Captain Swing and the Blacksmith
Rebecca Kightlinger Review
Imber, England, 1843
Since 1830, threatening letters signed Captain Swing have incited agricultural workers to rebel against landowners for implementing work-saving inventions, particularly the threshers that have put so many out of work and sent thousands to the spike: dark, crowded workhouses that serve as repositories for the poor.
In Captain Swing and the Blacksmith, Parvin takes the reader into the dingy, exhausting world of working-class 1840s England, where seamstress and laundress Susan Trindall dreams of one day owning a market stall and selling the buttons she finds on the street. But when she falls for the handsome blacksmith Jack Straker and makes an ill-advised (if understandable) decision, she is disgraced. Her father, who signs his letters Captain Swing, banishes her into a life of poverty and homelessness. Fueled by desperation, unrequited love, and a stubborn (if, again, understandable) quest for revenge, she begins her years-long struggle to survive.
From the workers’ uprising to the perilous world of a seventeen-year-old social outcast, to the Andover Workhouse, Parvin characterizes Salisbury Plain with harsh, sometimes gruesome, detail. Her depiction of the spike, whose deplorable conditions smack of starvation and torture, sent me to the library. In investigating the Swing Riots of 1830 and reading George Orwell’s account of a night he spent in a workhouse (“The Spike”), I realized that Parvin’s description was on point.
Her debut novel, though driven by an obsessive love, is no romance; and while a character finds redemption, it is no parable. Rather, it is a portrait of a time. Evocative of a mean age, Captain Swing and the Blacksmith is both riveting and relevant.
Originally published in Historical Novels Review Issue 86, Nov 2018. (less)
Helen Hollick Review
Shortlisted for book of the month: ‘Discovering Diamonds’ historical review blog
‘Set in Wiltshire during the 1840s, this debut novel truly brings home the hardship of the people who had to endure poverty which was increased by the Enclosures Act and landowners who reaped the profits while those struggling to survive were forced into the choice of the workhouse or death.
Sue Tindall lives in Amesbury with her drunk of a father. She is a seventeen-year-old laundry presser, who is a first-hand witness to the Swing Riots that took place ten years before. The traumatic memories of the desperate labourers who tried to increase their pitiful wages still linger with her and her community. Her father is persuaded to produce some threatening notes to be signed by ‘Captain Swing’ and Sue has to sell buttons to earn extra income, but her life begins to improve when she finds a pair of pearl buttons, and the attention of apprentice blacksmith, Jack Straker also seem to promote the possibility of a better future. But Jack abandons Sue for another, and pregnant, Sue leaves Amesbury – and against all odds, has to fight to survive.
Engrossing, beautifully written, absorbing and in places, heartbreaking, Captain Swing and the Blacksmith is a fabulous first novel, but in addition to this delightful (if haunting) story, the book is accompanied by a CD which compliments the narrative in the folksongs of the period. Both are a Diamond of a bargain!’
Naomi Clifford Review
Author of Women and the Gallows
‘It’s nearly 200 years since the ‘Captain Swing’ riots – a spate of machine-breaking and arson in pockets of rural England in protest at the use of mechanised threshing during harvests. The incidents were often preceded by a warning letter to the farmer from a ‘Captain Swing’ that he was about to be targeted.
The riots were a symptom of deep social changes: the increasing industrialisation of farm production led to the fracturing of traditional obligations between farmers and their workforce and the contributed to the creation of a new class of poorly-paid day-labourers.
Beatrice Parvin uses this backdrop to relate the fortunes of Sue Trindall, who grows up in a Wiltshire village, works as an ironer of linen and occasional seller of buttons and lives with her alcholic depressed father. She is practical, affectionate, loyal and intelligent but she is also vulnerable to the charms of the local blacksmith of the book’s title who falsely promises marriage. Aged seventeen she finds herself heavily pregnant and is banished from home.
