Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (also published as Ethel Carnie and Ethel Holdsworth) (1886–1962)
Much of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s work – as poet, novelist, children’s author, editor - was politically radical, springing from a working-class, feminist perspective. Born in Lancashire, she began work at the cotton mill aged eleven as a part-timer, working full-time from the age of thirteen. In an article for The Woman Worker (which she edited for six months) (March 31, 1909) she described the factory worker as ‘practically a beggar and a slave’, declaring all workers ‘dependent on the whims of a master class.’ The grind of domestic work, often combined with factory labour, also attracted her attention; she urged women to ‘go out and play’ and be ‘something more than a dish washer’ (ibid. April 14, 1909).
Holdsworth’s first publications (as Ethel Carnie) were poems, collected in Rhymes from the Factory in 1907. Two further volumes followed: Songs of a Factory Girl (1911) and Voices of Womanhood (1914). Two poems from her second volume were set in a song sequence by Ethel Smyth (Three Songs, 1913) and performed in London; the settings were dedicated to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Her novel Helen of Four Gates (1917) was filmed in 1920.
Children’s stories and novels followed. Holdsworth’s best work for children was influenced by Oscar Wilde; ‘The Blind Prince’ in The Lamp Girl and other Stories (1913) is a disturbing tale of extreme oppression, concluding with the establishment of a republic and a rather disappointing romance.
Holdsworth’s political involvement led her to campaign against conscription during the First World War, to edit (with her husband) an anti-fascist journal, The Clear Light and to publish a series of sonnets in the Anarchist paper Freedom, taking up the cause of Anarchists imprisoned in Soviet jails. In a letter accompanying her first sonnet (October 1924), she asserted that she belonged to no political group. Instead, she declared, ‘I belong to the folk – from the most undeveloped and illiterate, so confused that they are the bedrock of even reaction, to Whitman and Morris, and Marx, Kropotkin, and Bakunin.’
In her 1909 poem ‘Love and Poverty’ Holdsworth suggests that love could be achieved only ‘When Poverty is not a crime’; the tension between love and poverty operates as political criticism in many of her works. While her best-known novel This Slavery (1925) combines romance and melodrama with a tale of industrial conflict, it also indicates the necessity of seeing the world politically and acting to secure change. Her last novel, All On Her Own (1929), written for a series of women’s romantic fictions, combines comments on inequality and land-ownership with arguments about the status of women and their need for responsibility and respect.
As a working-class writer she drew on a range of styles and genres without a clear sense of hierarchies in literature. She believed in natural genius and hoped readers would find unity of feeling between poem and poet. Her work may be uneven but it offers the perspective of a highly politicised working-class woman.
Alves, Susan. ‘‘Whilst working at my frame’: The Poetic Production of Ethel Carnie’, Victorian Poetry 38.1 (Spring 2000) 77-93
Fox, Pamela. Class Fictions (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).
Frow, Ruth and Edmund. ‘Ethel Carnie: Writer, Feminist and Socialist.’ In The Rise of Socialist Fiction 1880-1914, ed. H. Gustav Klaus (Brighton: Harvester, 1987) 251-6.
Key quotations on factory life from articles in The Woman Worker
‘The Factory Slave’ (The Woman Worker, March 3, 1909, p.214)
Girlhood glides into womanhood, and one falls in love. (Which shows the innate cheek of the working-class, who dare to dream of happiness living from hand to mouth.)
‘Factory Intelligence’ (The Woman Worker, March 10, 1909, p.219)
If you ever took a stroll through a cotton factory whilst the “hands” were away in their homes having dinner, and were inquisitive enough to poke into the square, tin boxes that are for the purpose of holding weft, you would find a varied assortment of literature. You might find, deftly hidden (lest the eagle eye of the overlooker pop on them), Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Silas Hocking, Dickens, “Daily Mail,” “Comic Cuts,” and (sometimes) the “Clarion.”
Have you ever tried to read in the working hours of a factory? It is a weird experience.
So between the breaking of the threads and the throwing of the shuttle we thieve back a little of the time that they are thieving from us. It needs patience, too. In some six hours, with good luck, you may manage two pages of pretty open print.
Does it not argue a love of learning when we attempt to read in such hells as these? And it is better to pursue the adventures of the Pink Kid in the “Comic Cuts” than never get out of one’s self - it does at least save us from going mad. Taken from the ugly schoolroom and plunged into the factory we waste our youth, our health, our beauty in weaving cotton. Shade of Shakespeare, what have we to do with thee? Surely thou wast meant for the rich and not for us!
