Skip to main content

Who was Ethel Carnie?

     Ethel Carnie was a beneficiary of the Education Act of 1870, an Act which outlined a framework for the formal education of children aged from five to twelve years of age. [1] Yet despite this important introduction, education would not remove working-class children from the clutches of the factories. She had to work part-time in a factory from the age of eleven, before leaving school and going full-time from the age of thirteen.  Ethel was politically active, although she channelled her experiences into writing. She began with poetry and would, as an adult, move into journalism. She founded one of the earliest anti-fascist journals, The Clear Light,[2] in addition to producing ten novels. Ethel wrote her last novel in 1931 and died in 1963. Since her death her work has been known only to a few, such as a small group, including Dr. Kathleen Bell of De Montfort University that has championed Ethel's work. From these efforts a re-issue of her book, This Slavery,[3] is set to appear in 2011.  Nicola Wilson, who is providing the re-issue's introduction declares that the work is 'a rare novel written by a working-class woman and marks a key intervention in socialist feminist interwar debate'.

     Gustav Klaus[4] also explored some of Ethel's novels, along with Angela Ingram and Daphne Patai,[5] Pamela Fox,[6] and Mary Ashraf.[7]Christopher Hilliard mentioned Ethel in his 2006 work, in a section in which he examined working-class writers who wrote 'for their own people'.[8] It is in 'writing for her 'own people' that perhaps best explains Ethel's neglect, despite the fact that all Ethel's novels share the concerns that preoccupy many: anti-capitalism, socialism and feminism.

     The reason for the neglect of Ethel's work has much to do with a general disdain for working-class literature, or 'writings', as they are commonly referred to.[9] Ethel's heroines are working-class women, struggling to keep body and soul together, whether it is in domestic service, the factory, or the institution of marriage. The demarcation between literature and writings invokes the high/low culture debate, undoubtedly accounting for their absence from 'literary' canons.  Predisposed to melodrama, and predominantly concerned with the collective, working-class literature loses out to the bourgeois psychological journeys of the individual.  Valentine Cunningham represents the view of the academy when he observed that working-class writers:

...nevertheless do not altogether avoid the faults of their sort: triteness and melodrama of plot, sentimental class chauvinism about workers, urgent dogmatisms, as well as a tendency to make the workers, especially members of the Communist Party, into men and women of excessive heroism and unbelievably steely militancy.[10]

     Another reason for Ethel's neglect could be that her most active period was one in which the dominant women's literary tradition was the 'mediocre middlebrow', which continued in full force until the 1950s.[11] Efforts have been made to recover those middle-brow novels considered to have been unjustly forgotten. Subsequently they have been introduced to a contemporary readership, via both feminist and mainstream publishing houses.[12] These efforts have also produced essays aimed at the academic, thereby reaching a new generation of students and readers. Ethel's works have also been blocked out by the critical preoccupation with modernist writers of the era.

     However, apart from Bell, Klaus et al, there have been efforts to uncover neglected voices such as Ethel's. Since the nineteen seventies there has been an increased call by feminist academics such as Elaine Showalter, Sheila Rowbotham, Angela Ingram, Daphne Patai and others to 'rescue' women writers who have not just been 'forgotten', but overlooked, and 'abandoned';[13] to bring them from the margins of history and introduce them to a wider audience; to give them, the shop girl and the factory worker, a 'voice'.[14]  Of course, there are far fewer of these to bring to light. Barriers to working-class women writing include time and resources; those who did write may not have maintained personal papers such as diaries and correspondence which future generations could mine.

