Song of the Shuttle by Christine Evans

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This is local history month, and, in any case, I’m always on the lookout for books about the Cotton Famine, my university dissertation topic.  There aren’t many of them around, so I was very pleased to find this one.  The author had obviously done a huge amount of research into the subject: there was a lot of information in this, and a lot of lovely descriptive passages as well.  The storyline got rather far-fetched, with everyone whizzing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic in the middle of a war, and marrying people from different backgrounds, and there were a few other niggles too, but, overall, it was an entertaining read, for a 99p Kindle download.  My house is built on the site of an old reservoir, which was constructed as one of the Public Works projects which provided employment for people who were out of work as a result of the Cotton Famine.  That has got absolutely nothing to do with this book, but I like telling people about it 🙂 .

Our characters live in a town called “Gorbydale” (odd choice of fictional name!), somewhere on the moors near either Oldham or Rochdale.  There are a lot of references to an old Roman fort, and the only one I can think of round there is at Castleshaw, near Oldham; but the fact that it’s a weaving area rather than a spinning area, the use of “dale”, and the reference to an outing to Hollingworth Lake suggest that it’s more the Rochdale side.  And some of them live in “Doveton”, which I think’s meant to be more towards Oldham, maybe round the Delph area.

Whilst I’m not entirely convinced that a family of weavers would have been entertaining guests in the parlour and serving tea in the best china cups – although you never know, as wages in the cotton industry were pretty high in the 1850s, and this family was clearly meant to be relatively prosperous -, there were some excellent descriptions of the town, the mills, the homes, and Methodism which was (and is) quite big in the area.  Our heroine is Jessie, the daughter of the family.  Also featured are the family who own the local mills, which have glorious names like Invincible Mill and Endurance Mill.  Perseverance Mill was the more common one, but same general idea!  The millowners have got a handsome but idle son, Robert, and a spirited niece, Honora living with them.

There’s an unpleasant sub-plot in which an American business associate visits the millowners, and rapes their maid, who becomes pregnant.  The narrative makes out that it was all the maid’s fault.  Whilst that’s how people would probably have seen it at the time, I wasn’t very impressed that the narrative seemed to go along with that.  Another niggle was the mis-spelling of Fort Sumter as “Fort Sumpter”, but that can be forgiven.  The attitude towards Dolly the maid can’t.  One of Jessie’s brothers, Arden, is wrongly accused of being the father of Dolly’s baby … whereupon he takes off to America to fight for the Union, the war having begun by this point.

OK, there were certainly cases of men from Lancashire going to fight in the war.  So that was fair enough.  Less realistically, Robert, who’s got a bit involved with Jessie, then also takes off to America, to run the blockade and get himself to Louisiana, so that he can get some cotton and bring it back!   Twice.  This was where it started getting rather silly.  He then gets press-ganged into the Confederate army, is seriously injured, makes his way to the rapist business associate’s plantation, and is cared for by the slaves there.

Back in Gorbydale, it’s all rather more realistic – and very well-portrayed, with a lot of narrative about the problems caused by the infamous Surat cotton, and also about the establishment of sewing schools for unemployed women.  Jessie and Honora both get involved with a local sewing school and become friends.  They then head off to America, to look for Arden and Robert!   They just happen to find Arden.  Then they find the rapist business associate, who’s lurking around Washington as a spy, and help Allan Pinkerton to catch him.  And then they volunteer as Union nurses … despite the fact that Dorothea Dix was after women who were plain, over 30, and, presumably, American.  To be fair, it did mention that they didn’t exactly meet the requirements!  And who should somehow end up in their hospital but, you guessed it, Robert.

Robert recovers, and returns to England with Jessie (chaperoned by one of the former slaves, who then goes back to America.  There wasn’t half a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the Atlantic, in the middle of a war!), everyone is apparently OK about him marrying a mill girl, and they get married.  Honora stays on in America to train as a doctor, as you do, and gets together with Arden.

By this time, it’d all got so far-fetched that I wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid if Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S Grant and Robert E Lee had all rolled up in Gorbydale, to be served tea in the best china cups in the parlour.  However, it was a nice enough read, and the information about the effects of the Cotton Famine, the damage that it did it to the regional economy and the efforts that were made to ameliorate them, had obviously been researched in a lot of detail.  It really isn’t easy to find novels set during the Cotton Famine, and, for 99p, this one was certainly worth a go.