Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 24 Nov 2016

The archaeology of working class writing : Part six – Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

This occasional series of articles about forgotten working class authors has, so far, featured only men. That doesn’t reflect a particular bias on my part ( at least I hope it doesn’t) but rather the fact that publishing as an industry has been riddled with discriminatory bias almost throughout its history. Not only are middle class authors privileged over working class writers but when gender is taken into account working class women have always struggled to get noticed.

Ethel Carnie Holdsworth – who also wrote as Ethel Carnie and Ethel Holdsworth – is of particular importance to the working class movement and to the women of the working class because she is generally held to be the first working class woman to have a novel published.

Born in 1886 in Oswaldtwistle in Lancashire, Ethel went to work full time in the cotton mills at the age of thirteen. However, she was a fierce autodidact and took up reading voraciously, attending evening classes and becoming a member of the Co-Operative Society Library. Her reading and her desire to understand what had created the background she came from radicalised her in political terms and by 1907 she was an active member of the Blackburn Independent labour Party. It was also around this time that she published her first work – a collection of poems called ‘Rhymes From The Factory’ – and by 1909 she was contributing to a periodical called The Woman Worker ( which she would go on to edit) and expressing her strong feminist and class conscious views in very direct language. She characterised the factory worker as  ‘practically a beggar and a slave’ and lamented that workers were  ‘dependent on the whims of a master class.’ 

Holdsworth’s journey out of the cotton mills and into a life as a full time writer and journalist was, Nicola Wilson claims, the result of patronage from the popular Socialist author, Robert Blatchford.

Blatchford was to be the second of Carnie’s influential male patrons, and he encouraged her to leave her life in the mill, aged 22, for a full-time writing career in London. She later commented, ‘what I should have been had Robert Blatchford not taken me out of the cage goodness knows – I do not’. 


Holdsworth didn’t remain in this role of journalist for long, leaving the post after a little over six months. Belinda Webb writing in The Guardian in 2012 says:

After her foray into journalism, Carnie Holdsworth returned to Lancashire and decided poetry no longer met her expressive needs. She combined the writing of her first novel, Miss Nobody (1913), with shop work and attending lectures at Manchester's Owens College. Over the next 20 years, she wrote 10 novels, and also set up and edited the Clear Light, an anti-fascist journal that was ahead of its time. But at just 46 she stopped novel-writing. Her daughter later reported to labour historian Ruth Frow that Ethel had felt "worn out" by them.

The fact that Holdsworth had found the whole literary venture such an energy sapping struggle does, I think, reflect just what a challenge it was for working class women to break through in this field of endeavour. During this same period middle-class women writing about the working class – Sylvia Townsend Warner for example – had found the whole process of novel writing more instinctively congenial to their artistic and world view. This was something the critic Raymond Williams had noted about the nature of the novel and its relevance to the working class. For them, he argued, "the novel, with its quite different narrative forms, was virtually impenetrable for three or four generations".

We should also not forget that Holdsworth also turned her hand to the writing of books for children as well. In 1913 she published The Lamp Girl and Other Stories which critics have compared to Oscar Wilde in its form and content.

Holdsworth’s work enjoyed a relatively brief period of fame or, in some circles, notoriety, and she was even published widely in the Soviet Union. However, by the 1930s she was already slipping into obscurity and her marriage to the poet Alfred Holdsworth came to an end despite the fact that they had two children by this time.

Although she lived until 1962 the final twenty years of her life were not lived in the public eye but that is not to say her radical flame was extinguished. In recent times there has been a more concerted attempt to bring her work back into the public sphere and she has had her worked showcased at events held at the Working Class Museum and Library. Her cause has also been taken up by The Radical Studies Network and I will let them have the final word:

There is of course a long way to go before the reading and writing experiences of working people are treated as other than marginal and peripheral concerns. Discussing the politics of literary recovery, Raymond Williams pointed out that academic and critical attention alone was not enough: ‘Significant recovery begins when at least some of the novels are put into active circulation again, for the readers and the children and successors of the readers among whom and sometimes for whom they were written.’  Having Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s novels in circulation once more, available for those who shared – or whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents shared – the life she lived and wrote about is surely a major achievement in this struggle.


Terry Potter

November 2016