Rosemary Noble happens to attend my Fitstep class and when we discussed our relative projects, I tracked down her book as it sounded really interesting…
This is a family saga about love, loss and betrayal. It is an intimate portrayal of a family dealing with big ideas of the times. The backdrop is the decaying, coastal town of Grimsby trying to reinvent itself amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, dissenting religion and the fight for voting reform.
When Betsy, a strong and determined spinster of independent means, adopts her motherless nephew, she doesn’t mean to fall head over heels in love with the child. When she plucks William from the bosom of his family, she does it out of self-interest, hoping to thwart unwelcome suitors. Her plans to raise William as a gentleman, allowing his respectability to rub off on herself, almost works. But things don’t always go to plan…
I’ve somewhat tweaked the very chatty blurb which gives away far too much of the story – but this is a historical novel loosely based on Noble’s own family history. She has clearly assiduously researched the period and knows a great deal about living conditions, the geography and weather conditions. As a fellow historian, I am full of admiration for her close attention to detail – but in order to write an entertaining story, there needs to be strong characters that ping off the page the reader can identify with and a page-turning story. So has Noble also managed to people her vivid depiction of a by-gone age with sufficiently readable characters and an engrossing tale? Oh yes.
I particularly loved the opening section of the book when we see Betsy visiting her stricken brother on the day of his wife’s funeral with a proposition to take one of his children and raise him as her own. As a point of information, this arrangement was far commoner than you might think. Time and again, records show that one child from a large family is taken off to be brought up by aunts, uncles, grandparents and in quite a lot of examples, older married siblings. What those records don’t report is how it turned out. Betsy becomes devoted to the bright, intelligent little boy, who grows up to be able to first rent and then buy a small dairy farm. It may not seem much, but is a world away from the labouring jobs that were his father’s lot.
We then follow the fortunes of that small boy – William – and what happens to him and his children, as well as charting what becomes of the family he left behind. As well as the personal family drama, what I found particularly fascinating is how Noble also situates the family’s fortunes within the political situation of the time. She shows us William’s involvement in the Primitive Methodist movement which also gives us an insight into how working men coped with the dreadful conditions they found themselves confronting after the Napoleonic War ravaged the economy. The following generation becomes even more embroiled in the politics of the day when his son John gets increasingly caught up with the Chartists.
Reading of this particular family dealing with the fallout, brought home to me just how high the price was and how our social history was sculpted by brave, forward-thinking men and women whose consciences wouldn’t let them rest when so many around them were suffering such acute privation. It also makes it easier to understand how some of the modern faultlines in our Parliamentary and class system came into being.
Noble provides a highly readable account of a turning point in the political life of the country and is recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction that gives an insight into who we are now.