This is the prequel to A Woman of Substance – which was the first “proper grown-up” book I ever read and is one of my all-time favourites – concentrating on the early life of Blackie O’Neill, Emma Harte’s closest friend. Don’t be expecting anything of the quality of A Woman of Substance, or you’ll be disappointed: none of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s books have ever come close to it, and this one certainly doesn’t. But, as a one-off read, it’s not bad. There are a few ridiculous continuity errors – you’d think that authors would know their own books! – and the mess that the author’s made with British titles beggars belief, but the character of Blackie is very much as he is in the original book. And we meet up with other old friends, Emma, Laura and the Kallinskis, at the end – even though the scenes are copied pretty much directly out of the original books, and some of them don’t even involve Blackie!
We also get that wonderful sense of northern and national pride that we got in the original book, as we see Emma, Blackie and David set out to build up businesses from nothing. Long before society worried about “representation” and “diversity” in fiction, Barbara Taylor Bradford showed how the industrial cities of northern England were made great by Protestants, Catholics and Jews together, and I always think that that was a very attractive feature of A Woman of Substance. However, in this book that sense of pride is tempered with a greater sense of the poverty that many people faced at the time, partly, I think, because attitudes have changed generally – as we’ve moved further away from the Great War, that sense that the years before it were some sort of golden age has been muted. But there’s still very much a positive spirit, as Blackie and his uncle build new lives in late Victorian/Edwardian Leeds. Northerners will also be amused by the references to “Hettys”, the posh cafe in Harrogate founded by a Swiss confectioner. Don’t ask me why the author hasn’t just used its proper name 🙂 !
The continuity errors are mainly in relation to the Fairleys. Edwin is referred to as the elder son, when in fact Gerald was the elder son, and Adele Fairley is described as being dark, when she was fair. It doesn’t really affect this book, but it’s annoying! Blackie, as I’ve said, does very much come across as you’d expect. There isn’t the same depth of emotion that there is in the original book, though: even Blackie’s complex feelings for both Emma and Laura aren’t really gone into that deeply. The plots are quite shallow, too: a lot of new characters are introduced, mostly from an aristocratic family for whom some of the O’Neills work, but then they fade into the background, and you end up wondering why they were there at all. It would have been better if she’d focused on the Fairleys instead of bringing in new people, maybe telling us more about the relationship between Adam Fairley and Elizabeth Harte, but for some reason she doesn’t seem to have wanted to do that.
I sound as if I’m moaning a lot, and I don’t mean to! It’s quite an interesting portrayal of a young Irishman coming to Leeds to start a new life, and the plots with the random aristocratic characters are entertaining enough. As I’ve said, just don’t be expecting anything that lives up to A Woman of Substance! But it’s not bad as a book in its own right, and it’s nice to learn a bit more about Blackie’s life before he met Emma. And it’s worth reading for the nostalgia factor, because A Woman of Substance will always be such a classic.