By MICHAEL CAINES
A century ago, the civil servant Claud Schuster reviewed a striking book for the TLS: Miss Nobody by Ethel Carnie. It showed “great promise”, he thought, despite its faults; its depiction of “some of the lowest paid of female labour” was “wonderful vivid and powerful”, and its heroine, Carrie Brown, struck him as a “real person”, a working-class lover of “penny novelettes” with “that tough, rather grim, and rather gay determination of the Lancashire working classes which is so difficult to present in literature”.
Miss Nobody seems to have been remarkable for both the reasons given by Schuster and its supposed status as the “first published novel by a working-class woman in Britain” (as it’s described in the imminent reissue edited by Nicola Wilson, with an introduction by Belinda Webb). Yet recognition for Carnie has been rare in the years since she wrote (there were to be a further nine novels, as well as contributions to the newspapers and volumes of poetry). This seems unfair to a writer who can conjure up Sunday morning in a “low lodging-house” (“Beds, fourpence. Men only”) like this:
“Church bells were contradicting and wrangling with each other from a score of steeples. The strong rays of the glorious sunshine shone in at the windows of the long room, making its dust a path of gold-motes and its bareness not quite so bare.
A man huddled over a pot of beer lifted his head to hear a woman’s voice in the place, then took a long drink to inspire forgetfulness. . . .”
Perhaps it doesn’t help that her authorial identity isn’t quite settled – Carnie was her maiden name, Holdsworth her married name, and they sometimes appear in combination – and Miss Nobody has to strike an uneasy alliance between romance and realism, in an attempt to fulfil certain generic expectations (acknowledged in the protagonist's love of "penny novelettes") and convey the grim grind of working-class life in Manchester (for which see below). Lifetime editions of her books now seem to be scarce. Webb, in her introduction, puts forward another argument. Ethel Carnie, she suggests, has been “silenced”:
“Not by any one person, but by our learned literary and political institutions. That is a strong statement but how else can it be described when the first known working-class woman novelist has barely been heard of amongst feminist and literary theorists – let alone by anyone else?”
A conference at the Working-Class Movement Library in Salford, on September 7, accompanies the launch of the reissue, and there’ll be a second TLS review of the book in due course – for the moment, here’s a taste of the novel’s unsparing humour (more in a Jonsonian than a colloquial sense), in a “wonderful vivid” description of workers going on strike.
A feeling of dissatisfaction in Room 7 made itself felt. Three months before there had been a strike, but Room 7 had gained nothing but hunger by the transaction. The girls and women talked in little knots in the meal-hours, when they came into the long room where Carrie worked, to dine with their friends. The dissatisfaction was a murmur at first, then swelled louder and louder, but still Room 7 felt its own impotency unless the other rooms backed it up.
One day, Carrie, as they were all sitting at breakfast and had been discussing the state of things, jumped up, stood on an upturned waste-can, and made an impromptu speech, full of grim humour, fire, and a sense of justice. She asked the girls to back up Room 7, and join the Union, those who were not in it already, and fight, like Englishwomen. They listened with mirth at first, knowing her aptitude for a joke, but her fire of words at length stirred their blood.
Just as they clapped their hands and she stepped down, Dick Jones, the boss, swung out of the lift. How much or little he had heard could not be guessed, but something certainly, by the gleam in his eyes.
“He’ll be down on you, Carrie, for this,” said an old worker sympathetically.
“What do I care? If Room 7 gets a rise they’ll enjoy it when I’ve gone,” she laughed, and perhaps this brave, laughing speech inspired the girls and women to suffer again for the sake of Room 7.
All the workhands joined the Union, which was indeed very poor in funds.
The morning came when the toilers in Room 7 refused as one woman to work for seven-and-six. They boldly demanded a rise of ninepence, saying the machines should stand idle else. Jones cursed them all round, and told them he wanted none of their damn nonsense, and ordered them to knock the machines on. He told them that the other rooms would not back them up for more than a week or two.
Some of the other hands who had wandered in near the doorway to see the scene shouted “Won’t we? Try us!” Jones came up from the office with the verdict that there would be no advancement. They took their shawls and overskirts and filed out into the street. The throb of the machines in other factories came to them with a sound of prosperity.
Carrie and Fanny passed the first day washing up old blouses and bedding in the damp scullery. They told each other cheerfully that the battle would be brief.
The Battle for Ninepence began.
City papers reported it when there was a few inches of space between society chit-chat, the winter’s fashions, and musical critiques. Preachers talked solemnly from the pulpit of the spirit of unrest abroad in the land, and regretted a materialistic conception of life that kept the toilers from the inner light. People quarrelled as to which side was in the right.
Not hearing the voices of public opinion, the strikers hung on, going paler and thinner each day, crying each time they left the strike-meetings, “Are we downhearted? No!”
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 consent to give in they could get meat again. It haunted them as the landlord stood on the tattered doormat and looked askance, and as the children whispered for more and could not have it – but most of all as the papers began to appear in the grocers’ windows, saying in bright, red letters “Join our Club!”
But they did not give in.
The weeks crept by, each one longer than the last. They felt that they were clinging now as mariners to a spar. . . .