This Slavery by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (Trent Editions, 2011) ISBN 9781842331415
What do you think about when the words “working class family” is mentioned? Ricky Tomlinson in “The Royle Family”? Or a scene from “Coronation Street”. There are very few positive images of what it means to be working class and perhaps this is due to the fact that there is still little written, either in books or in the media, by people from that background.
The recent republication of This Slavery by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth shows a different world to the usual portrayal of somebody who didn’t get an education beyond the school leaving age, works in a factory and lives with their family in rented housing. Written in 1925, and set in her home town amongst the cotton mills in Lancashire, the author shows that working class people can be political, can be feminist, can be active in campaigning for a better world and can enjoy classical music and poetry
Ethel Carnie was born in 1886 in Oswaldtwistle near Blackburn. Like her family and friends she went to work in a mill at aged 11 years, whilst going to school on a half-time basis. At 13 years she went into the mill full-time as a winder. Working ten hours shifts she was self taught through using the local Co-operative library, her reading ranging from Dickens to the Persian poet Omar Khayyam. She started to write poetry and eventually had some published in the local paper. Spotted by socialist author Robert Blatchford she eventually left the mill and took up a writing career. She wanted to write books about her own class; “What I feel is that literature up till now has been lopsided, dealing with life only from the standpoint of one class.”
In This Slavery Ethel wrote from her own experience of the factory system and the specific viewpoint (although not the only one) of the lives of women. Set before the First World War it’s the story of a family of women cotton workers (the Martins) and it is through their story, and the effects of poverty and unemployment that Ethel educates the reader in the historical traditions of why there was a vibrant labour movement during this period. It is not a story of victims but of real people: women and men who took militant action against the factory system.
What I like about the book is the anger felt by the Martin sisters; Hester and Rachel. Rachel becomes active in the fight against the factory owners; “So long as this system remains as it is I’ll attack it.” Her sister, Hester, on the other hand, decides to marry a factory owner to escape poverty; “I am tired of being a slave. I don’t want to spend my life like my mother has spent hers” Although the sisters then end up on different sides during the dispute the story shows how they both struggle in their own ways against two systems of slavery; the factory and prostitution (ie marrying a man to escape poverty).
This Slavery is very much a polemic. Ethel spent her life campaigning for justice and specifically the rights of working women. Some of the language seems old-fashioned and reads like a political tract but running through the book is a sense of anger at a system that makes slaves of people who are denied not just bread but any roses. In many ways it’s a story for 2012, showing that even the poorest people can make changes to the lives they live, not just as individuals but also in society generally.
Dr Nicola Wilson (post-doctoral researcher at the University of Reading) has written an introduction to this edition. She will be speaking about Ethel at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford for International Women’s Day on 10 March at 2pm. Further details go here
Please also note the following events.
Sunday 4 March 2012 IWD March against the Cuts 1pm Assemble All Saints Park, For more information please go here.
Sunday 11 March 2012. “Votes For women” history walk led by Michael Herbert. Meet outside the Town Hall in Albert Square at 2pm. £6/£5. This will include both the suffragist and suffragette campaigns 1868-1918. More information, firstname.lastname@example.org
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