     The absence of the working-class woman from mainstream discourses is compounded when we realise that the very term 'working-class' has long been constituted as masculine. In addition, male working-class writers such as Walter Greenwood, John Braine, and Alan Sillitoe[15] have, to a certain extent, been subsumed into the mainstream.  This masculine constitution of 'working-class' is evidenced by the forthcoming launch of an online archive of working-class literature, which is comprised of 812 authors;[16] 784 are male, and the remaining twenty-eight are of 'unknown sex'. There is not one definitively listed woman.  There are small projects that have chosen to focus on women such as Ethel. For instance, Meagan Timney of Dalhousie University is building an online archive of Victorian working-class women poets.[17] Ethel's poetry has garnered some critical focus. For instance, Patricia Johnson hones in on the development of a working-class feminist vision in Ethel's poetry, [18] whilst her novels are only touched upon. The same approach to Ethel's poetry is also made by Susan Alves.[19]

     Poetry played a vital role in working-class politics. The Northern Star, the main Chartist newspaper, had its own poetry section, to which readers steadily submitted. Poetry was attractive to the literate and illiterate alike; for the latter it could be easily stored to memory. Unlike our contemporary age, poetry had fewer forms of entertainment with which to contend. The areas in which Ethel grew up in Lancashire were also marked by a particularly strong poetic tradition.  One reason for the adoption of poetry by the working-classes is that it can contain the polemic that cannot be so easily sustained in the novel. There is also the fact that poetry earned Ethel her first way out of the factory.

     Robert Blatchford, a founder of the Independent Labour Party, read Ethel's earliest poetry, which led him to offer her a position on his London-based magazine, The Woman Worker. Ethel took this opportunity to cover issues that affected working-class women. However, her time there was short-lived, as she left just seven months later.  Roger Smalley and Edmund and Ruth Frow have speculated that her departure was due to Blatchford's uneasiness at Ethel's increasingly political and vociferous views.  Following her return to Lancashire, Ethel was replaced by Blatchford's own daughter, Winifred, at which point the title took on a more genteel and impartial tone.  The title was also changed to the less leftist and more 'feminine' 'Women Folk'. Despite the setback it must have caused Ethel continued to have articles published by the title.  According to Edmund & Ruth Frow, not long after her departure Ethel found that poetry was no longer meeting her expressive needs. She moved away from the abstract notions of beauty and nature found in her poetry to the concrete, pragmatic prose that she employed in her novels[20] and '...became aware of herself as a woman, consciously and conscientiously writing with women as the pivot of her stories'.[21] Her increasingly political writings are no surprise given her upbringing.

     Ethel was born in 1886 in a small Lancashire mill town. [22]  Her father was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF),[23] which was established in 1881, more than three decades from the end of Chartism.  Key SDF members included Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor.  Ethel's father encouraged her political knowledge, and would later take his daughter to political meetings and helped to clothe her instinctive socialist attitudes with scientific understanding.[24]  There was much to kick back against. The years from the collapse of Chartism to the emergence of the SDF were 'the golden age of British capitalism, with free trade and individualism the dominant ideologies'.[25]  Whereas earlier in the century Mary Burns grew up under the collective memory of the Peterloo Massacre, Ethel grew up under the memory of the original 'Bloody Sunday', which occurred in November 1887. Testing a ban on all public meetings in London's Trafalgar Square, the SDF and other radical groups, like their Chartist predecessors, formed a demonstration against coercion in Ireland.  Thousands of police and hundreds of troops, including volunteer constables, formed to quell the proceedings. The demonstration, intercepted before reaching Trafalgar Square, resulted in hundreds of injuries.[26]  It would seem that whilst these mass demonstrations did not result in revolution, the sense of injustice that the police and military exacerbated through their heavy-handedness, and the heroic mythologizing of the protestors, fuelled awareness of the causes that were of particular importance to the working-classes.

     Ethel's first novel, Miss Nobody,[27] published in 1913, was written between serving customers at the draper's shop her mother had taken on in Little Harwood,[28] and between lectures at Owens College, where she registered as a non-degree student from 1911-1913.[29]  This was followed by Helen of Four Gates (1917), The Taming of Nan (1920), The Marriage of Elizabeth, ( 1920), The House That Jill Built (1920), General Belinda (1924), This Slavery, (1925), The Quest of the Golden Garter, (1927), Barbara Dennison, (1929), All On Her Own, (1929), and Eagles' Crag, (1931).