‘The Home Life of Factory Workers’ (The Woman Worker, March 24, 1909 p.270)
Sunday is the only day we have to live our lives. Out of the House of Bondage into the field of liberty.
They did well to allow us this one day in the week in which to have a taste of home - otherwise we should have broken loose long since.
Once I saw a picture of the crucified Christ.
That wan brow, and anguished look - you need not go into a picture gallery to see it. Stand at the gates of a cotton factory at the end of a summer’s day, and see the operatives trail out. The little half-timer by the loom, straining to reach - with thin hands throwing the shuttle, you may see it there.
‘The Factory and Content’ (The Woman Worker, March 31, 1909, p.312)
The factory worker is practically a beggar and a slave.
So are all other workers dependent upon the whims of a master class.
We are out to teach the worker, whether in the factory or out of it, what he needs to enjoy a full and healthy life.
That it is not enough to have merely a shelter for the head, and enough food (does he always get that?), but that there is a higher existence he is missing.
‘How Colour is Introduced’ (The Woman Worker, April 7, 1909, p.323)
The happiest kind of factory workers are the heavy, stolid folks who never ask questions of anyone else or of themselves [...]
There is another class that see and suffer. Of these some go for soldiers - that is the man’s way of gaining a splash of colour. The women flirt, plunge into enjoyment (not always nice), and often land at the bottom of the ladder - a few rungs lower than the respectable toilers who have not strayed from the straight and narrow way.
This class is made up of the finest natures. They have not forgotten how to feel. The bars hurt them, and they beat their wings frantically against the door.
[...] a system that from its very sameness and flatness sends the finest of our men and women to drink or worse [...]
What I should have been had Robert Blatchford not taken me out of the cage goodness knows - I do not.
‘Our Right to Play’ (The Woman Worker, April 14, 1909, p.342)
For God’s sake, women, go out and play.
Instead of staring round to see what wants polishing or rubbing, go out into the open and draw the breath of the moors or the hills into your lungs. Get some of the starshine and sunlight into your souls, and do not forget that you are something more than a dish washer - that you are more necessary to the human race than politicians - or anything.
Remember you belong to the aristocracy of labour - the long pedigree of toil, and the birthright which Nature gives to everyone had entitled you to an estate higher than that of princes.
by Nicola Wilson
It was the second, enlarged edition of Rhymes from the Factory, published in 1908, that brought Carnie to national attention. In July 1908, the popular socialist author and Clarion leader Robert Blatchford visited Ethel at home for an interview with his newspaper, The Woman Worker (she was fined for taking unauthorised leave from her loom for this meeting). A full-page interview was published, in which Blatchford characterises Carnie as ‘a fairy: an inscrutable, inexplicable, impossible fairy’:
So this was the fairy: this her home. Just a typical Lancashire factory girl, in a typical Lancashire house. A bright fire, a burnished stove, a clean-swept hearth: a small quiet young woman, with quiet grey eyes, a quiet smile, and a dimple in her chin ( Blatchford, 'A Lancashire Fairy. An Interview with Miss Ethel Carnie', The Woman Worker, 10 July 1908, p155).
Blatchford was to be the second of Carnie’s influential male patrons, and he encouraged her to leave her life in the mill, aged 22, for a full-time writing career in London. She later commented, ‘what I should have been had Robert Blatchford not taken me out of the cage goodness knows – I do not’. (Carnie, 'How Colour is Introduced', The Woman Worker, 7 April 1909, p323).
Ethel wrote for a number of newspapers in London, including The Clarion and The Woman Worker, which she also edited between July and December of 1909. With the collapse of The Woman Worker at the end of 1909 she returned to Lancashire and ‘took the line of least resistance and went back into the factory again’ (Anon., 'Ex-Mill Girl Who Became Literary Celebrity', The Yorkshire Observer, 5 April 1932, p.11).
This was only to be a temporary measure. The years 1910 to 1915, when Carnie married, saw the publication of her first novel and a second volume of poetry, in addition to extensive travels in Germany, shop work with her mother, time attending Owens College in Manchester, and two years’ teaching at the short-lived Bebel House Women’s College and Socialist Education Centre in London – part of the Central Labour College’s programme for independent working-class education.
