Our Radicals research team have been electrified by the story of the great Ethel Carnie. Project leader Janet Swan considers Ethel’s brief time in London, and how we are now inspired to rename the Pendle Radicals blog in her honour…
Writing with a Mission – One We Can Continue?
Thanks to Pendle Radicals, I have learnt about the amazing Ethel Carnie Holdsworth. I have also had the opportunity to become involved in groups reading her work, and work with song writers who have taken her poems and turned them into songs. When the personal stories start to flow* as a result of this further work, it makes me feel glad that we may be continuing something that was very important to Ethel.
We know that Ethel Carnie worked in London for at least six months in 1909 when she was aged just 23, writing stories, poems and articles for the newspaper The Woman Worker. But she was to return to London five years later to teach creative writing at Bebel House**, in Kensington – a Labour College for working women with the aim of promoting radical adult education.
It is here that she founded The Rebel Pen Club – for the following purpose: ‘working class women … must learn to cultivate powers of expression in writing and speaking so that they bring to light corners of life unseen by the many superior persons who have shown the necessity that the workers should speak for themselves’.
She is of course advocating that this task should fall to all workers, but for Ethel it was women who clearly knew the realities of not only working life, but also domestic life and who from henceforth refused to ‘stand on a hill, safe and afar, watching the struggle’. But what seems crucial to me about her decision to return to London (which we know she grew to hate when she lived there in 1909) was that this task was too important to ignore. It had to be the workers who described the conditions in factories, mills and forges as they really were.
Later, when Helen of Four Gates was being filmed in 1920, Ethel claims that her authentic portrayal of the mill community ‘has been bred into her, through sharing their lives, their labours, they joys and sorrows, standing at the loom in a factory, living with them in tiny houses in poky streets’. The interviewer concludes that this ‘premier novelist’ of Lancashire ‘is successful because she is certain of herself and her cast … and as a consequence, her work possesses a richness and atmosphere, a boldness and truth’ which was otherwise scarce***. After living in London in 1909, Ethel returned to her roots, to the place where she was best connected, in order to write for the workers not just about them.
Such boldness and truth seem in short supply today, and so if we are to form our own Rebel Pen Club, we would do well to be rooted in real life as Ethel asks, and as far as we are able, cultivate the power of expression or at the very least the power of persuasion, which can come in many forms. But most importantly we must be engaged if we are to share the joys and sorrows of those around us.
As I look forward to a further creative project inspired by Ethel, I can’t help thinking that our greatest legacy would be not only to inspire others to learn more about Ethel and to read her work, but also for us all to take up the challenge of more connected lives.
*For someone involved in one of the projects, for example, it has been family memories that have been stirred – things that she had forgotten about the richness of her working class roots, and which have brought an all important sense of delight at a much needed time.
**Literacy and Numeracy were also taught. There is no evidence that Ethel lived in London at this time. She was probably just a visitor for she was soon to be found living in Great Harwood again.
***This and other quotes from the introduction by Pamela Fox to Helen of Four Gates (The republication of Ethel’s novel in 2016, by Kennedy and Boyd Publishers, Nottingham).
In 2020, the Radicals group will continue the Ethel enquiry with a new phase of audio-based work, leading to some exciting new creative results. Watch for news, or better still, join the team!