Ethel Carnie grew up in one of the most vibrant and progressive eras for working class people. It was a period of the birth of the trade union movement, of mass unrest on the streets and in workplaces and the continuing struggle for votes for women.
Ethel was right at the heart of this momentous change in society. She was born into a cotton weaver’s family and had worked in the mills from the age of eleven. Her political education was part of her life as a worker and being part of a society where politics was at the centre of the community. Her father, like many people in Great Harwood at that time, was active in the Social and Democratic Federation and took Ethel along to its meetings and social events.
She learnt from her own experiences as a factory worker and, at a young age, used poetry to express the bitterness she felt about the life she and her comrades lived:
Factory life has crushed the childhood, youth, maturity of millions of men and women. It has ruined the health of those who would have been comparatively strong but for the long hours of unremitted toil and the evil atmosphere (The Factory Slave, Woman Worker 1909)
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 1913 first novel Miss Nobody was published, which has just been reissued, and is probably the first published novel by a working class woman in Britain.
For me it is not just that Ethel was a working class woman novelist but that she was a socialist feminist who chose the novel as one way of expressing her political views about the lives of women and men with a distinctive message: that the system itself needed changing.
Miss Nobody is Carrie Brown, an orphan, who lives in Manchester and makes a living working as an oyster seller. On a visit to her sister in the countryside she decides that life would be better there than in the city;
The sky fascinated Carrie. It looked so different here in the country from the narrow, hand’s breath between the grey houses as she viewed it in slack moments from the door of the oyster shop.
A chance encounter with a local farmer, Robert Gibson, leads to marriage and the realism that life is in the countryside was not the rural idyll she had imagined and eventually she leaves and returns to the city. It is in this part of the book, as she trudges around Ardwick in Manchester looking for work, that the real grimness of life for women and men is explored by Ethel:
Only the clatter of the clogs was heard in the lull of the wind-tramp, tramp, tramp, sounding mysteriously out of the darkness and hurrying more quickly like the ending of a musical march as the shriek of the whistle gave its warning that the doors would soon be closed. Little feet of half-timers, fresh from school, and the feet of grey-haired women who had borne children, buried children, had grandchildren, yet must still follow the call of the whistle.
Because Ethel had been active in political struggles she knew that these women (and men) could collectively improve their pay and conditions and in Miss Nobody it is Carrie who instigates a strike:
She asked the girls to back up Room 7, and join the Union, those who were not in it already, and fight, like Englishwomen.
But Ethel is not romantic about the price that these women pay to get their ninepence wage rise:
From scrap meat to ham-bones, from ham bones to butterless bread-credit refused in many cases-everything sold that could be done without, and always the thought haunting them that if they would merely give in they could get meat again.
For me, some of the most powerful passages in the book are about the strike and the Battle for Ninepence, reflecting Ethel’s own experience of factory life and the struggle for a better life.
She went onto write nine more novels as well as more poetry and articles. She worked as a teacher at the Bebel House Women’s College and it was there she set up the Rebel Pen Club for working class women:
The idea occurred to me of binding such women together in a club whose members would not only help and encourage one another, but might do an immense service to the international socialist movement.
Ethel’s own political life continued and, with her husband, Arthur Holdsworth, she set up the National Union for Combatting Fascism and the first anti-fascist magazine Clear Light, which she edited from 1920-25.
In 1925 she wrote This Slavery, a no holds barred depiction of the factory life she endured and then escaped. And, like Carrie in Miss Nobody, it is working class women who are central to the story, women who are not victims but who challenge their place in society and challenge a system that denies them equality and justice.
Ethel wrote her last novel in 1931 when she was 45 years old. She said she was worn out which probably reflected the feelings of many political activists who lived through this era. She had survived a world war, seen the rise of fascism, witnessed the election of a short-lived Labour Government in 1924 and seen all women achieve the vote in 1928. In her personal life her marriage had ended and she lived out the rest of her life with her daughter in Manchester.
For me, as a working class socialist feminist, Ethel’s novels are an inspiration because of the politics that run through them. Her heroines are lively and funny but also serious and dedicated, wanting not just bread but roses too. Her novels are an antidote to many modern depictions of working class life and in many ways provide hope in an era of economic and social austerity.
On Saturday 7 September celebrate the centenary of Miss Nobody and the life of Ethel Carnie at the WCML see
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