Flither-Lasses and Photography, Coco and Quakers:|
The Sweetest Thing
by Fiona Shaw
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by Michael Kinsella
The Sweetest Thing is an absorbing novel. Set in England, during the late 1800s, it tells of the changing fortunes of Harriet, a 'flither-lass', who escapes the desperate poverty of her fishing village to work in 'Wetherby's Cocoa Works', in the city of York. It is there she meets Samuel, a wealthy Quaker gentleman, a lonely philanthropist, who collects photographs of working-class girls¨'costermongers, scullions, maids-of-all-work, dustgirls, factory girls, milkgirls, slop-workers, needlewomen, fisherlasses and sackgirls'¨and who pays Harriet for her portrait. Their meeting, on Fossgate Bridge, seems to be symbolic of how they will cross the divisions in Victorian society.
As the central characters, Harriet and Samuel, tell the story in alternating chapters. Shaw has a particularly strong sense of their voices and how their viewpoints have been shaped by their different class, education and genders. Through them a tale unfolds of photographic deception and advertising campaigns, industrial espionage and rivalry, secret marriage, undisclosed love and unfaithfulness, cruel religious reformatories and sectarian tensions, and there are hints of lesbianism, pornography, madness and murder.
This novel is quite a departure from Shaw's first book, Out of Me (1997), a powerful memoir on postnatal depression. The Sweetest Thing shows that she can tell a story and, in her own words, "make things up." One reviewer has described it as a "brilliant historical novel." It has a wonderful scope and the list of works in the acknowledgement¨Munby: Man of Two Worlds, The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant, A Quaker Business Man, Victorian Working Women: Portrait from Life¨and the fact that Shaw based Samuel on a man called, Arthur Munby, who catalogued the lives of working girls and even secretly married a maid, suggests that meticulous research has shaped this book. There are references to some of the movers-and-shakers of Victorian society, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and J.S Mill, and to the proceedings of the Geological Society, the Royal Society and the Zoological Society. Harriet's husband, Thomas, is a regular reader of a magazine called, The Leisure Hour, where he gleans information on the most recent discoveries in science and Shaw also makes use of popular rhymes and poems. Yet it does not feel studied. Shaw does not parade her scholarship. Rather it is used¨along with her intimate knowledge of York's cobbled streets, with its eccentric placenames, Walmgate, Mickelgate Bar, Ouse Bridge or The Mount, where she now lives and works¨to create a real sense of a time and its places.
Shaw's faithfulness to a past way of life is to be commended. The accent and diction of North Yorkshire is cherished without being a parody of itself or reinforcing stereotypes¨"It never did to tell Mary owt on an empty stomach" or "She teased me until we were in a scrat"¨ while the work-a-day details, such as cocoa being prepared in the packing rooms of the confectionary factory or the processes of a photographic session have a remarkable authenticity. Here is Samuel recalling his boyhood visits to his father's tannery factory: "You could smell the tannery before you saw it. A vile smell, composed, as I soon learnt, of rotting animal flesh, quick lime, mounds of mouldering animal horn, greening in the autumn damp, and, over it all the acrid odour of animal excrement." Shaw's title, the sub-title, "Pure & Unadulterated", and the chocolate-box cover of The Sweetest Thing disguises, what this extract surely shows, that she does not privilege the period. This novel is not charming or quaint. If this is a book about making strawberry and coffee pastilles¨about what is potentially delicious¨it is also about sickening smells, it is about workers who would "be dripping sweat into the Raspberry Creams by dinnertime." If this is Shaw's implicit criticism of "the mess of capitalism", her story is also an explicit criticism of the complicit relationships between religious institutions, factory owners, photography and product promotion and the exploitation of women. Yet the book marks a time when the political and economic empowerment of women was beginning to be discussed. And Shaw's ending, though tender, leaves us with imperfect lives, hidden betrayals, concealed love and unexpected responsibilities. ˛