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.

International Women’s Day – 10 influential female authors

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Seeing as it’s International Women’s Day, and seeing as we’re getting a film version of “Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret” and a TV series of the “Malory Towers” books (please, please don’t let them mess them up!), let’s have a list of ten female authors whose books have played a big part in my (admittedly not very exciting) life  These aren’t necessarily my favourite authors, or the authors of my favourite books, but they’ve all been significant.  Starting with Enid Blyton, because most things start with Enid Blyton.  And ending with Helen Fielding, because Bridget Jones shows us that, even once you accept that you’re never going to be Elizabeth Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara or Emma Harte, all women are still heroines in their own way.

  1. Enid Blyton – I did read Chicken Licken and Huckle the Cat and various other things, when I was about 3, but then I got into the Noddy books and the Amelia Jane books, and, for the next few years, it was all about Enid Blyton.  The adventure stories, the mystery stories, and, of course, the school stories.  People can say what they like about Enid Blyton, but she has a unique place in our culture, and (for what it’s worth!) in my life.  She gets kids into reading.  That’s important

2.  Elinor M Brent-Dyer – starting with Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School, when I was 8.   The Chalet School books are the greatest school stories ever.  My first holiday without my mum and dad (unless you count a school trip to Paris) was to Austria.  And, from October 2004 – OMG, that’s over 15 years ago! – onwards, I’ve been privileged to be part of a wonderful online community which I just can’t imagine life without, and that all started with the Chalet School books.  I don’t know where I’d be otherwise, I really don’t!

3.  Judy Blume – as well as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, my particular favourites are It’s Not the End of the World and Deenie, but, between the ages of about 10 and 13, I read most of her books (the ones which were around then).  And, yes, I read Forever.  Everyone read Forever!  I will never be able to meet anyone called Ralph without sniggering.  But Margaret’s the standout heroine … although I did spend several years giving every day a grade, like Karen did!  Judy Blume wrote (and still writes) about all the things which Girls’ Own authors didn’t, but never in a prurient or sensationalist way.  I forget who, but one author said that Judy Blume taught her all she needed to know about being a girl.  I wouldn’t go that far, but her books are definitely important.  Also, Forever was our “naughty book”.  All groups of tweenagers/teenagers should have a “naughty book” – it’s a rite of passage!

4.  Barbara Taylor Bradford.  The transition phase!  Moving on from what are now called “young adult” books to Proper Grown Up ’80s blockbusters.  OK, OK, A Woman of Substance was actually published in the late ’70s, but I didn’t read it until the mid-’80s.  For a lot of people in my class, the infamous Virginia Andrews books were the transition books, but for me it was all about Emma Harte, the ultimate ’80s rags-to-riches heroine, the Northern working-class woman who made it in a man’s world.  None of BTB’s other books are anything like as good, but that one was the first Big Grown Up Book I read, and it was a really good one.

5. Jane Austen – whose books I keep coming back to, over and over again.  They’re over 200 years old and they still say so much.  Helen Fielding could borrow heavily from them in the 1990s and still be completely relevant.

6. Colleen McCullough – I don’t think any other book I’ve ever read, not even the greatest novel of all time (coming up next!) has the sort of emotional and descriptive passages that The Thorn Birds does.  It is incredible.  I’m always quoting bits of it, usually to myself, when I’m being melodramatic … which is quite often.  Oh, to be able to write like that!  I’ve read a couple of her other books, and they’re just not a patch on it, but that one book … what an achievement.  It says so much about how people think and feel, and just how people work.  Meggie’s the heroine, and Justine’s the one who gets to live happily ever after, but the most interesting character is Fee (Fiona).  I often think about things that Fee said.

7.  Margaret Mitchell – because Gone With The Wind is the greatest novel ever written.  No, it wouldn’t be written today, but it wasn’t written today.  The characters, the emotion, the way it draws you in, the strength of the book and the strength of Scarlett O’Hara. And Scarlett and Ashley – the sadness of loving someone with whom you can’t connect.  I once decided to re-read the whole book in a day, and I was in bits afterwards, even though it wasn’t the first time I’d read it, because how do you deal with coming down from that?  And, ultimately, it’s about female survival. Yes, Rhett’s the one who helps Scarlett out in times of crisis – and, weirdly, I quote Rhett even more than I quote Scarlett – but it’s Melanie who’s really got her back, and it’s about Scarlett and Melanie both surviving, in their different ways, when their world collapses.  No Gotterdammerung for either of them.

8. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.  Her Morland books and her recent War At Home books are good, but her Kirov Trilogy‘s her crowning achievement, for me, and they’re the best Russian historical fiction books I’ve ever read.  They really took me much deeper into Russia, into Russian history and culture, than I’d been before … and I’ve never really come out!  I think Annette Motley’s Men on White Horses was the first adult Russian historical fiction book I read, and even that was a couple of years after I’d really got into Russian history, but the Kirov books are special.

9.  Jean Plaidy  – not because her books are all-time classics, but because, even after getting a degree in “medieval and modern history”, I still didn’t quite get medieval history until Jean Plaidy’s books showed me how fascinating it could be.  Elizabeth Chadwick, Anne O’Brien and Sharon Penman actually write better medieval historical fiction than Jean Plaidy did, but hers were the ones I came too first.  At school, we had one year of medieval history, which was largely about motte and bailey castles and the lives of monks.  Why would anyone think that 11-year-old girls wanted to know about the lives of monks?!  At university, it was German emperors and Anglo-Saxon peasants.  Hardly anyone signed up for the optional medieval history modules, after that: everyone flocked to the modern history ones.  So thank you, Jean Plaidy, for showing me what all those teachers, doctors and professors failed to!!

and finally … 10. Helen Fielding.  You think that you’re going to be part of the in-crowd at school, and have lots of adventures.  Failing that, you at least think people are going to play fair by you, if you try to be nice to them.  Judy Blume does, to be fair, help you to accept that sometimes they’re not – Blubber is great for that.  Then you hope that’s life’s going to be full of romance, like it is in Jane Austen books, and success, like it is in Barbara Taylor Bradford books.  Or that, even if you’re not destined to be the person who gets it all, at least it’ll be full of drama and emotion, like it is for Jean Plaidy’s royal heroines, for Meggie, for Anna (in the Kirov books) and, most of all, for Scarlett.  And then you realise that you’re getting upset because you’ve put on 2lbs even though all you’ve been doing is lying in bed overnight, and that you’re running late for work again, not that you actually want to go to work, and that everyone else seems to have everything way more sorted than you.  It’s not good.  That is not how heroines’ lives turn out.  But, hooray, there is Bridget Jones, the heroine whose life hasn’t turned out like heroines’ lives are supposed to do either!  So, yep, Bridget shows us that we’re actually all heroines.

And there are always books … to take you wherever and whenever you want to go to.

So hooray for Bridget, hooray for books, and hooray for wonderful female authors.

“Honourable mentions” for Laura Ingalls Wilder, Noel Streatfeild, Lorna Hill, Sue Townsend, Charlotte Bronte, Maisie Mosco, Helen Forrester, Maeve Binchy (because everyone in my class at school was obsessed with one of her books, in 1988), Pamela Belle and Reay Tannahill.   But that would have been another 10, and then I’d have thought of another 10 …

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.