Ethel and the Archives

A Week in Lancashire Part One

PhD researcher and Radicals collaborator Jenny Harper had a very busy week on her first study visit to Lancashire.  It started with a delve into some precious public collections.

As part of a packed week of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth-related activities, I ventured deep into the library archives of Manchester and Bolton. In carrying out my six-year PhD project on Ethel, I’m always seeking to dig deeper, to find out where new connections can be made, and to thus bring Ethel into sharper focus.

My first stop was the Ethel Carnie Holdsworth box and holdings at the famous Working Class Movement Library The have a fascinating collection including hand-written notes by the Frows tracing Ethel’s life story and literary output. I read with great interest the lively communication between the Frows and H. Gustav Klaus as they drafted a contribution to his important 1987 book, The Rise of Socialist Fiction 1880-1914. Their chapter on Ethel marked the start of a period of recovery, as she began to become recognised as an important and previously neglected figure within the genre. The records are convivial, including a note from Gustav Klaus wishing the Frows an enjoyable summer holiday in their caravan. As the Frows pointed out in a 1987 Observer article, Ethel had at that point become almost entirely forgotten. Not a single obituary marked her death in Manchester in 1962.[1] And yet in 1920 the Blackburn Weekly Telegraph reported that sales of Helen of Four Gates had hit 25,000.[2] Ethel had become almost entirely erased from history within a period of less than 50 years.

What is perhaps most interesting about the Carnie Holdsworth holdings at the WCML is the way they so effectively trace the variation in her literary output. Her status as a working class writer bounds the nature of her literary production. Within an edition of The Woman Worker in December 1909 her strident voice addresses social injustice head-on as she expresses little surprise that women were having to sell themselves for bread to escape starvation.[3] In an earlier October 1909 editorial, she reflects on the disparity between her wages at the cotton mill and as a paid author. In two hours, she could write, ‘an impossible tale in a mediocre journal which could earn her three guineas,’ she notes.[4] June 1927’s The Wheatsheaf features perhaps the sort of story that she was referring to as Mr Ratchetty Considers a Vital Question in a light popular romance piece. She contributed regularly to The Wheatsheaf during this period, earning her own bread in the way she could best.[5]

Onto the John Rylands Library, and their C.F. Sixsmith Walt Whitman Collection, which holds many archival materials on the Eagle Street College, an important group of British ethical socialists. As the Frows noted in documents at the WCML, Ethel was familiar with a wide range of authors, including Edward Carpenter, a key member of the Eagle Street collective. A strand of my research traces how the British ethical socialists influenced Ethel’s own literary output and the opportunity to handle items from this important collection was a real privilege. A letter to Whitman from Robert Ingersoll was of particular interest: Ingersoll was a renowned American free thinker and agnostic, who gave a famed eulogy at Whitman’s funeral in 1892, and whom Whitman described as the embodiment of Leaves of Grass.[6] Ingersoll is named within a pivotal passage in Ethel’s Barbara Dennison, and this intriguingly evidences a direct American influence on her writing.[7] The question of how she came across Ingersollian philosophy remains enticingly to be discovered, but it does strengthen the theory that the Whitmanite worldview coloured her own.

A final archival visit to the Bolton History Centre next, and an opportunity to investigate their excellent Bolton Whitman Fellowship collection, after an informative chat over lunch with Whitman expert Paul Salveson and Julie Lamara (Collections Access Officer). This wide-ranging collection includes a stirring letter from 1894 to the Bolton group from Katharine Bruce Glasier, who once referred to Leaves of Grass as her ‘bible.’ ‘From comrade to comrades,’ she writes, ‘Look up, cry aloud! Your long travail is over: a new life is born in the land of the sun; a life of fruition, of lore and of colour- full, free and sufficing- for all or for none.’[8] Such anthemic words resonate with Ethel’s own. In April 1909’s The Woman Worker, Ethel joined the cry, calling out for the rights of the working classes to have some ‘colour’ in their lives.[9]

Without doubt the archives in Lancashire are holding on to many more Ethel Carnie Holdsworth secrets, and I very much look forward to sharing further insights as her story unfolds.

I am always eager to collaborate on anything Ethel Carnie Holdsworth-related and can be contacted at j.harper@pgr.reading.ac.uk.

Jenny Harper’s PhD research is supported by the South West & Wales consortium of universities, through their Doctoral Training Programme.  It is a collaboration between Reading University, Exeter University and Mid Pennine Arts through the Pendle Radicals project.

[1] Working Class Movement Library, Typescripts of article/lecture(s?) by Ruth and Eddie including list of references, notes and correspondence connected to above item, Ethel Carnie Collection, PP/CARNIE.

[2] Working Class Movement Library, Photocopies reviews from Blackburn newspapers, Ethel Carnie Collection, PP/CARNIE.

[3] Working Class Movement Library, Typescripts of article/lecture(s?) by Ruth and Eddie including list of references, notes and correspondence connected to above item, Ethel Carnie Collection, PP/CARNIE.

[4] Working Class Movement Library, Typescripts of article/lecture(s?) by Ruth and Eddie including list of references, notes and correspondence connected to above item, Ethel Carnie Collection, PP/CARNIE.

[5] Working Class Movement Library, Photocopies of articles and stories from The Wheatsheaf 1910-1936, Ethel Carnie Collection, PP/CARNIE.

[6] University of Manchester Special Collections, C.F. Sixsmith Walt Whitman Collection, 25th March 1880, GB 133 Eng 1170/1/1/5

[7] Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, Barbara Dennison (Stanley Paul, 1928), p. 271.

[8] Bolton Whitman Fellowship Archive, Bolton Whitman Fellowship Papers, 23rd February 1894, ZWN, 45.

[9] Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, ‘How Colour is Introduced’, The Woman Worker, 7th April 1909, p. 323.

One thought on “Ethel and the Archives

  1. Pingback: Ethel and the Archives (via the Rebel Pen Club) | Mid Pennine Arts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s