As a socialist feminist I am always looking around for books and authors to inspire me. I was introduced to Ethel Carnie by Ruth and Eddie Frow of the Working Class Movement Library.
She was a northern woman who grew up in the highly politicised community of East Lancashire; a community that valued political activism and culture. Ethel wrote poetry from an early age. Like many working class children she started work in the mills at aged 11, but it did not blunt her interest in a writing career.
She escaped the mills to London after she was spotted by Robert Blatchford and went to work for the Clarion socialist newspaper, and also used her writing skills to encourage other working class women to write about their lives through the Bebel House Women’s College and Socialist Centre.
Returning north, a married woman with two children, Ethel , along with her husband, edited the first anti-fascist newspaper the Clear Light in the 1920s from her front room. Over the years she continued her political activity whilst writing ten novels, as well as many short stories and poetry.
The House That Jill Built was published in 1920. The main character, Jill Bennett, is 18 years old and a typist in London when she finds out that she has inherited £10,000. With all the confidence of her class – her father was a doctor – she decides to set up a rest home for working class women in the countryside where she would offer tired mothers a month away from their husbands and children, a place where they could eat good food, socialise with the other women and generally do nothing.
Today this idea would be controversial. We would be asking questions about why Jill would get to make all the decisions and perhaps challenge the idea that only mothers, not other single women with caring responsibilities, would not be invited to the rest home.
But the novel was published in 1920 and this type of nostalgic novel would be seen as acceptable. Also I have to comment on the dated references to Jill’s Irish background eg. “But Jill’s Irish blood was up”. Running through the novel is also a very tedious storyline about Jill and her love life.
But, even given the era, it’s a rather strange story for a socialist woman to write. Ethel grew up in one of the most exciting times for women: prior to the First World War women were very much in the public eye through the campaign for the vote and taking a major role in trade union and socialist movements.
During the war women were encouraged to work in the munitions industry. Some women, like Ethel and other working class women such as trade unionist Mary Quaile, took part in the No- Conscription Fellowship – not just taking a very unpopular stance to oppose the war but supporting their men who refused to fight.
By 1920 women were again thrown out of the workforce. Some physically, such as the Bristol female tram workers who were attacked by veterans at their workplace. Many women faced widowhood after the war or had to care for their disabled husbands (or brothers, as in Mary Quaile’s case) with little support from the state. It is surprising, therefore, that none of this is referred to in the book.
Ethel said in 1920 said that the most difficult task “is to teach people to want something better, to sting them into rebellion against poverty, to fire their hearts with a cause”. Unfortunately this novel does not do that; it may have had the opposite effect.
Not unlike today, Ethel was subject to the politics of her publisher. In 1915 she had signed a six book deal with publisher Herbert Jenkins, who preferred light fiction, and in 1925 refused to publish her next book This Slavery which was one of her most important novels.
In This Slavery Ethel, through the Martin sisters, Hester and Rachel, explores the lives of working class young women in the years before the First World War. I love their anger. Rachel becomes active in the fight against the factory owners and says “So long as this system remains as it is I’ll attack it.” Hester decides to marry but says, “I am tired of being a slave. I don’t want to spend my life like my mother has spent hers”. Both of them, in their own ways, decide to fight slavery, in the factory or in marriage.
The novel was made more accessible to working class audiences by its serialisation in the Daily Herald in October 1923. It was then published in a cheap book edition, making it more affordable to the audience it was written for.
Life for working class women today is harsh. Books can be inspirational and This Slavery is a book for today. Unfortunately the trade union movement in this country continues to flag up depressing male stories in the much tweeted “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”. Instead, as in 1925, they should be producing cheap copies of This Slavery to inspire a new generation of women and men.
Find out more about Ethel at the Working Class Movement Library
Thanks to Dr. Nicola Wilson and Kennedy & Boyd for republishing Ethel’s novels.