The first Catherine Cookson I’ve ever read, this book contains every single stereotype I associate with the writer. It’s 1850. Bastard daughter is taken from Newcastle (Howay the lads with a liddle fishy etc etc) to the village of Hexham by her dying mother who presents her to the ‘Big Man’ in the village who runs the pit, Matthew Thornton as his progeny, and then promptly dies on the roadside, but not before giving a letter to the local vicar not to be opened until her daughter’s wedding day.
During the journey to Hexham the girl and her mother rest in the cottage of horse trader Ned and his grandfather. Ned is a rough sort who drinks and whores (which is, apparently, a verb) too much but is A Good Man. He helps them to the village and to the Thornton’s house.
Matthew’s wife Anne is (in my opinion, quite rightly) not so pleased with his infidelities (ah, but he was only knobbing about because she wouldn’t let him have his ‘rights’, which of course is the only basis for a functional relationship, so that makes Anne the villain). The Girl, Hannah, is savagely beaten by Anne when she discovers her stealing her jewellery. Matthew uses this beating as an excuse to take all of Anne’s power within the household away, and to go out on the knob again. Anne is a leeedle bitter about this as well, and never speaks to Hannah again. Their children, however, are kind and welcoming to the little girl, and the staff Bella and Tessie are like a second family to her and she grows up beautiful and clever. Obviously.
The family fall on rougher times after Matthew dies from a beating he receives from the husband of the woman he’s being sleeping with, who he needs for the warmth she provides after his wife cruelly refused to be a vessel for his spunk. The eldest daughter, and Hannah’s closest friend Margaret is unlucky in love and goes to live as a teacher in their former school. Hannah is desperately in love with her half brother John, and is therefore married off to the local butcher Fred, who lives with his ‘wicked’ mother Daisy, wicked apparently because she is canny in business and don’t take no shit.
Of course, on the day of the wedding, the letter is opened and it turns out that Hannah wasn’t Matthew’s daughter after all and so could have married John anyways. What a massive, massive surprise that was. She runs from the church to his side but he’s too bloody weak to do anything about it and rejects her. This leads to a mad chase along the hills where she ends up at Ned’s, whose been popping up helpfully over the past ten years. Ned confesses he loves her, and always has.
But, like it or not, Hannah is married to Fred. This turns out as you’d expect and the next couple of years her life is fairly horrid. She’s treated as a servant by Daisy (like she and her family treated Tessie and Bella for their entire lives…). Eventually though, she finds her way into Ned’s arms. Fred finds out about Ned and beats him to a pulp, and smacks her about when she is pregnant. She has the baby, but is now kept under house arrest. Then Fred and Daisy fall ill with Typhoid fever. Hannah drafts in Tessie and Bella, who have been turfed out of the Thornton’s after Anne has become bankrupt. When the pair of them die, Hannah inherits everything, turns the shop over to Margaret, who has returned from school teacher disheartened and weak and is free to run to Ned with the baby, who is probably his anyway.
The main problem I had reading this book was how utterly unlikeable and unreadable every single character, and their actions, are. Apart from maybe Tessie and Bella and the Dr of the village, who are the comedy asides to a very complex Greek Tragedy, you want everyone to die horrible sooner or later, including Hannah.
Ned, the supposed hero, reminded me a lot of Father Ralph from the Thorn Birds, which is was throwing at walls earlier this year. If he had had one honest conversation with Hannah, with whom he claims to fall in love whilst she is a child all of the heart ache of the second half could have been avoided.
The villains of the piece, Anne and Daisy, are victims more than anything else. Anne is trapped, she can’t divorce her husband as it is illegal to do so, and she can’t earn her own living as she has no skills. Daisy has earned her own living in running a successful butcher’s, which is slowly being run down by her inept son, but she can’t profit from it as the business has been passed down by her husband to Fred and she has no legal claim on the property. She works Hannah hard, because life is hard, but is seen throughout the village as an evil tyrant for this.
What this book shows more than anything else is how incredibly shitting living through that time was. No one has any power, the laws relating to gender equality are none existent and the rich control every aspect of the lives of the poor. The mines poison people, the countryside is dying around them and disease and violence are everyday occurrences.
The writing itself is fluid and accessible, but also in parts beautiful and descriptive. Parts are very cliche heavy, but others are dramatic and full of tension. The dialogue itself is very well done and, by having such unlikeable and nonredeemable characters, Cookson is able to shy away from this book becoming too Mills and Boony romance; in fact this isn’t a romance at all, its an historical epic. I enjoyed it a lot, especially in it’s revealing, though Margaret, of the resentment felt to how women were seen at the time.
“It is strange that in the main women are always stronger than men, yet they have to be subordinate to them. They cannot claim any of the man’s rights, that are chattels; and yet in most cases happy to be chattels. I suppose love helps.”
You just want to scream at her ‘don’t worry love, we’re coming!’ and start waving WSPU and Second Wave banners. Makes you proud, really.
Anyway, onwards and upwards…