     Ethel gave up novel writing in 1931, at the age of 46, an age arguably within a writer's prime. This abandonment of novel writing may be another reason for the critical negligence of her work.  Years after Ethel's death, her daughter, interviewed by Edmund and Ruth Frow, said that her mother stopped writing novels because she was 'worn out'. The familiar northern idiom Ethel's daughter use is telling; it can be unpacked in this literary context to suggest that Ethel may have turned her back on the novel because she felt that she had exhausted herself writing, perhaps with a sense of futility, about women like herself – the women with whom she lived and worked. The very nature of her subject matter is itself exhausting, albeit lightened somewhat with romance, although even this was obviously not enough for Ethel to continue. Novel writing, as Ethel's daughter makes clear, had become a long struggle, which brings us to consider Raymond William's observation that:

The novel with its quite different narrative forms was virtually impenetrable to working-class writers for three or four generations, and there are still many problems in using the received forms for what is, in the end, very different material... ...the forms of working-class consciousness are bound to be different from the literary forms of another class, and it is a long struggle to find new and adequate forms...

     The struggle for an 'adequate form', particularly one that could wed class with gender, may have been responsible for 'wearing' Ethel out. This search is evident in her work. For instance, her novel Miss Nobody juxtaposes 'urban and pastoral sites, along with realist, proletarian, and "folk" narrative, (as a result) it defies simple categorization'[30]. This ambiguous categorization can also be seen as another reason for Ethel's neglect. Fox agrees, claiming that Ethel's work has been ignored or mishandled by critics otherwise keen to embrace working-class writers because it defies assumptions about working-class politics and literary practice'.[31] I believe that Ethel sought to wed class with gender by appropriating aspects of the New Woman novel with the Chartist novel. In this way, she can be seen as taking a dialectical approach, something that can be found in her 1924 novel, General Belinda. This is despite the fact that '... the Marxist interpretation of culture did not become widely effective in England until the 'thirties of our own century'.[32] Ethel was ahead of her time in her anti-fascist politics and the founding of The Clear Light, and therefore there is no reason not to believe she would not also be 'ahead of the curve' when it came to Marxist interpretations of culture. Yet, put simply, the dialectical approach is adopted by any writer keen to expose contradictions and intent on providing a story that raises questions and which seeks 'a' truth, in this case about working-class women and their representation, or lack of it. Ethel's dialectical approach can also be read in her use of romance, given her quote on 'innate cheek' recited by Fox, (which follows), with which she works knowing its contradictions. Her dialectical is also a feature of her 'pragmatic prose' and how it elevates matter over mind. Providing such an interpretation of Ethel's novels also bestows an equality of treatment by according them the same dignity of theory that has long been afforded to those works considered to be literary, but which it could be argued, only the interpretation of a 'critical industry', serving as a stamp of approval, can provide.

     The New Woman novel was preoccupied with middle-class women's need for freedom in the public sphere and so from the constraints of domesticity and patriarchy.  Instead of this archetypal middle-class 'New Women' in General Belinda, Ethel nestled the working-class woman into place as a 'General', providing an image of a working-class woman who was not afraid to be herself. Ethel's heroines can be seen as a challenge to mainstream representation of working-class women because they run counter to two long-held images of such women as either the victimised, bedraggled and overly humble who needed to be 'rescued' by middle-class missionaries, by novelists such as Dickens and Gaskell, or those 'bigmouths', who had been mocked in the mainstream press. From the early 18th century onwards politically aware and active working-class women were often portrayed as harpies and harridans by the likes of Punch magazine.  In providing this space for women 'of her own kind' Ethel challenged the image of the working-class woman that had been a figure of mockery or condescension, of needing to either be helped or silenced, as well as the idea that the exclusive feminist pioneer was the middle-class woman. The calls from 'New Women', particularly on the issue of universal suffrage, were made long before by the likes of Mary Burns and Chartist members of both sexes. In addition, Ethel also subverted 'mainstream' New Woman feminism by including the private sphere as the urgent concern for the working-class woman – the freedom to stay at home and be a mother.