After an unsuccessful stint in a deprived post-war London, and a period selling ribbons and lace on Blackburn market, Carnie and her husband, the poet Alfred Holdsworth, moved to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire with their two daughters.
Carnie continued to write journalism for much of her life-time, though a troubled marriage (she separated from her husband), another ‘fascist’ war, and a decline in her physical health depressed her.
From 1930(ish) until her death she lived at Cheetham Hill, Manchester.
Bibliography (poetry volumes and long works of fiction)
Rhymes from the Factory (Blackburn: R. Denham & Co, 1907). 2nd edition (Southport: Shackerley literacy Agency, 1908)
Songs of a Factory Girl (London: Headley Brothers, 1911)
The Lamp Girl and other Stories (London: Headley Brothers, 1913)
Miss Nobody (London: Methuen & Co, 1913)
Voices of Womanhood (London: Headley Bros, 1914)
Helen of Four Gates (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1917)
The Taming of Nan (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1919)
The Marriage of Elizabeth (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1920)
The House that Jill Built (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1920)
General Belinda (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1924)
This Slavery (London: The Labour Publishing Co., 1925)
The Quest of the Golden Garter (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1927)
Eagles Crag (London: Stanley Paul & Co., 1928)
Barbara Dennison, (London: Stanley Paul & Co., 1929)
An Analysis of the Works of Fiction
Between 1913 and the end of the 20s, Carnie published ten novels (several of which were also serialised). Her fictional output was varied but most often dealt with northern working-class domestic life, depicting what a reviewer in The Blackburn Weekly Telegraph described as ‘the homely life of the people’ (Anon., 'The Marriage of Elizabeth', The Blackburn Weekly Telegraph, 26 June 1920).
Carnie’s books are populated by factory girls and domestic servants, country ‘folk’ and the odd working lass made-good. At the heart of most of the plots is a concern to depict the day-to-day struggles of working life. Particular concern is expressed for the difficulties facing working-class women: in The House that Jill Built, one of the few Carnie novels not set in Lancashire, a well-meaning inheritress builds a holiday home for tired mothers of the East End.
Carnie’s novels were generally favourably received by the press, especially on her home-ground: in 1932, The Yorkshire Observer described her as a ‘literary celebrity’ ( Anon., 'Ex-Mill Girl Who Became Literary Celebrity', The Yorkshire Observer, 5 April 1932).
She enjoyed the popularity of a best-seller in her second novel, the disturbing Helen of Four Gates, which sold in tens of thousands and was compared in the national reviews to the likes of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Wuthering Heights. Despite dealing with the sometimes gritty concerns of everyday life, much of her fiction was narrated in a witty, light-hearted tone, and she had a respectable reputation as a modest lady author – a provincial writer of entertaining domestic dramas.
Her 1925 novel This Slavery challenged this reputation by bringing her simmering Marxist-feminist consciousness more explicitly to the fore. Its scathing narrator and provocative tone – it is dedicated ‘To Mother and Father, slaves and rebels […] with a Daughter’s affection and a Comrade’s greetings’ – was too much for her former local champions. The Blackburn Times reviewer, for instance, condemned what he saw as an ‘unfair’ representation of Lancashire factory life. Carnie defended the novel as her ‘first attempt to portray a horrible social struggle’, though she was dissuaded from voicing such polemical views in fiction, as opposed to her journalism, again (Ethel Carnie, 'Letter', The Blackburn Times, 27 June 1925).
This Slavery was not released by her usual publishers, but by the Labour Publishing Company – a 1920s press which aimed to make cheap copies of left-wing texts available to working-class pockets. 2s 6d still made it far too much for most workers, but this was much cheaper than her other novels, which sold at the normal price of 7s 6d. The novel is a radical mill-girl tale, which imitates the popular weekly magazines of the time – avidly consumed by working women and girls – which told of the lives and loves of factory girls. To this popular genre (This Slavery has its fair share of lecherous overseers, wrong-footed marriages, and wicked mill-owners), Carnie adds a woman-centred and socialist framework, through which she criticises both economic slavery and sexual slavery. At the heart of the novel is a passionate plea for women’s freedom under socialism:
“I wonder when women’ll be free, mother An’ chaps, too, of course. But we, we somehow have a tradition behind us besides an economic slavery. We’ve got the race on our shoulders, an’ all th’ other besides” ( From Rachel's speech in Chapter Vl, This Slavery, p.59).