The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott
Doubleday, February 25th, 2014 (Historical Fiction)*
My rating: Vacation by the beach (3/5)
The Daring Ladies of Lowell is the second work of historical fiction from the author of the amazing, Titanic themed book, The Dressmaker. This time, Alcott takes a look at women in the manufacturing industry in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1832. Immediately, I was thinking of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, and I had to get my hands on a copy.
Alice Barrow has just arrived in Lowell as a new mill girl. She’s left farm life for factory work because she wants more from life and she (and many others) identifies mill work with independence. With this job Alice will now be earning her own money, she will be able to attend lectures and write in the mill girl’s magazine, The Lowell Offering. Strangely enough (at least to the 21st century person) this manual labour is linked with cultural enrichment. This was an interesting perspective for Alice to take, and I did not expect it, but thinking about it, it is an understandable reaction for her to have. However, when you start to get a picture of daily life at the mill you can appreciate how much dedication these mill girls had to get any exposure to new ideas. These girls worked over twelve-hour days, and they simply did not have much free time.
Only twelve hours of work today, and weren’t they lucky? The overseer for the mill had announced this morning, a bit grudgingly, that it was a gesture of respect for the visit of President Andrew Jackson (p. 43).
The historical detail here was fantastic. I felt that readers can an accurate description about what life was life for mill workers during this period. In addition to this rich historical setting, there is also a mystery and a light romance. Alice’s good friend, Lovey, is murdered fairly early on in the novel and we get to see how this impacts mill life. Not only does it affect Alice and her friends at the mill, it also impacts the mill owners, the Fiske family, who want to contain the scandal and continue to promote the mill as an admirable and safe place for young women to work. This public relations effort puts Alice into closer contact with the owner’s eldest son, Samuel.
Like Alice, Samuel is well aware of the many injustices that are happening at the mill. He’s knows that the windows should be open so that the girls don’t choke to death on cotton. Unlike Alice, Samuel has a much more difficult time fighting back against his family. He respects his father, but he does want to help the employees, and the closer he gets to Alice, the harder it is for him to sort out his loyalties.
I really liked that we got Samuel’s point of view in Daring Ladies. This opposing perspective was something that I felt was missing in The Dressmaker, so I enjoyed these forays into the mill owner’s side of things. However, I ultimately wasn’t as enthralled with the romance in Daring Ladies as I was in The Dressmaker. There was something about Samuel and Alice’s romance that just felt a little too superficial. I wonder if they will be happy with one another because I don’t feel that they really know one another. Part of this is due to the time period and the fact that this wasn’t a romance novel, but since I’m me, I was hoping for more of a romance.
The Daring Ladies of Lowell was a well-written description of life in 1832. There was no romanticizing of the life of Alice and the other ladies that worked at the mill. There were real dangers to everyday work and it shows how far the rights of the worker have come along. Nothing made this clearer than Alice’s amusement at Lovey’s Manifesto for Mill Girls:
Alice smiled a bit at some of the lofty goals – including such declarations as No members of this society shall exact more than eight hours of labour, out of every twenty-four. Such a fanciful idea (p. 64).
We certainly have come a long way and it’s clearly thanks to people like Alice and Lovey, determined to change things for the betterment of their fellow workers. I loved exploring this time period in The Daring Ladies of Lowell and I feel that I learned something about life at this time.
*Review copy provided by the publisher.
If you enjoyed the mill setting, I urge you to have a look at Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. It’s another romance between the classes and it one of my favourite “classic” works. Also, check out the BBC film version – it’s AMAZING!
Intrigued about the life of lower class characters? Check out Longbourn another novel that tackles the lower orders of society. In Longbourn readers get to find out about the life of a maid in all it’s “glory.”
For another book set closely to the time period of Daring Ladies, check out The Tea Rose. It’s much more of a saga type of story, but it features a self-made woman, Fiona, which is quite a feat for a woman of this time. And, I’d like to think that Alice will also achieve her dreams and become as much of a career woman as Fiona.