     Ethel's appropriation of the Chartist novel is a continuation of the working-class political and literary tradition. Mary Ashraf uses three of (Ethel's novels) as part of a scheme to show connections between working-class writing from the Chartist period in the 1830s through to the advanced socialist literature of the early twentieth century, so that she can claim it is part of a historically determined social process.[33]  Ethel drew on the Chartist novel for its use of melodrama. The Chartist novel, writers of which included Ernest Wilson and Thomas Hood, borrowed heavily from the tactics of the increasingly popular magazines, which relied heavily on romance.

     This neglect and misreading of the working-class woman and her work, which Ethel exemplifies, has much to do with the women of the academy as it does the men; working-class feminism clearly did not, and to a significant extent still does not, accord with that of the middle-class woman who now also 'mans' the literary gates and decides what is recovered/'uncovered', and what remains hidden.

     Whenever Ethel is mentioned in regard to her novels, it is as a romance novelist, (despite the ambiguity of genre mentioned by Fox) serving as another reason for her neglect, given that romance has long been seen as 'unliterary' and frivolous. The popularity of romance with working-class women has also long been ridiculed as little more than a pacifier. Ethel's male contemporaries added to the chorus of disapproval, including the Lancashire School, a group comprised of Arthur Laycock, Fred Plant, Allen Clarke, James Haslam, Peter Lee and John Tamlyn. Unlike Ethel these men enjoyed a common outlet and writerly solidarity in which to foster their work and ideas – all without needing to encounter the vagaries of the private publishing house. Instead, the Lancashire School published through Clarke's publication, The Northern Weekly. Paul Salveson observes that 'without this it seems unlikely that the Lancashire School would ever have appeared at all, given its highly political content, and the strong regional thrust, through its use of dialect and depiction of local customs and culture'.[34]  Fox opens her paper in which she claims Ethel used romance as a political tool, with a quote from a member of this group:

'Romance, romance, romance', is their monotonous cry. Romance served up in penny batches; romance that depends upon nonsensical scenes, shallow thoughts, spurious philosophy, and unreal life, for its popularity.[35]

     Fox argues that, being a linchpin of the patriarchal system, romance has always been ripe for critique from writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft onwards. [36]  For working-class women, however, 'beginning in a different place in relation to the convention of romance... it can never be fully available as an "intimate" register of cultural practices'. Desiring the romance script itself, she claims, can be seen as a transgressive act.  Working-class women had to be much more pragmatic, with mothers traditionally telling daughters that 'romance was purely a fantasy with little relevance to their lives and that marriage was primarily an economic relation, rather than a fulfilment of love, to be performed as a perfunctory ritual (if at all).[37]  In the opening to one of her papers on Ethel, Fox begins by citing Ethel from her days at The Woman Worker, where she pleaded with her fellow women to 'go out and play'.[38] She also cites Ethel from an earlier issue in an article entitled The Factory Slave, in which shows only too clearly Ethel's alertness to what is considered subversive of the working-classes when she writes: Girlhood glides into womanhood, and one falls in love. (Which shows the innate cheek of the working-class, who dare to dream of happiness living from hand to mouth).[39]

     Echoing Fox, who cannot fathom Ethel writing romance for the sake of romance without there being a political message, a resistance to stereotypes, which is clearly shown from Ethel's quote above, Roger Smalley claims that Ethel used romance to coax women into the more serious political issues included in her stories. It is a common justification of why politically aware writers opted for the romantic 'page-turner'.

     Janice Radway's study of romance reading breaks no new ground in telling us that romance reading is a form of escape and relaxation.[40] There is no reason to think this was any different in the 1920s. In fact, this was more likely to be the case in a country mourning millions of men who were killed in the First World War, destroying the marriage and family prospects of as many women in the process. However, Radway's study makes apparent that it is not just the content of these novels that provides the escapism, but the actual act of reading. In Ethel's case the reading was straightforward and 'pragmatic', which made her novels easier for work-tired women to enter into.

