It is two years now since our Radicals team embarked on an enquiry into the singular life and work of the extraordinary Ethel Carnie Holdsworth. Now Janet Swan reports on two exciting developments in swift succession, which give a wonderful new impetus to our ongoing research into Ethel.
Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, mill girl turned literary celebrity, was the first subject chosen in an ever expanding cast list of Pendle Radicals. Ethel was always likely to surprise us as we uncovered more and more about her. And now, through our project, her work and her story are to be the focus of further regional and national attention, thanks to two separate but equally welcome initiatives.
For an introduction to Ethel, her working class and socialist roots and her writing, please search for her name in the drop-down list of categories on this blog. Previous entries include a report on our first artefact, the new audio recordings we commissioned of some of her poetry, now uploaded in recognition of her importance by the national Poetry Archive.
Since then, we have created an original performance for Great Harwood Library, commissioned by Spot On, and inspired by that, a group of us* started to work towards the idea of a podcast… an audio retelling of the part of Ethel’s story that relates to her writing.
While we were in the process of musing how best to portray Ethel, while at the same time portray some of the thinking that went into her novels, serendipity struck! We were approached by a partnership of the BBC Novels project, Lancashire Library Service and Libraries Connected (a national body that aims to maximise the offer from libraries). A podcast on Ethel would suit them very well…
Thanks to this exciting collaboration, it will soon be possible to download and to hear the first of a three part podcast series, focusing on Ethel’s most important novel, This Slavery, which will also be available to borrow from Lancashire Libraries.
This Slavery deserves this attention. It is the story of a family of women including two sisters – Rachael and Hester – who are living through a time of great hardship. The novel is a love story, because Ethel knew that this is what women like her were most likely to read at this time, but it also helps portray two views about how working class women could lift themselves out of the hardships of being mill girls.
Because of the importance of this novel – i.e. that it is considered one of the most important early novels by a working class woman – it is hoped that we will have commentary on the podcast by Dr Nicola Wilson – associate professor at the University of Reading with specialist interests in feminism, class and publishing. Nicola has been involved with our project before – giving a talk about Ethel at Great Harwood Library in 2017 and again in 2019.
And it is because of our links with Dr Nicola Wilson that we have a new academic collaboration to report, and a PhD about Ethel! Now being advertised as a fully funded collaborative doctorate, the PhD is entitled ‘Songs of a Factory Girl: Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and radical working-class women’s writing’. Alongside Nicola Wilson, the team supervising the study will include MPA Creative Director Nick Hunt (with our team of Radicals researchers) and Dr Simon Rennie – Senior Lecturer in Victorian Poetry at the University of Exeter and creator of a database of poetry in response to the Lancashire Cotton Famine.
The first part of the doctorate will focus on cataloguing Ethel’s disparate writings. As we ourselves have discovered, Ethel wrote extensively in newspapers, and these can only be found with special study and tools such as the Digital Humanities Lab at Exeter University. The impact of these writings on her novels will be explored and also the student will be able to assess Ethel’s legacy and creative impact. Some of this impact has been stimulated by the Pendle Radicals project and accordingly the student will be located with Mid Pennine Arts at times, and make their own creative contribution to the Radicals project.
Ethel, who was successful because she was certain of herself and her cast and who knew how to boldly portray her people, has once again inspired others. This funding from the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Programme is extremely important and will help inspire a national reassessment of her work.
*The group working on the podcast includes Jules Gibb who is writing the script, Liz and Scott Robertson who will be producing, directing and adding sound effects, and Janet Swan, project coordinator. We’re delighted also to welcome Geoff Bird, Radio 4/World Service/freelance producer, as our mentor/production adviser.