Through the mill

How come we don't know more about Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, Lancashire mill worker turned bestselling author?

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In 1932 the Yorkshire Observer ran a profile piece on the “Ex-Mill Girl Who Became a Literary Celebrity”. By this point, aged 46, mill woman and journalist Ethel Carnie Holdsworth had written a total of 10 novels, 15 serials, two films and a host of short stories, essays and poems, in addition to running an anti-fascist newspaper, The Clear Light, from her home with her husband near Hebden Bridge.

Born into a Lancashire weaving family near Blackburn on New Year’s Day 1886, Carnie Holdsworth was a mill girl from the age of 11 (full time from 13), and started publishing poetry as a teenager. She was offered a route out of the mill when she came to the attention of influential socialist Robert Blatchford, who invited her to work on his newspapers in London, but she went back in again after falling out with Blatchford over his support for the First World War. As a lifelong pacifist and socialist, Carnie Holdsworth was against the conscription that saw working men fighting each other. Legend has it that she accompanied her husband to the train station when he was called up waving a red flag in defiance.

Carnie Holdsworth was a formidable campaigner, a socialist feminist involved with various groupings on the left, and also a great writer. When I first came across her writing as a student, I was staggered by its strength and passion and its unusually gripping and politically-engaged plot lines. In one of her most famous novels, This Slavery (1925), two mill girls strive to escape from grinding poverty and unemployment after a devastating fire at t’mill: one through the unions and revolution, the other through “marrying up”. But there are no easy options and this is no Cinderella story.

“I am sorry if you had expected the curtain to ring down on a beginning which is traditionally the ending of a tale,” notes the scathing narrator. The depictions of poverty and hunger in this story as the townsfolk are forced to rely on soup kitchens and tokens of charity from their employers are incredibly powerful, as is the righteous anger against social inequality and injustice, characteristic to all of Carnie Holdsworth’s work.

She dabbled with a variety of genres – detective fiction, romance, the gothic

In This Slavery she writes: “To starve quietly, unobtrusively, and without demonstration is, perhaps, the greatest art civilisation has forced on to the masses. To pass by windows exhibiting the delicacies and luxuries of an age which has evolved culinary art into something almost impossible to analyse and to pass by with one’s savage, primitive hunger controlled by the will to endure, is to give an example of the contradictions in a society where the strong still prey on the weak and the weak starve themselves to grapple with the strong.”

Realising the potential of stories to get her politics out to a wider audience, Carnie Holdsworth was a committed literary experimenter, dabbling with a variety of popular genres – detective fiction, romance, the gothic. She sold well. Her 1917 book, Helen of Four Gates – an even darker take on Wuthering Heights – was a bestseller here and in the US, and was also made into a film.

So why do we know so little about her? Well, she didn’t marry influentially, she was on the fringe of political parties rather than at the centre, and like many early working-class women writers she left few personal records. The published novels and serial stories, which until recently have been difficult to get hold of, are the little evidence we have. She is radical and sometimes polemical – too strong to be republished by some – but the politics is comparable to a writer like Robert Tressell.

I was convinced that she deserved a much wider audience, and we are now starting to get her work back into print. There is also a recent biography of her fascinating life story by Roger Smalley, Breaking the Bonds of Capitalism: the political vision of a Lancashire mill girl (Lancaster University, 2014). This Slavery was republished by Trent Editions in 2011 and Kennedy & Boyd is now bringing her other titles back into print.

Nicola Wilson is the editor of Helen of Four Gates – now republished and available at kennedyandboyd.co.uk

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