     Many of those surveyed by Radway mention that they received disapproval from husbands and families who would rather the attention accorded to these books be diverted to them instead, and implies an emotional absence on the part of the reader. This immersion into reading, is also the 'utopian private arena in which one is valued for one's gendered self alone',[41] which Fox claims is provided by romance. Therefore who has the stronger claim in terms of Ethel's use of romance – Smalley or Fox? And are they not simply on the same sheet – that the romance is itself a trangsressive act, one that offers a temporal space of escapism, as well as including political concerns. It cannot be determined whether Ethel's readers were brought to consider issues they would not usually as a result of reading her books. However, it is important also to highlight that those surveyed by Radway seem to be reading for something different than those readers from Ethel's time – the latter set can be seen as reading for escapism from, amongst other things such as the daily grind, as lack of marriage and romance prospects, and the former set – as perhaps did earlier generations – read for escapism from married life and, for working-class women, the daily grind of having to work outside the home. The point that applies to both Radway's romance readers and those of Ethel is the same – escapism. Is it a transgressive act? It is when we consider the fact that it can cause problems in relationships and in the home in that it diverts attention away from the spouse and family. Romance reading can be seen as being both covert and overt transgression.

     Unlike many of her readers, Ethel did marry, despite being opposed to it as an institution. Whilst working at The Woman Worker, her comments on the issue were, in Smalley's words, 'uniformly hostile...She believed it was an inimical institution which society would be better without'.[42]

     Ethel's treatment of marriage in General Belinda is not hostile, but pragmatic, showing no room to desire the romance script.  The heroine is thirty years old and lives with her parents until her father's death. The next door neighbour wants to marry Belinda, yet she declares that he cannot afford to marry.  In doing this Ethel is drawing attention to several issues. Firstly, the inherent feminism that is revealed as the story develops is one that also considers working-class masculism. A man cannot earn enough to be able to marry and raise a family and so they are both financially, emotionally and physically repressed. The daughter of Belinda's employers, Cora Ridding, a New Woman who refers to Belinda by her first name and who mocks her mother's grandiosity, is being coerced into marriage with an old man for financial gain. There is no romance in this either. The men seem to yearn for romance more than the women, thus challenging the stereotype so scorned by Haslam et al. It is through both women in General Belinda, Belinda as the working-class domestic servant, and Cora as the New Woman, that Ethel seeks to build a bridge – romance can be sought by both, but until there is concerted action to change capitalist society romance is little more than an illusion.

          When we see the female cross-class solidarities between Belinda and Cora in General Belinda, the way Mr. Riddings, ordinarily a seducer of the servants, respects Belinda enough to confide in her a shared class heritage, we are shown the respect one is accorded when there is a strong and unashamed sense of self. Ethel resists the portrayal of helpless victims that feature so strongly in 'slum fiction' and which is often a convention of melodrama. Belinda succeeds in portraying herself as strong, matter-of-fact and mentally and emotionally sharp, all qualities working-class women generally needed to be in order to carry the weight of often difficult lives.

      Belinda Higgins' father calls her 'The General', because she can control and marshal the people about her, albeit limited to, or enjoyed in, the domestic sphere.  Belinda Higgins can be seen as a working-class heroine; active, opinionated, assertive. She is a subversive character because she is all of these things whilst employed in domestic service.

     Ethel's particular use of melodrama warrants further attention, particularly in the way her use of it in General Belinda deviates from the way it employed by Chartist writers, who adopted 'melodrama over realism (because it was) more expressive of their lives and aspirations.[43]

As a form, melodrama suited the working-class author and reader because it:

seemed like a psychologically accurate reflection of working-class life. Melodrama's character typing, with the clear struggle between good and evil, was attractive at a time when traditional values were being undermined; moreover, it provided a vehicle for the full expression of sentiment and emotion, without concern for character motivation or development. Melodrama appeals to those who feel that they have no control over their lives, but are prey to larger social forces. [44]

