My review of “The House that Jill Built” by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

 

 

 

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.

Original cover of This Slavery published 1925

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.

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
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3 Responses to My review of “The House that Jill Built” by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

  1. Jane Latour says:

    Thanks Bernadette! I look forward to reading this review.

    How are you all doing over there with the heat! I heard Manchester mentioned this past week.

    Our poor Planet Earth!

    All good wishes,

    Jane

  2. Gail Malmgreen says:

    Interesting. I had, of course, never heard of her. Nor had I heard of the Bebel House. Are any issues of her anti-fascist newspaper extant? I’m in awe that you can carry on working the heat. It really debilitates me. I feel as if I haven’t done much of anything for many days. Only manage to sleep decently because of the window air conditioner in my bedroom.

    xx Gail

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