Her search for safety and stability takes her first to her sister, whose husband Sue suspects of being involved in the betrayal of her father to the authorities during the Captain Swing riots. She is ejected once more and now, her baby at her breast, she is homeless and desperate. Chance brings her temporary help and finally she is able to establish herself, in the village of Imber on Salisbury Plain.
There are so many layers to the novel: it describes both a real journey – Sue’s travels from her unhappy home to Imber – and a metaphorical one — the journey of a young woman from ignorance to confidence and independence. There are other threads too: Sue’s discovery that she can be in control of her own sexual behaviour rather than at the mercy of another’s depredations, as well as a plethora of historical detail: the best way to carry washing in a yoke, the work of a village scribe, life in a notorious workhouse. The writing is deft and assured, the history, whether it is detail about how people lived or the impact of profound social changes, never gets in the way of the narrative. Indeed, although the book is quite long the plot is well paced without becoming breathless.
Parvin was inspired by the traditional song ‘The Blacksmith’, a ballad of love betrayed, and the book is divided into eight ‘verses’ which reflect the lyrics, but she moves the story on so that Sue leaves her victimhood behind and takes the helm of her ship on the rocky sea of life. A CD featuring a beautiful rendition of this song, and other traditional music, is included with the volume.’
Debbie Young Review
Author of the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery Series
‘What strikes you first about this debut novel is the elegant cover with its intriguing title. Second is the generous addition of a soundtrack CD telling the story in folksong, without taking the price above what’s reasonable for this size book and its production quality. Because I was reading this book in bed, I only listened to the CD after I’d finished it, but it provides a terrific sense of atmosphere from the period plus an extra layer of context to the narrative with its haunting traditional instruments played by Pete Watson and Frank Biddulph and the clear, pure voices of Emmie Ward and Rebecca Hollweg.
The overtures encourage you to expect something extraordinary from the novel itself, and I was pleased to find it is an extraordinary novel indeed -a lyrical hymn to rural Wiltshire’s natural beauty interwoven and contrasted with the shocking hardships of the rural poor, suffering from the effects of the Enclosures Act and the industrialisation of farming overseen by callous landowners who grew fat on the profits while the living hell that was the workhouses overflowed with displaced labourers – a bittersweet mix indeed.
Set against this backdrop is a picaresque journey of young Sue Trindall, whose early dreams of running her own stall selling buttons and ribbons is overturned by the oldest means ever, forcing her to make her own way in a largely hostile world against all the odds. Buffeted by cruelty and misfortune, she is however sustained by her strength of spirit, aided by rare kindnesses from the most unexpected places, often from those who have least to spare themselves. Throughout she finds sustenance for her soul from the beauty and constancy of the natural world, the one anchor in an unpredictable and troubled life.
So caught up by her character from the start, I read this longish book quickly in a couple of sittings, but the vivid portrait of Sue and her world will stay with me for a long time. Like a latter-day Tess of the D’Urbervilles but ultimately more uplifting, this is highly recommended for anyone who loves an engrossing, well-researched and well-written historical novel; for those interested in early 19th century social history; and for anyone who enjoys reading about strong feminist heroes.
This is a remarkable debut novel, and I hope we shall see many more from this gifted author. I hope also that she will make it available also as an ebook to help it reach the much wider audience it deserves than can be reached by paperback alone.’
More from what the readers say
‘What a brilliant book…I was mesmerised by the writing, the deep affinity with landscape and the insights into human suffering. Thank you for liberating this story, its a vitally important one and I will share it far and wide!’
‘I loved this book and couldn’t put it down. Sue’s story was compelling as was the wider story about the events of the times. The descriptions of the natural world painted a vivid picture and I can almost see the film!
I would like to know what became of Jack and also whether Sue returns to being a glass half full person. Everyone seems so real it’s as if they have destinies beyond the pages of the book! Highly recommended.’
‘I was totally engaged and couldn’t put it down. Fantastic story and very vivid. Class stuff.’