A philanthropist needed for my handbag
This novel awoke my social conscience and forced me to place farthings in my handbag for the ‘poor souls’ that suffer in this novel. Woe betide anyone that doesn’t have tissues ready when they read this book.
This is a story of three generations of good, ‘soft-hearted’ and compassionate people with a social conscience and an increasing sense of rebellion. This book roused the ghosts of my ancestors and took me to the heart of the world that they would have inhabited.
From the outset, I was drawn into this world and the ‘hardship’. A child tries to say a final farewell to his mother and ‘each tap’ of the coffin ‘pierced William’s heart’ and my own. The love radiating from the poor people immediately arouses compassion and sadness.
Initially, I hated the threat that the aunt posed to the loving family unit. But I received an education in opportunity through William’s eyes. It warmed my heart when William delighted in his full belly and compared Aunty Betsy’s Christmas feast to the meagre ‘turnip and potato soup’ that he was accustomed to.
It is impossible not to admire Aunty Besty’s tenacity in a gentleman’s world; this former maid uses her opportunities wisely to educate her nephew. The hopelessness of the times is reinforced in the stark setting:
‘Cherry blossoms fell, unopened and desolate, onto the frozen ground while Betsy listened for birdsong and found it sparse and desultory.’
The cold weather collides with the delicate beauty to reinforce the desolation. Furthermore, the ‘blackening sky’ is like an omen and I worried about the characters’ proximity to poverty.
The contrast between William and his brother, who was in the poverty trap, reinforces the difference that money and opportunity presented. It is easy to understand how the grip of demon drink took hold as a means of escape while religion provided a spiritual compass and ‘hope of a better life’. It is intriguing to observe how William’s son, John, applies his education and opportunity against the backdrop of a changing world.
This book is an intelligent study of the harsh conditions of the times. One is shocked, educated and made to feel compassion like the central characters. I tasted ‘the grit and grime’ of the novel from the safety of my armchair, and felt the warmth of ‘the straightforward good folk with no pretentions or guile’. Yet, I did want to get on my soap box and rant on behalf of my ancestors who would have struggled as ‘wealth and poverty oozed through the smoke from the chimneys.’ I wanted to call on Sir Titus Salt for help!
Enough of my ranting! I suggest that you read the book and let Betsy, William and John guide you through the hard times. This is a powerful narrative combined with an interpretation of the historical context: the reader learns about the making of the working class. Rather than simply observing the appalling circumstances, the reader learns why people behaved in the way that they did. Furthermore, the novel will help you to reflect on the 21st century.
It is a sobering thought that 21% of people still live in poverty today. Like Betsy, William and John, can we understand and help those in need rather than judging? Where would we be today if everyone had ignored the injustice?