I am a fan of Kate Alcott. I’m afraid I was predisposed to be a fan because of her last name…but I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than that. Her first book,The Dressmaker, is one of the most enjoyable historical fiction novels I’ve read as an adult. As soon as I noticed Alcott had a new book out, I snatched it up.
The Daring Ladies of Lowell tells the story of several factory girls in the 1830s. Alice Barrow, the main character, comes to Lowell, Massachusetts to make a new life for herself. She joins many girls who are part of this shiny, new industry. Reading about their boarding house camaraderie reminded me of Little Women. As Alice lives and works longer in Lowell, however, she becomes aware of the troubles rising between the mill owners, The Fiskes, and the workers. Not only that, but she becomes entangled with the Fiske family in a way she never would have expected.
I have to admit that Alcott’s strength is in her story telling and her characters. The writing in this book and some of the plot developments seems a little trite at times. This is especially true when it comes to the romantic parts…”he couldn’t help but notice her hair…” yes, that’s going to get an eye roll. But I enjoyed the story, and the fact that much of the plot is based on actual events in Lowell. I appreciate a writer who does her research. And there were some glimpses of brilliance in Alcott’s wording at times -playing on words related to the textile industry, such as weaving and threads. Once again, I appreciate how Alcott has put out another book without feeling the need to include any sex scenes. Can you call it a scene if it’s in a book? Well, you know what I mean.
Also, this book is a modern American counterpart to one of my favorite classics, North and South. Written by Elizabeth Gaskell, it centers on the industrial revolution in England and the strikes between workers and owners. There is romance, a strong heroine, tragedies…besides the writing styles being from different eras, North and South and The Daring Ladies of Lowell are like international twins. I prefer Gaskell’s genre (Victorian British Lit) to almost any other, but The Daring Ladies of Lowell is a great literature companion in the topic of industrial revolution. I’d give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.Put The Daring Ladies of Lowell on your TBR list if you like historical fiction and are in the mood for a light read.
I’ve mentioned before that I love British Literature from the Victorian era, or slightly before. It was a minor tragedy when I ran out of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters a few years ago.
Enter: Elizabeth Gaskell.
I had never heard of Elizabeth Gaskell (known as Mrs. Gaskell during her publishing career), until I took a Bronte seminar in college and read parts of her The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Generally, I am terrible at reading nonfiction, biographies especially, but I found that I enjoyed Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte. Granted, some scholars claim that Gaskell took some liberties to make Charlotte’s life story a bit more like a novel. I forgive her for that, though, because her skill obviously lies in the novel form. Two of her works, Wives and Daughtersand North and Southare some of my favorite books.
Wives and Daughters is the story of Molly Gibson and her family. At the beginning of the novel, Molly is a motherless child, being brought up by her father, the village doctor. Molly enjoys her companionable relationship with her father. By and by, her father decides to marry again. His choice is questionable, but it makes for a great novel. The woman he marries has a daughter, Cynthia. Cynthia is affectionate towards her new sister and father, but has made questionable choices in the past that come to light along the way. This novel also has a great villain, Mr. Preston. Wives and Daughters is centered on the family and village life, but it also has a lot to say about the struggle between science and traditionalism in the 1830s. Squire Hamley, a family friend and main character in the novel, is entrenched in his old farming ways, while his son, Roger, is an up and coming naturalist and has big ideas of what needs to change. That and many other plot lines and wonderful characters makes Wives and Daughters a beautiful work, comparable to the best novels of the time. Lauren Lerner calls it “surely the most neglected novel of its century” in his introduction to the Penguin Classic 1986 edition. Its only shortcoming is the fact that Mrs. Gaskell died before she tied up the ending into the beautifully wrapped package Victorian novels usually become. However, I think the ending is quite sufficient. Yes, it has a bit more of a modern, open-ended feel, but it’s pretty obvious where it’s going. If you like Austen, I think you’ll like Wives and Daughters.
North and South surprised me with how different it was from Wives and Daughters. While Wives and Daughters closely follows a family and a several other village characters, North and South is full of social contrasts: industrial vs. agricultural, city vs. country, poor vs. rich. The title refers to the contrast in England between the industrial, factory-operated North and the pastoral, high-society south and London. It has a bit of a critical, Dickensonian approach. When Gaskell first introduces Margaret Hale, the main character, she is returning to her country home in Heston from a London visit to cousins. Margaret loves the picturesque cottage her family enjoys as her part of her father’s position as a minister in the Church of England. Margaret’s life quickly changes when her father’s conscience can no longer bear some differences he has with the Church of England, and he breaks ties with it. The family moves to a Northern city called Milton. Then, Margaret is thrust into a new perspective, as she watches and makes her own judgment of the factory life the Milton runs on. She meets a mill owner, John Thornton, and they form a tension-filled acquaintance, as Margaret disagrees with his treatment of the people he works for. As the novel progresses, the Margaret and Mr. Thornton find their opinions challenged and changed by one another and the circumstances that surround them.
Margaret Hale is one of my favorite literary characters of all time. I’d liken her a bit to an Elinor Dashwood or Ann Elliot, but much more lively. Margaret is aglow with the cause she champions and the people she wants to help. She is full of compassion and love tempered by steel determination and quite an ability to dislike as much as like. Her complexity is unparalleled in any Victorian literature I have read.
I hope you read both of these works by Gaskell. If you don’t think you’ll like them, perhaps you should try the Masterpiece Classic adaptations of them and see if they might whet your appetite for Elizabeth Gaskell. I’d usually not recommend watching the movie before reading the book, but they are pretty great, as far as movies go. =)
Links to movies on Amazon (please note: this post contains no affiliate links):
I think there are some videos from these movies on YouTube, but I’m not sure of their legality.
And finally, a disclaimer: if you read Elizabeth Gaskell, I would not recommend Mary Barton or Ruth. I’m sure that there are people somewhere who like those books. I found them to be rather trite–fallen Victorian woman plight, etc. Perhaps they were a little more cutting edge in their time, but if you’ve read The Mill on the Floss, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or any number of similar stories, you don’t really need to add Ruth or Mary Barton to your repertoire, unless you find that you have become a die hard Mrs. Gaskell fan and must read all her works.
I hope you check out Elizabeth Gaskell and find a new favorite, or at least an enjoyable read. Happy reading!