By Roaring Loom

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“‘Aw seed th’ little lass searching for her as were a corps.’”



























LANCASHIRE awaits her novelist’ — so said a popular writer of fiction to me one day as we walked together through the narrow streets of a Northern manufacturing town.  It happened to be the hour of labour’s release, and from huge gateways, gloomy as the grave, poured a motley mass of men and women, boys and girls — slaves of the spindle and the loom.  There was just light enough to see their faces, capped and shawled, and bent to escape the keenness of the wind ― faces drawn and sallow, yet expressionful with eager talk, the ring of clogs mingling with the babel of voices.  Borne along with these was the incense of factory labour — an incense not fragrant but foetid, and breathing of oil and of cotton, and of overwrought flesh moist from excessive temperature and toil.  It was a stampede of hunger for its food, and weariness for its rest, echoing from afar, and to a western world, the sad strain of the Hebrew poet’s words, ‘Yet is their strength labour and sorrow.’  As the crowd rushed past and left us in the fast emptying streets, I began to realise the significance of my friend’s statement, and felt as never before that Lancashire did await her novelist, and that the factory was ready to reveal her comedy and tragedy to the spell of the dramatist’s wand.

    How is it the great county has hitherto been neglected in the world of romance?  Cornwall and Devon are both set in choicest story.  We wander over the Midlands with many a quaint and memorable character; bonnie Scotland is immortalised by the pen of genius; nor is Ireland forgotten in this imaginative realm.  Yet Lancashire remains unknown, unnoticed, and uncared for — a very field of wealth, that is, if human nature in her sterner moods and ruder garb be wealth.  It is true Mrs Gaskell wrote beautifully and touchingly of its operative life, but she wrote from hearsay.  It was never hers to share the lot of the people.  Jessie Fothergill told the sad tale of the cotton panic in Probation, but her touch lacked that realism without which the story of Lancashire life is portrayed in neutral tints.  Edwin Waugh and Ben Brierley wrote from their heart’s experience and with their heart’s blood, but they were local and vernacular, and never succeeded in nationalising in literature the Lancashire life.  Strange though it seems, it is none the less true, that this great manufacturing field, lying white to harvest, looks in vain for the sickle and the reaper’s hand.  The writer has yet to appear whose work will lay bare the secrets of the lives of the men and women, of the boys and girls, whose destinies are associated with that plant whose growth is dark with the story of slavery, and whose manufacture is stained with the tears of toil.

    The writer whom time in its turnover may call to carry out this as yet prospective work, will not be among those who are content to look on from afar.  Though he be not of the people he must needs have been among them, and from such contact derive his knowledge.  Nor will he be coldly critical; the spasm of sympathy must give touch to his pen.  All true life is slow in discovering its secrets, but nowhere so slow as in the districts of which we now write.  Of Lancashire folks it may be said — ‘A stranger will they not follow.’  Before the ‘furriner’ they are slow to yield either civility or confidence.  He is the iceberg that chills their natural geniality — the dark horse which they are too suspicious to trust.  This is one reason why they are little known; it is also a reason why they are mistakenly known.  How common it is to hear them spoken of as uncouth and uninteresting, as selfish and brutalised.  In some parts of England they are set down as being little better than savages — a people just emerging from barbarism, with many of its mild survivals still clinging to them in speech and manners.  Factory life, too, is looked on as fierce and forbidding, where the operatives are as sexless as were the miners of the seventeenth century, and where morals are unknown.  And yet nowhere are there finer types of character, and nowhere does life touch a deeper depth.  Among these toilers are many whose rocky natures leap forth in living springs at the touch of sorrow or the cry of pain — many whose home-life tells of frequent nameless sacrifice, and the seal of whose friendship is only broken by the hand of death.  Yes!  Lancashire is not only a teeming hive of industry, but she is a rich ground for the garnering of romance.  Those square, gaunt, many-storied structures, by day so gloomy, by night so luminous with their serried rows of lighted windows, their walls tremulous with the pulsations of machinery and echoing with the whirr of wheels, what stories would they reveal to him who possessed their open sesame?  Those long straggling lines of grey cottages and blocks of barrack-like dwellings where the operative swallows his hurried meal and stretches himself for his scant hours’ sleep — what a tale of joy and sorrow they would tell to him who holds the key.  Here, ready at hand, are the threads, coarse it may be, which, when gathered and woven by skilful fingers, will reveal a texture original and arrestive and distinct from any other of life’s manifold colours.  When the dramatist of the factory, with seeing eye and feeling heart, takes up pen to write what he sees as he sees it, and what he feels as he feels it, another page will be written in the world’s great book of life.

