The 19th century produced a great many female novelists from Jane Austen at the beginning of the century through the Brontes and Elizabeth Gaskell to Ellen Woods to name some of the most famous. Writing at the same time as Ethel Carnie at the start of the 20th century were, among others, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson and Sylvia Townsend Warner. What all these other names have in common is that they come from genteel backgrounds. Ethel Carnie was the daughter of weavers and began work as a mill girl aged eleven. Miss Nobody (1913) is believed to be the first novel published by a working class woman. Yet Carnie has been almost forgotten. The centenary re-publication of Miss Nobody has brought some recognition but nowhere near enough.
Miss Nobody, which perhaps defies genre categorization, traces the struggles of Carrie Brown, an oyster seller from Ardwick who marries down-to-earth farmer, Robert Gibson. She is not accepted in her new home in the rural area of Greenmeads either by Gibson’s older sister Sarah who has been his housekeeper for many years or by the neighbouring villagers who are wary of anyone who has not lived in the same place for generations. There is no idealization of either rural or city life and the novel touches on realities such as domestic violence, the unrelenting labour of factory workers, the struggle of the union movement to get so justice for them and the plain ill health and unremitting struggle of the poor. Yet I would not describe Miss Nobody as a worthy or a grim novel. Carrie is a resilient and optimistic character with a love of penny romance novels. And although her reading might colour her ideas of what romantic love could be, when it comes to marriage her decision is made with open eyes and common sense the way many working class women did, knowing the importance of a good breadwinner rather than a dashing man who would sweep her off her feet.
At times gripping and moving, there are moments of humour as well as descriptions of the countryside which are poetic and beautiful. The story is underpinned with an understanding of the range of human types and what moves them to act the ways they do. The centenary edition has an excellent Introduction by Belinda Webb. I would recommend, though, leaving reading of this until after you have finished the book (I always do this). It will allow you to judge the book on your own terms and evaluate any claims made in the introduction. It also removes any chance of spoilers. While I generally do not judge books in terms of class and gender, I would say that these have certainly been a factor in Miss Nobody’s invisibility. Webb’s argument in relation to this is encapsulated in this article.
A review offering a personal reflection on Miss Nobody can be found here.
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