Monday, 19 March 2012

Penny Lace

Hilda Lewis was one of Nottinghamshire's most popular writers in her day. Her historical fiction, with dust jackets designed by the local artist Evelyn Gibbs were widely read. In recent years several have come back into print, though her best-known work now is The Ship That Flew, something of a classic children's book first published in 1939. The historical fiction was well researched and is admired by modern genre writers such as Alison Weir for the author's use of witchcraft, murder, scandal and a rich collection of rogues. Titles include a I am Mary Tudor and Wife to Charles II.
Hilda Lewis was born in London, in a Jewish family, but lived in Nottingham most of her life, dying in 1974. One of her novels, Penny Lace, stands out from the others though - not for its quality (of which more later) - but for its setting, in Nottingham's lace trade. Although the book ran to several impressions after first publication in 1942 it slipped from memory. Indeed, it was the only one of her books that Humphrey Lewis, Hilda's son did not own. I eventually picked up a battered copy from a second-hand bookshop. Humphrey wanted to buy it off me - at twice the price! - but I offered to reprint the book instead as part of the Bromley House Editions series, which revisits forgotten Nottinghamshire classics first found in the recesses of Nottingham's membership library, Bromley House.
What had attracted me to the book was not its overall quality - it would not have won the 1942 Booker Prize had it existed then - but the novel gives a real feel of the factory of the time, the 1890s: "He cast an impatient eye down the great bare room, lit, thought it was barely ten in the morning, by fish-tail flames; driven by draught, they jerked like live creatures imprisoned in their wire cages. As far as he could see, all the other machines were at work - every one. Clatter, clatter, shrieked the machines. Pistons rose and fell. His feet pricked with the vibrations. The whole place was full of deafening, rhythmical sound." The "he" in question was Nicholas Penny, a factory worker. Penny had similar attitudes to Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He was a manual worker who was all out for himself. He hated the bosses but had no time for the union either; he saw women as objects for his own use. But unlike Sillitoe's Seaton Penny decided to take on the bosses at their own game. He learned the trade inside out, working out how he could do all the jobs - making twist-lace, burnt-lace, wool-lace, nets, bleaching, dyeing - with new, modern Continental machines operating in factories over the border in Long Eaton, outside the reach of Nottingham unions. This is not, as I said, the best-written novel in the world - Hilda Lewis must have worn out the exclamation key on her typewriter in the writing - but it is an important book for anyone interested in lace making or Nottingham's industrial history.

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