‘The Song of Peterloo’ by Carolyn O’Brien is set in Manchester in 1819 where the cotton mills are making the owners rich whilst the millworkers are poorly paid and working in difficult even dangerous conditions. Many of the mill workers are drawn to radicals like Henry Hunt who are agitating for reform and plans are being made for a peaceful gathering of tens of thousands on St Peter’s Fields in the city centre. Amongst those planning to attend is the novel’s central character, Nancy Kay.
Nancy works at Wright’s Mill in Ancoats, supporting her aged mother, Ann, and her young son, Walter. The tale begins on a cold January morning in 1819 when spirited Nancy defies the cruel mill overlooker, Dick Yates, to comfort a child whose finger has been severed by one of the spinning machines. As the year unfolds into summer the workers of Manchester and the surrounding towns begin to prepare for the protest and Nancy plans to join them.
Nancy is a glorious character. With her fiery hair and keen intelligence, she is full of energy and life but also love and care for others. It is so refreshing to read a tale in which a strong woman, especially a working-class woman, is the centre of the action in a novel about a period of political upheaval. Involvement in the protest movement can be dangerous with mill owners dismissing workers they consider agitators. Nancy is a mother and the sole bread winner with plenty to lose but it is her determination to ensure a better future for her son that makes her believe that she is right to join the protest for change.
In fact, despite the harsh environment and cruel times in which it is set The Song of Peterloo is a love story in many ways. Above all, Nancy’s desperate love for Walter and her anxiety for the gentle boy’s future in the mill where so many children are maimed or even killed drives much of the novel. The bristly love of Ann, Nancy’s mother, for her daughter and grandson, is tenderly portrayed as is the warm friendship between Nancy and her wise friend Mary. Romantic love is here too. Nancy is loved and respected by mill owner Samson Wright and adored in a different way by the roguish Joseph Price.
The author deftly tells the story through the eyes of Nancy, Walter, Ann, Mary, Joseph Price, Adelaide Wright and Samson Wright. They are a mixed bunch with different dialects, experiences and opinions. This writing device allows the reader to learn a great deal about life in an industrial town in early 19th century England and the conflicting attitudes of people living in the different social strata. The period has obviously been researched thoroughly and the sense of place and time evoked by the detailed description of the sounds, smells and sights is engrossing. The depiction of early 19th century Manchester, developing so quickly but still a very different city from today, is fascinating for a resident of the city.
If, like me, you were disappointed with Mike Leigh’s recent film ‘Peterloo’ you should read this for an inspiring and authentic retelling of this important chapter in the history of modern Britain.