board a ship in school stories, ballet stories, pony stories, etc – but I do think the book could have done with a bit more action as well as all the descriptions of daily life, interesting and informative as that was.

Great for historical detail, and it’s nice to find a children’s historical novel that’s actually set in peacetime – most seem to be set either in wartime or when there’s fear of war breaking out – but I think a book for readers of the intended age range, or indeed any age range, needs to have more of a plot.

10 thoughts on “The Wool-Pack by Cynthia Harnett (Facebook group reading challenge)

  1. Chris Deeley

    But is it possible that John Cabot was talking about a voyage to ‘The Indies’ before coming to England (in about 1495)? Cabot may then have been in Valencia or Seville and word of his ideas could have been heard in England in 1493. After all, they seemed to know about Columbus and there seems to have been a lot of international interest in maritime exploration in those days.

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    • I’m not sure where the uncle would have met him if it wasn’t in Bristol, where he was based, but he was a bit of a pirate so I suppose he’d have travelled around. Shame he didn’t feature more – pirates are a lot more interesting than marking wool sacks whilst someone’s at the dentist!

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      • Chris Deeley

        There is a tower in Bristol called Cabot Tower, from the top of which one had glorious views across to the Bristol Channel. I say ‘had’ because last time I was there, the tower was closed. Shame!

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      • Chris Deeley

        But the uncle could have been talking about joining John Cabot even without having met him. On a different topic: have you read ‘England’s Character’ by SPB Mais? I highly recommend it. Lovely historical inaccuracies, e.g. William Longspee was a son of Fair Rosamund and Henry II. Hah!

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      • Chris Deeley

        A great canal: regarded as a modern wonder of the world when it first opened; partly because of the Barton Aqueduct over the Irwell. It also reduced the cost of coal and made a fortune for the Duke (who may have been a bit ‘posh’, but was considerate towards poorer people).

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