I’m not sure how I feel about the news that Barbara Taylor Bradford’s writing a prequel to A Woman of Substance, forty years after the original novel was published. These things tend not to go well; but maybe this’ll work in a way that the six sequels didn’t. I hope so, anyway. A Woman of Substance was one of the first “grown-up” books I ever read. No, not in 1979 – I think I was still on Amelia Jane back then! – but it’s an incredibly inspirational book whenever you read it. It’s easy to categorise it as just another blockbuster/family saga, but it’s so much more than that.
It’s the story of a woman who succeeds in a man’s world of business. It’s the story of a lifelong friendship between three working-class Northerners, a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew, who all start off with nothing and build their own business empires. It’s about the pride of a northern city (yes, OK, it’s Leeds, but it could equally well be Manchester or Liverpool!). It’s about friendship between people from different backgrounds – Emma Harte gets her start in Leeds when she rescues David Kallinski’s dad Abraham from an anti-Semitic attack and he gives her a job, and, at a time of sectarian division between Protestants and Catholics, it’s entirely irrelevant to her that Blackie O’Neill is an Irish Catholic.
It’s about a teenage kitchen maid who is treated like dirt by the privileged, entitled Fairley brothers, sons of the local squire, but overcomes it all. Edwin does love Emma, but refuses to take responsibility when he gets her into trouble. Gerald just thinks she’s his for the taking, and she’s lucky to escape being raped when he forces his way into her home.
But then there are all the good men. Blackie. David and his brother Victor. Emma’s two brothers, Winston – whom she helps overcome the life-changing injuries he suffers in the First World War – and Frank. They, and above all Emma, all work their way up from very little; and there’s a glorious passage about how they’re all contributing to a city’s greatness.
Yes, all right, in many ways it’s a classic ‘80s blockbuster- even if it was published in the last year of the ‘70s! – as well. Emma has five children by four different men, and both David and Blackie want to marry her at different times … as well as the two husbands she actually had, neither of whom she loved, and the man she really loved but wasn’t able to marry! It’s a saga about building up a business. It’s a very ‘80s story about feuding within a powerful family: Emma ends up disinheriting all her children in favour of her grandchildren. But there are a lot of books like that. None of the others have what this one’s got.
The sequels just aren’t the same. The Harte, O’Neill and Kallinski grandchildren are born into money, and they’re born into a world where class, gender and religion aren’t nearly as much of an issue as they were in Edwardian times. It becomes a soap opera of broken marriages and dodgy business dealings. But this new book’s going to be about Blackie, and how, as a teenage orphan, he leaves County Kerry to seek his fortune in Leeds. So maybe this one’ll work. Let’s hope so! It’d be wonderful to get something of the A Woman of Substance feeling into another book.