    It has been lately said that the field of fiction is not only harvested but gleaned; and if the distance many modern writers cover in their search for plot be taken as a sign, it would almost seem that, as far as our own country is concerned, the statement is correct.  Our great novelists are leaving home.  Facilities for travel bring the most distant parts of the world beneath their ken, and we now lose ourselves in the romance of Russia, India, and China by the quiet of our own fireside.  There is, however, a yet untold romance of home.  Our own country is not a worked-out mine.  There are hidden treasures for the man who surveys wisely and digs well.  And, moreover, the story of the heart is perennially fresh, and when rightly told is never twice the same.  There is an inexhaustible variety too in the commonest scenes, and arrestive originality in the commonest speech.  Should however, the field of fiction show signs of fruitlessness, such signs will be seen first of all in its higher rather than in its lower reaches.  The mansion will be bare before the cottage, and the habitué of the clubs an effete personality before the labourer and the artisan.  We have both read and heard much of the dullness, the sameness, and the inertness of what are termed the ‘lower orders.’  That they lack the artificial spice of other orders we do not deny; but they are dull only to those whose eyes are jaundiced and whose appetite is sated.  Among the lower orders we find life in its primal forms, and in no other form is it more worthy of being studied.  Crudeness, grotesqueness, boorishness — these exist among them, and beyond measure; but they protect that naturalness society so soon wears away, and which, when worn away, destroys the native outline of the man.  It is this native outline the true novelist seeks because it is always original, always potential.  And the great field of literature has been no gainer, but a loser rather, in its distaste for the ‘huts where poor men lie,’ and for the forge and for the factory where the primitive instincts are better seen than in the higher callings of life.  If the novelist finds human nature exhausted, it is because he has gone to, the artificial and not to the natural — to man as society has made him, and not to man as made by nature and by God.

    In addition to the master passion Love, which is the creative passion of all romance, and therefore of all the literature of romance, there are three vital and constructive forces apart from which all else is secondary and unproductive.  Where these co-exist, or are even found in their separate unities, a spell falls on the reader’s heart, a fire kindles in the reader’s imagination.  Where they are not, all is colourless and tame, and the most skilful art, so called, fails either to rouse the smile or start the tear.  They are the moral muscle out of which all true character is formed — the threads giving pattern to the warp we call life — the sunshine and shadow of the oldest story and the last told tale.  There is no compensation for their loss.  The records of wealth, passion, and adventure fail to cohere and fascinate without them.  They are the salt of existence without which it is savourless, and where they most abound the student of human nature finds his richest yield.  Sweat of brow, joy of heart, hope of heaven — these are the constructive forces of all true life; and whether we look at the individual or the nation, it is in proportion to the measure of their existence that the one perpetuates itself in biography and the other is handed down in history.  Work, play, religion — these, with love, constitute the field of the romance of life.

    Now, factory life is a great vortex where these elements mingle, yea, even surge.  Nowhere do men and women pay more exactingly the penalty of labour, or drink more deeply from the cup of delight; while religion touches the heart with a spell almost superstitious.  The record of factory life is a sad one.  In its earlier years its hours of labour were cruel in their length, and its wage inadequately small.  There are those still living who were carried through the snows of terrible winters by clemmed and shivering parents to the unsanitary pent-houses of toil, where with sore fingers and weary bodies they were left to labour through a fourteen-hours’ day; and I have talked with men and women who in these early days of the factory system, fed themselves and their families on ‘stirabout,’ their only beverage a tea brewed from herbs gathered in the fields.  Out of a darkness such as this emerged the factory life of Lancashire.  Nor is to-day’s work less exacting.  The hours are shorter, it is true, and the wages are high; but the pace is accelerated, and never before were steam and steel so pitted against flesh and blood.  Who that has looked down upon a weaving-shed of six hundred looms, and seen the bent forms of the girls, each intent on her own warp, blinded the while with the fine powder of heavy size, deafened with the clatter of the flying shuttle, and moist with the falling vapour from the steam jets above, but has looked down on a picture, a theme, a plot, many another rank of life refuses to supply? In all labour there is profit — so says the wise man.  And in all labour there is sorrow, too.

    But Lancashire life has its diversion, and the operative is as hearty in his play as he is persistent in his toil.  No holidays compare with his holidays.  They are, indeed, the scene of harmless rout and revel — a carnival in which appetite is let loose, and gaiety runs riot.  It is true there are holidays in other parts of the country: but they are of a day’s duration, while the license of Lancashire extends for the week, and the money spent a twelvemonths’ savings.  A few years ago the holiday clubs in one of the large towns paid out a sum of over sixty thousand pounds, and probably every penny of the money would be exhausted in the week’s diversions.  Thus, it is but a step from the weaving-shed to the sea-shore — a step, however, that discovers the other side of the arras with its reckless mirth and wild delight, where money flies as swiftly as the moments, and the weaver is the lady, and the ‘minder’ is the gentleman, living for six short days at the rate of a thousand a year.  Now it is that labour is deposed and mirth becomes the monarch; and the palate, so long accustomed to its porridge and its tea, feeds upon the dainties of the summer season; and the frame, so long cramped with labour, dances until it sinks in sheer weariness to the ground; while sober men and matrons who frequent at home the little ‘Zions’ on the moorland side, throng the concert hall and the theatre, where the talent of the land is taxed to rouse their smiles and start their tears.

