The Song Of Peterloo by Carolyn O’Brien Legend Press August 1st 2019
Manchester 1819: Prices are high and wages are low, but as the poor become poorer, the rich are alarmed by their calls for reform.
Mill-worker Nancy Kay struggles to support her ailing mother and sensitive son. Desperate to provide for them, she is inspired to join the growing agitation. But, as she risks everything to attend a great assembly on St Peter’s Field, Nancy is unaware the day will go down in history, not as a triumph but as tragedy; the Peterloo massacre.
This is one woman’s story of belief in change, pieced together by her family and friends and the two men who share her momentous summer. A story of hope, and sacrifice, and above all, courage.
The cotton mills of the north are something I am all too familiar as I currently live in what was an old mill town in Lancashire, whose existence depended on them. There is nothing like the majesty of the huge steam engines that drove them, but what of the people who worked within, what was it like for them?
In The Song Of Peterloo, Carolyn O’Brien opened up the doors of the cotton mills of Manchester. It was a world of unending toil and danger, young children sent under the looms to recover the remnants of cotton, the managers ruthless in their pursuit of maximum output, the bosses wanting their profits. Nancy was one such worker and you couldn’t help but fall in love with her as O’Brien created a young woman who worked hard to support her mother and young son. Yet she wasn’t someone who seemed content to accept her lot, a yearning to learn, to read, to write, to grasp opportunities that would improve her circumstances in life.
O’Brien perfectly captured her awe, wonder and excitement as the letters on the pages slowly began to make sense, as the newspapers, the pamphlets she read opened up the world, at the need for change, of empowerment and a better life.
Indeed, Nancy’s home life was grim as O’Brien painted a stark and vivid picture of her surroundings, of the grinding poverty, the struggle to buy food to put on the table.
You instantly hated the mill owners who reaped the rewards, comfortable in their large houses, but Samson seemed different, thrown in to the world of mill management by the death of his uncle. His situation appeared precarious as he navigated the narrowmindedness of his aunt, but you could almost see his brain whirring as he opened his eyes to the possibility of a safer and more learned environment for his workforce.
It was the relationship between Samson and Nancy that was interesting to watch, as they crept around each other, as Samson tried his best to earn her respect and maybe her affection. You sensed in another world, another time, they may eventually have found a way to be together, but you knew no matter how much you hoped it could never be, and it left me feeling sad and just a little frustrated.
What you could not ignore was the wonderful historical detail, in which O’Brien set her story, the rumblings, unrest and fear of change perfectly captured within her narrative.
The Peterloo Massacre itself, was brilliantly and vividly portrayed, the full horror woven in, full of drama, and desperation. It made you feel angry and sad but also respectful and full of admiration for what the workers set out to achieve only to be thwarted by blinkered and fearful authorities.
I found I had a lump in my throat and maybe the glint of a tear in my eyes as I read the latter pages of the novel, so poignant was O’Brien’s writing.
I turned the final page feeling somewhat bereft, but full of admiration for what O’Brien had achieved, for creating a novel suffused with human emotion, for the wonderful historical detail but most of all for Nancy, a wonderful, courageous young woman, who took it upon herself to seek an education and to stand up for what she believed in.
I would like to thank Legend Press for a copy of The Song Of Peterloo to read and review and to Lucy Chamberlain for inviting My Bookish Blogspot to participate in the blogtour.
About the author
Carolyn O’Brien was born in South Manchester, and lives in the nearby market town of Altrincham with her husband and two children. Carolyn works part-time as a consultant lawyer, as well as writing.
Follow Carolyn on Twitter @CarolynManc