The development of melodramatic Chartist fiction coincided with the proliferation of women's magazines, which carried articles on fashion and stories of romance. By portraying a feminine ideal that was out of reach, these magazines reflected the unfulfilled desires of many working-class women.[45]

     With this distinctive mix of melodrama and New Woman, without betraying the particular needs of the working-class woman whose aspirations are towards the private as opposed to the public sphere, it can be seen that, far from being a two-dimensional writer that the comments of Cunningham would suggest, Ethel is much more complex than originally treated.  When her book is re-issued this year it will be interesting to note the critics response – whether it will be more aligned to that of Cunningham – or whether we are more enlightened as to the 'hidden history' of the working-class woman and her place, or rather, her absence in literature – both then and now.


[1] Whilst the Act was introduced in 1870, it was not until after 1880 that education of children was made compulsory.

[2] The Clear Light ran for 25 monthly editions from June 1923 to July 1925                                                          

[3] Dr. Kathleen Bell has written a biographical sketch of Carnie

[4] The Rise of Socialist Fiction 1880-1914 (1987)

[5] Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals – British Women Writers 1889 – 1939 (1993)

[6] Class Fictions

[7] Ashraf, M., Introduction to Working Class Literature in Great Britain Part II:Prose (Berlin, 1979)

[8] Hilliard, C (2006), To Exercise our Talents – The Democratization of Writing, London: HUP


[10] 1998: p.309

[11] For more on this subject see Humble, N, (2001), The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s – Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism, Oxford: OUP

[12] Virago immediately springs to mind, publishing writers who, it could easily be argued, demonstrate insufficient reasons for recovery.

[13] The use of these highly emotive words such as 'forgotten', 'overlooked', 'abandoned' suggests a damsel in distress and warrants a separate study in its own right.

[14] See also Jill Norris and Jill Liddington – One Hand Tied Behind Us – Rise of the Women's Suffrage Movement (1979), London: Rivers Oram Press. This book charts the involvement of working-class women, mostly overlooked in the mainstream 'middle-class' history of the movement.

[15] Love on the Dole, Room at the Top, and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, respectively.

[16] Timothy G. Ashplant has instigated the online archive of working-class writing at – research is ongoing and the launch is due to take place in June 2011. Despite the URL this archive is definitive in its title of 'working-class writing'.

[17] The archive can be found at Currently, there are eighteen women listed.

[18] Johnson, P Finding Her Voice(s) (The Development of a Working-Class Feminist Vision in Ethel Carnie's Poetry

[19] Alves, S (2000), Whilst Working At My Frame – The Poetic Production of Ethel Carnie

[20] The prose style used in Helen of the Four Gates is influenced by the Gothic and is clearly influenced by Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

[21] Frow, R & Frow, E, 1987: p.251

[22] She became Carnie-Holdsworth upon marrying Arthur Holdsworth in 1915. I refer to her as Ethel Carnie throughout.

[23] The SDF was founded by H.M. Hyndman. Friedrich Engels refused to give the party his support. In 1911 it formed with other radical groups to become the British Socialist Party. For more background information on the SDF see Beer, M (2002 edition), A History of British Socialism, London: Routledge or Crick, M (1994), The History of the Social Democratic Federation, Staffs: Keele University Press.

[24] Frow, 1987: p.251

[25] Crick, M, 1994: p.13

[26] Crick, 1994: p.47

[27] Methuen, London 1913

[28] The Co-operative News, op.cit., p.998. Cited by Roger Smalley, p.58

[29] Owens College Declaration Book, student registrations for 1911-1912 and 19 12-

1913, Manchester University archive RA/39/ 10. The courses she studied are not

recorded. Cited ibid.

