My review of “A Most Unladylike Occupation” Lisa Wright

a most unladylike


Lucy Deane was one of the first female Factory Inspectors in 1893. In this novel, Lisa Wright, a distant relative of Lucy’s, captures the life and history of a pioneering woman.

It was the Home Secretary, Herbert Asquith, who appointed Lucy and three other women inspectors to travel across Britain and Ireland and inspect and  report on the working conditions of working class women.

Lucy documented  her work through a series of  diaries and it is these historical documents now in the L.S.E that Lisa uses to re-create her life as an Inspector.

Lucy is given advice by one of the first women lawyers, Eliza Orme, about the importance of keeping records. “but not to buy smart leather bound note books, but soft cheap 3d school exercise books and indelible pencils; to keep one in her private handbag at all times, and to write immediately after any meeting, in cabs, hotels, trains, factories; and to keep a record of everyone and everything and everywhere she travelled; and to record her opinions and descriptions of everyone she met.” Unfortunately Ms Orme continues with some derogatory remarks about working class women, trade unions etc.

Lucy’s privileged background does mean that she is paid more than the women Sanitary  Inspectors who are appointed by local authorities. They are paid £78 per year while  Lucy as a national Inspector is paid £216. Today’s equivalence is £9,700 to £26,000! Lucy is also given money by a rich patron of several hundred pounds per year. An irritating aspect of the book is Lucy’s flitting between the two worlds of privilege and poverty with little real analysis of the unfairness of the class system.

For me the book comes alive when we find out about the lives of the working class women workers. Women in the 1890s, were working in some of the worst industries while  trade unions were only just beginning.  The work of the female inspectors was crucial in raising issues about the working lives of women, the use and abuse of child labour which then fed into new legislation which would protect women and children.

As Lucy finds out, her role is not popular with the local inspectors who were generally male and some of them quite obstructive of her work. She started by shadowing the more experienced  Inspector May Abraham. “Lucy made copious notes and learnt that Miss Abraham was more abrupt and brusque than she was, that she never rang a bell and went straight to the workrooms, that unlike Lucy, she always asked the supervisors questions and spoke to the workers, that overtime was her bugbear, whereas Lucy’s was overcrowding.”

The novel is peppered with real life people. For me one of the problems with the novel  is that some of the comments attributed to them, presumably fictitious, are  contrary to what we know about them through historical documents.

Lady and  Sir Charles Dilke were Liberal reformers and fought for women’s suffrage, supported trade unions, free education and factory reforms. Lady Dilke became the President of the Women’s Trade Union League and every year attended the TUC conference.

In the novel, Lady Dilke,  explains to Lucy why she will not be liked by the Trade Unions.  “And all the Labour Organisations. Because you are “Upper Class” in the face of their candidates.” She goes on to  complain about a  trade union representative,  “very strong and very talented, certainly but very conceited and very aggressive. When I met her here I felt she was only working for her own ends.” To me, this does not ring true, but I would be interested in any proof for these comments.

Another objectionable aspect of this novel is the creation of the maid, Mrs.O’Casey, an Irish woman who takes to the drink. I do not think this racial stereotyping is acceptable. And of course Lucy replaces her with two English maids who fulfil the stereotype of the “faithful servant”.

In my work transcribing the Minutes of the Manchester and Salford Women’s TUC  I learnt about the importance of the female factory inspectors in supporting the work of women trade union organisers such as Mary Quaile. It was an important partnership but unfortunately I feel this is missing in this novel.  Marrying  historical documents with fiction is not easy, it does rely upon a high degree of understanding a historical period and being able to convey that in a  readable and sympathetic style.

Unfortunately, although there is a lot of interesting material in this book, it fails in conveying a realistic view of the complexities of a fast changing and exciting period of women’s history. Perhaps it may lead to the publication of Lucy’s diaries?


About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
This entry was posted in biography, book review, education, feminism, labour history, novels, political women, trade unions, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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