Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s previous novel, Miss Nobody (1913), had not been a commercial success, and that may be one of the reasons why her new publisher, Herbert Jenkins, chose to issue it anonymously as by ‘An Ex Mill Girl’. Some reviewers found the pseudonym confusing; it suggested that they would be reading an account of factory life. Instead they were given a rich and intense Gothic melodrama, set on the wild moors, with not a mill in sight.The plot centres on four people and their intense relationships. Many years before the narrative begins, Abel Mason had loved a young woman, but she refused to marry him because there was insanity in his family. She married another man, and bore him a child, Helen. When both these parents died, however, the child was given to Mason to bring up; he takes her back to his isolated farm, and plans a revenge on he mother by telling her she is his own daughter. She falls in love with Martin Scott, who works on the farm. Mason tells them of the members of the Mason family who have gone mad, and Scott is frightened of the prospect, and refuses to marry her.
She, however, is utterly infatuated with him. The physical intensity of her feelings is shown in a passage describing how one evening she takes Martin’s coat from its hook:
She pulled off her bodice, with its Sunday look – and lay down, wrapped in Martin’s rough coat. The touch of it on her bare neck and arms was a sweet agony. She smelt at the sleeves, and crushed the roughness of it closer to her. The dog came scenting it, too.
We’re savages, thee and me,’ she said to the dog. Then, more quietly, ‘ I mun sleep. It’ll take me all my time to beat him.’ – then she fell to stroking the coat again.’
Mason enjoys watching the pair suffer, but wants to make his revenge even more extreme. Fielding Day, a tramp comes to the farm, wanting a place to sleep. The sadistic Mason tells him he can have that if he gets past the ferocious dog that is chained outside. Otherwise he must go and sleep rough in the snow. The tramp, Fielding Day, gets down on all fours and growls back at the dog so fiercely that it makes a retreat, and the man gets past.
Mason feels that the man who can do that is the man he needs to make his revenge on Helen’s mother more perfect. He offers day two thousand pounds to stay at the farm and marry Helen. ‘becuse there’s not another mon within a three-day’s march would mak that lass as miserable as thee […] Th’art hell-spawn.’
First they have to get rid of Martin Scott. Mason sends Scott of on an errand to Helen’s mad great-aunt. He comes back shaken and even more disinclined to marry into the family. Eventually he goes off to seek his like elsewhere. Helen is left devastated (and starving herself in self- punishment). Earlier she had visited an old woman who had never married or borne children and has seen how this has perverted her life. Out of a mixture of apathy and pride (because she knows everyone is pitying her for the loss of Martin, Helen accepts Fielding’s offer of marriage.
The narrative jumps ahead. Helen is pregnant. Word has come that Martin has gone to America but is desperate to return. Helen loathes her brutal husband and considers getting rid of the baby, but when she goes to find the local ‘wise woman’ who has helped others with medicines that will cause a miscarriage, she hears that the woman is dead. For 1917, the discussion of abortion is pretty frank.
The child is eventually stillborn, which makes Helen and Fielding hate each other more than ever. Martin returns from failure in America, a broken man, and the drama plays itself out.
The presentation of the four main characters locked together in hatred and resentment is very powerful. The twists and turns of the narrative are gripping. Sometimes the purple passages seem a bit too purple; the Times Literary Supplement critic wrote, there are a few phrases like ‘across the barren purity of the snow-covered moor and the characters are too often “in hell”’. But the reviewer added ‘ but the remarkable thing about this first novel is not its few blemishes, but its power.’
How does this fit into the fiction of the time? It belongs to the rural gothic school, and the ferocious dogs and the families riven by hatred remind one of Wuthering Heights. As rural fiction I would place it definitely above the sentimentalist Willie Riley, but below the fully realised fiction of Sheila Kaye-Smith.
The novel gives powerful expression to female desire, but Holdsworth’s treatment of this is very different from that of more conventional best-sellers, such as Ethel M.Dell. Dell’s heroines have their feelings but make a big show of asserting their purity at all times. Helen isn’t like that. When she accuses Martin of deserting her, he defends himself by professing his virtue, saying that he never took advantage of her, and didn’t leave her in trouble as some men would have done. Her response makes it clear that she wishes he had taken advantage of her. We’re closer to D.H. Lawrence territory than to Ethel M. Dell.
From what I can gather, all Holdsworth’s other novels deal with social issues: poverty, conditions of labour and so on. This book keeps clear of such issues (perhaps she had been told they didn’t sell, so she decided to do something different). It does, however, convey a strong sense of the vulnerability of a young woman dependent on males, and touches on issues that were daring for 1917: abortion, violence to women, and so on.
The novel was a best-seller (four editions and 33,000 copies sold), and Holdsworth took it to Cecil Hepworth, one of Britain’s most notable film-makers. He filmed it in 1920, at Hebden Bridge, where Holdsworth now lived. The entire film (a bit stagey, but interesting as a period piece) can be viewed on the BFI website. The picture at the top of this post is a still from the film.