[30] Fox, P (year), p.61

[31] Fox, P, ibid. p.58

[32] Williams, R, 1987, p.655) Culture & Society – Coleridge to Orwell, London: The Hogarth Press

[33] Smalley, 2009: p.51

[34] Salveson, 1987: pp.172-202

[35] The Press and the People – An Estimate of Reading in Working-Class Districts, Manchester (Manchester City News 1906), cited in Fox, P (1993)

[36]Fox, P (1993),  Ethel Carnie Holdsworth's "Revolt of the Gentle": Romance and the Politics of Resistance in Working-Class Women's Writing, in Rediscovering Forgotten Women Radicals: British Women Writers 1889-1939 Ed. Ingram A, & Patai, (1993) D London: University of North Carolina Press

[37] Ibid.

[38] Fox, P, (1993), Ethel Carnie Holdsworth's Revolt of the Gentle: Romance and the Politics of Resistance in Working-Class Women's Writing, from Ingram, A & Patam, D (eds, 1993), Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals citing Carnie, E (14 April 1909) Our Right to Play, Woman Worker

[39] Ibid. (3 March 1909) Woman Worker

[40] Radway, J (year) etc.

[41] Fox, P (1993), p.60: 'Ethel Carnie Holdsworth's Revolt of the Gentle Romance and the Politics of Resistance in Working Class Women's Writing, in Ingram, A., and Patai, D., (eds.), Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals. British Women Writers 1889-1939 (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London)

[42] 2006, p.78

[43] Vicinus, M (1982)

[44] Vicinus, M (1982), Chartist Fiction and the fDevelopment of a Class-Based Literature, (pp7-25) p.9: The Socialist Novel in Britain, Ed. Klaus, G (1982)


[45] something with which Carolyn Steedman was concerned in her groundbreaking book Landscape for a Good Woman

Popular posts from this blog

Who was Mary Burns?

On 7th January 1863 Mary Burns was found dead from a suspected heart attack. She was 43 years old. Since her death Mary has received barely any attention despite the fact that she spent over twenty years as the common-law wife of Friedrich Engels, one of the world’s most influential thinkers and the co-founder of Marxism.

Born in 1822, Mary was the oldest surviving child of textile dyer and factory operative, Michael Burns, and Mary Conroy, Irish immigrants from Tipperary. Mary’s parents had married at St. Patrick’s in an area known casually as Irish Town, one of few Catholic churches in Manchester at that time. The year of Mary’s birth and her infancy were significant in that Manchester was still dealing with the aftermath of the event that became known as the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, a peaceful protest of the working-classes on the site of St. Peter’s Fields in which several people were killed and hundreds injured. The Massacre occurred when magistrates, alarmed at the size of t…

My PhD critical paper

I thought I'd upload the critical element of my PhD thesis. Hopefully, for those who are interested enough to read it, it will make sense despite the references to my creative work, which I can't upload as I'm seeking publication. And besides, at 68,000 words...

I'm also going to tweak section one of this three section critical paper with a view to journal publication because of the academic interest in the claims I make of Mary.

-Dedicated with love and respect to Dr Bruce Lloyd-

And in memory of my parents:
Thomas Valentine and Joan Theresa
Good people who taught me so much more than they realised


The biggest thank-you is due to Norma Clarke, Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University, who supervised this PhD. I never had cause to doubt my initial instincts as Norma proved to be the best mentor I could ever have wished for.

I would also like to acknowledge the generous studentship that I was fortunate to be awarded by Kingston Universi…

Booker Shortlist announced

It's been a while... I know. Dog walking on the Downs, a bit of theatre, a bit of baking, a bit of writing etcetera etcetera. I also managed to read two complete books in the past month, which I was so pleased about. I had not read a whole book for about a year. The first was A Lie About My Father by Scottish poet/writer, John Burnside; a very well written memoir about father and son, but like all memoirs, some unreliability I felt. Poignant and tragic in equal measure. Then my husband returned from Cyprus (too hot for me this time of year, I can barely cope with England!) with Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong. He loved it. And then I read it and also loved it. I had originally picked it up several years ago but didn't get beyond Amiens, where the first section is set, but was really glad I did this time around. Another incredibly well written book in the style of a good Victorian! I felt a bit unsure about bits of Elizabeth, in the later section, but I have never learnt so muc…