Ethel Carnie Holdsworth: A Centenary Celebration

The Working Class Movement Library hosted an event on September 7th 2013 to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s Miss Nobody. Holdsworth’s novel has recently been republished as part of a new series of her works by Kennedy and Boyd with an introduction by Belinda Webb.

Nicola Wilson of the University of Reading introduced the novel, describing the barriers faced by readers and students in engaging with work by working-class writers. As Wilson pointed out, many students graduating with English Literature degrees are likely to complete their studies without having read any work by working-class authors, and even less likely to have come across working-class women writers. This is, of couse, damaging, and contributes to a distorted image of the cultural lives of working people. The practical difficulties of changing this situation, however, are not inconsiderable. Many texts have been lost altogether, or otherwise exist only in specialist archives. (Chris Hopkins has produced a useful case study on teaching out-of-print novels that offers some ways through these problems for academics.) Then there is the fact that when these texts are republished they are often on the expensive side, which is discouraging for students and general readers. Cuts to public libraries restrict access further. Then there are a series of questions about literary value: a critical dismissal of the genres and modes – romance, thriller, melodrama – often employed by working-class writers leads to a tendency to regard their work as having an kind of ethnographic and sociological interest, but of little value to literary scholars, and still less to general readers. At the root of that is, among other attitudes, an assumption that working-class writers are basically uncreative in the forms they use, and unreflectively reproduce the conventions and codes of popular fictions, with their attendant connotations of shallowness, unreality, and so on.[1]

The republication of Carnie Holdsworth’s novels will, it is hoped, intervene in this conspiracy of factors that work to marginalise working-class writers. Born into a radical weaving family in Oswaldtwistle in 1886, she wrote at least ten novels together with a startling volume of journalism, children’s stories and poetry, beginning to write while working in the mills in Great Harwood, Lancashire. Belinda Webb’s introduction the new edition of Miss Nobody identifies three literary traditions that feed into the novel: the ‘New Woman’ novel, the Chartist novel, and the romance. She combined elements of these forms with a language rooted in working-class experience to bring into the remit of the novel the lives of working women. The novel appeared in the year of Emily Wilding Davidson’s death at the Derby, and while Carnie Holdsworth seems to have had connections with the Pankhursts, her work insists on the distinctive nature of oppression faced by working-class women, an emphasis that was not typical of the middle-class dominated Suffragette movement.[2] A video of extracts of the novel read by the actor Keeley Forsyth gave attendees an sense of the humour and grit of Carnie Holdsworth’s writing.

This was followed by three short films by Nick Wilding, a film-maker who has worked to track down and show the 1922 film adaption of Carnie Holdsworth’s Helen of Four Gates, shot near Hebden Bridge. Nick showed a film tracing Carnie Holdsworth’s steps around Great Harwood and the surrounding moors that provided an atmospheric glimpse of the landscape in which she wrote. Nick also showed a film of Dorothy Sutcliffe, who herself worked in the mills in the area, reading Carnie Holdsworth’s poem ‘The Bookworm’. Nick concluded with a film shot in the Working Class Movement Library, in which Nick and Rae Street discussed the comparable lives of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and Enid Stacey.

After a break to view to Library’s holdings of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s work, including a very rare copy of The Clear Light, the anti-fascist journal she established in the 1920s with her husband, Kathleen Bell of De Montfort University gave a keynote lecture. Bell argued that examining the reading and writing lives of working-class people helps us to think about what literature is for. Drawing on her research into working-class women writers from the eighteenth century onwards, she noted that it is common in their work to find an idea of literature as a kind of alternative wealth, the ‘treasure house of the intellect’. This is the central concern in Carnie Holdsworth’s ‘The Bookworm’, which imagines the reading experience, the entry into ‘the world of books’, as a way of ‘owning the world.’ This is often attended by anger at the way those with unfettered access to knowledge hoard and squander it. Economic and social conditions affect the reading and the writing experience for working-class people, and especially the lack of leisure time in which to read and write – Carnie Holdsworth described struggling to read two pages in six hours. Bell argued that this experience of time affected both the choice of reading matter and the writing practices of the working class. The need for concentration of effect and strength of plot were identified as primary concerns. Working-class writers were affected by the economics of publishing that meant other working people could not always afford to read their work, depriving them of an audience, but also by prevalent myths of artistic production, such as the romantic image of the struggling and starving artist.

The event was rounded off by a recital of two of Ethel’s poems, ‘Possession’ and ‘On the Road’, set to music by Ethel Smyth in 1913, by Emma Walton and Stuart Overington of the Royal Northern College of Music.

There is of course a long way to go before the reading and writing experiences of working people are treated as other than marginal and peripheral concerns. Discussing the politics of literary recovery, Raymond Williams pointed out that academic and critical attention alone was not enough: ‘Significant recovery begins when at least some of the novels are put into active circulation again, for the readers and the children and successors of the readers among whom and sometimes for whom they were written.’[3] Having Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s novels in circulation once more, available for those who shared – or whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents shared – the life she lived and wrote about is surely a major achievement in this struggle.

A few photos from the event:

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Elinor Taylor

[1] Critical discussions of this assumption can be found in (among others) Pamela Fox, Class Fictions: Shame and Resistance in the British Working Class Novel, 1890-1945 (Duke University Press, 1994); Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929–1941 (Duke University Press, 1993); Christopher Hilliard, To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (Harvard University Press, 2006).

[2] The complex relationship between the Suffragettes and the working class is discussed by Paula Bartley, in ‘Suffragettes, Class and Pit-Brow Women’.

[3] Raymond Williams, ‘Working-Class, Proletarian, Socialist: Problems in some Welsh Novels’, in Gustav Klaus, ed., The Socialist Novel in Britain (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1982), p.110.




  1. I enjoyed the Ethel Carnie day at the WCML but it is important to remember that she was not just a working class writer but she was a socialist feminist who took her politics as seriously as she did her writing. Ruth and Eddie Frow who collected her work and wrote a key article about her in the mid-80s realised her importance in being part of a politicised working class movement.
    If Ethel’s novels and journalism are to be recognised and valued by her forbears, that is the women and men who are active in anti-fascist work today and in the campaigns to improve the lives of working class people ie the Bedroom Tax and the Keep Our NHS Public, it is because her work tells the stories of working class people fighting and winning battles for better pay and conditions. And in the depressing era of 2013 we need to know that we can win at making society a better place to live in. That I am sure would be the message that Ethel would like people to take from her work rather than any concentration on the battles she and other working class writers had to overcome to get their novels published.

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