A Man of Honour by Barbara Taylor Bradford

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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.

A Woman of Substance prequel – Blackie and Emma (coming in 2020!)

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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.