    Nor is Lancashire without her religion.  That her human nature is frail we admit; but no county retains a stronger sense of righteousness.  In a previous book of mine, wherein I endeavoured to show how deeply this religious instinct was ingrained, I was met by the criticism that the Lancashire operative cared as little for his faith as he cared for the theory of the universe, the writer intimating that his spare moments were given to dog-racing and pigeon-flying rather than to the weighty matters of the law.  There is no doubt the Lancashire operative is a keen sportsman; nor is he willing to forego his tobacco and his beer.  But he is also a keen musician, a keen politician, a keen student of science, and in many instances religious almost to superstition.  That the present generation of male operatives are strongly socialistic and iconoclastic is true; but the popularity of Sunday Schools, the reverence for the dead, and the grim patience with which misfortune is borne (as instanced in the dark years of the cotton panic), all go to show that the pulse of religious life beats steadily and strong.  Combined with these three forces is a striking originality of character which differentiates Lancashire life from that of any other county in the kingdom.  Its wit may not be as cute as that of ’Arry and ’Arriet, but it is more philosophic: while its independence is as gritty as the rocks which bound its confines.  Its likes and dislikes, in other words its prejudices, are as deep-rooted as its independence; and its hatred is as bitter as its love is intense.  It is said a Lancashire man never forgives; one thing is certain, he never forgets ― he has long reckonings and a longer memory.  A sharp line of distinction is drawn between employers and employed, and yet there is a freedom between these classes which to a stranger savours of ‘hail fellow, well met.’  The mill-owners are large-hearted and lavishly generous, and their rapidly-earned wealth has been distributed with an unsurpassed munificence yet they are not free from the idiosyncrasies peculiar to the sudden accumulation of great fortunes.

    This volume completes my trio of Lancashire sketches, the former of which dealt with the religious and social life of its artisans.  Many of the pictures drawn are of scenes and characters fast passing away; but I purpose to treat of the present generation in my forthcoming novel, With Scarlet Weft.  Fifteen years’ location in the very vortex of factory life, and close acquaintance with men and women of both the old and the new schools of labour, furnished me with an insight which I gratefully acknowledge as an education.  Their dumb drudgery, their silent sorrow, their quaint philosophy, their dry humour, their sturdy independence, are far too precious to be lost.  I had fain the task of chronicling had fallen into other and abler hands, and for long I waited; but in vain.  I saw our country was being tapped in every direction save Lancashire, and I asked myself why should this county remain unknown.  Perhaps it has been a mistake to adopt the form of short story; but I have faith to believe that as long as the short story is true to life it will continue to be read as long as there is an interest in life.  Incident is rife, and in our span of years are chapters, nay, even pages, if not paragraphs, that may be disassociated and preserved in settings of their own.  There are tears and laughter, hatreds and loves, the secret source of which, and the delineation of which, form the kernel and the plot of the Idyll.  Indeed, Life strikes the human heart at so many points, and strikes so deeply, that its study is seldom unfruitful.  We gather our children round our knees and tell them of our past, not as a whole, but in fragments, each fragment perfect in itself.  And so with the Idyll ― it is the brief record of a passing mood, a chance event, a crisis moment, and as such I think will ever preserve its place in literature and the heart of man.

    I have been warned against the use of the Lancashire vernacular, and told that the patois of the county lacks the music of the Celt and the rhymic swing of many other counties now made famous in the realm of literature.  This I question.  That the Celtic is national, that the Lancashire is provincial, I admit; but there is a pathos and power in the latter which, when once known, is dearly loved.  There is a fitness, too, between the Lancashire character and the Lancashire speech, and the one cannot be portrayed without having the other as its accompanying medium.  To attempt to tell a Lancashire story in other than the Lancashire language would be to attempt a translation that must needs be an unpardonable failure.  We should miss the edge of the wit, the pith of the philosophy, the grandeur of the independence.  Language is itself a history and a revelation, and a more faithful interpreter of character than either clothes or features; and as the history of a country lies hidden in its strata, so the history of a people lies hidden in its vocabulary.  I know by remaining true to the dialect, I forego a large constituency of readers, and close the pages of my book to those to whom the vernacular is in an unknown tongue.  It is not, however, that I am careless of the public, but that I am careful of my county, that I seek to preserve some of its now fast-dying types in its now fast-dying tongue.

    I shall be told the stories are too sombre and realistic.  Not if they are taken as transcripts of Lancashire life!  Factory toil, and the surroundings of factory toil, are grim and grey; and my aim has been to set these forth as they are, rather than to surround them with a halo of romance and idealism.


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