I wanted to read this 1913 novel as it is believed to be the first published novel written by a working class woman, and I do love a bit of sisterhood and class war. Ethel Carnie (1886 – 1962, and pictured on the book cover) worked in the Lancashire cotton mills from the age of 11 until her early twenties. Following the publication of her first volume of poetry in 1907, a founder member of the Independent Labour Party, Robert Blatchford, offered her a journalist position at the London-based ‘Woman Worker’ paper, which she edited until statements such as ‘the factory worker is practically a beggar and a slave’ allegedly led to her dismissal. She wrote Miss Nobody, her debut novel, between serving customers at a draper’s shop back in Great Harwood. She continued to squeeze in poetry, children’s books, journalism, and political activism, editing the anti-fascist journal ‘Clear Light’ with her husband in the 1920s. No wonder she complained of being ‘worn out’ and wrote her last novel in her forties, a good thirty years before her death.
This novel tells the story of Carrie Brown, a very independent-minded oyster shop owner from Ardwick, Greater Manchester, who likes to roll down grassy hills and has some excellent rebuttals including ‘does your mother know that you’re out?’ There are some things about this novel which feel overly simplistic – the volume of ‘walk on, walk off’ characters in particular, especially when they spew some convenient lines regarding the merits of being a ‘union man’ or such like. However, for me the novel is rescued by Carnie’s acute observation of these characters’ inner emotions. Succinct one-liners paint a broader picture – her observation that her wayward brother is still ‘the little boy screaming himself hoarse against something unknown and terrible’, and the reaction of the flirtatious workman who realizes Carrie is married and ‘wondered all day about her…with a disappointment covered up from his mates by the whistling of old songs’ are just two non-plot-spoiling examples. Carnie deals kindly with the story of Peter Moss, the village ‘simpleton’, which brought me to tears from the moment he ‘for the first time in his life, drank a glass full to the brim’, having previously always made do with the dregs of others’ pints.
There are some engaging descriptions of early 20th century working class life – life in the factory (boooo), men down the pub (no women down the pub! double boooo), births, marriages and deaths. There are also some observations that stand true today – the recognition that the factory mistress is one of those who ‘crushes their own sex under their heel, an’ smiles at the fellows’ (ladies, we’ve all worked with women like this), that ‘the tragedy in the lives of the people is in what does not happen, rather than what does happen – in all they do not realize’, and one character’s insistence on washing her feet before she goes down to the post office ‘as it would be a disgrace to drop dead with dirty feet’. The latter is akin to my recollection of mum telling five year old me that I must wear fresh knickers for school, in case I was ‘in an accident’ and had to go to hospital. My mum is a reasonable woman and not prone to hyperbole so I expect I have mis-remembered this, but this ‘advice’ has caused much early morning pants-related confusion and is often the reason why I am late for urgent engagements.
These factors make Miss Nobody absolutely worth a read in its own right, rather than just being an opportunity to Stick It to The Man.
PS ‘Are not our dreams the lamps on a rainy road?’ as Carnie says?