I heard of the 1873 novel, ‘The Manchester Man’ through its being mentioned in the footnotes of Joyce Marlow’s book ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ as having an excellent account of the horrors of that day depicted within it.
‘Mrs G Linnaeus Banks’ novel (female Victorian writers were known by all of their husband’s names) had an account from various eye witnesses from that day, and her paternal grandfather had written a satire on the outrages of the Manchester Yeoman Cavalry.
As I read, I became drawn into the story, which is intirguing, if highly melodramatic. I particularly liked the fact that as in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, there is a story of a deubauched wild young man from a landed family who falls for an innocent young girl, who is determined to save him – and unlike in the hearts and flowers HEA’s envisaged by so many Regency Romances – fails.
This is not to say that the author doesn’t, unfortunately, go in for bursts of purple prose and Victorian sentimentality fairly often.
On this, as an aside: I wonder why were many Victorian writers so sentimental, Dickens being one of the most crass examples? Is it a question of taste changing, so what was acceptable to the reading public then is cloying and embarrassing to us? I suppose there are stylistic excesses which modern authors adopt – all of us – which will cause later generations to raise their eyebrows. We will appear naive to them – those of us who are still read – and we have a blind spot – we cannot predict in what way.
I’m willing to predict, that those individualistic Hearts and Flowers Happy Ever Afters in escapism for the main pair might well be part of it.
Anyway, to return to this story. Parts of it are based on fact; not only the depiction of the Manchester of that era – the buildings, customs, speech and the day to day life of the people – and parts invented.
Intriguingly, the most dramatic episodes, not only the horrors of the massacre – which is widely known – but a baby rescued from a flood, swept along in a cradle and the details of the disastrous love match of the main female character and the villain of the piece are, according to the author’s appendices, matters of historical fact.
The story begins when the tanner Simon Clegg and his daughter Bess rescue and subsequently adopt the baby whose cradle has been carried away in the terrible flood of 1799. Unable to trace his parents, they adopt him.
Named Jabez, he grows up to be a the ‘Manchester Man’ of the title and a blessing to his adopted family. He rises by dint of his character and application to be first an apprentice, then a master, and then a partner in his own business.
The hero is a bit too exemplary at times, but I still liked him, even when he felt obliged to turn informer on his workmates, who were cheating their master, who is also his benefactor.
Personally, I deplore giving names in such a situation, but Jabez’s orthodox religious convictions oblige him to.
However, this is the only occasion when he does speak against his colleagues, however roughly they treat him. Earlier, he remains silent when he is persecuted by a group of bullies led by his later rival in love, Laurence Aspinall and he endures much unfair treatment from his fellow apprentices with good nature.
It is interesting that the author’s depiction of schoolboys and the fights between them is wholly realistic, and she points out that this robust attitude towards violence between young males was typical of the Regency era, as is the heavy drinking of some of the men in the story.
Meanwhile the main female character Augusta decides that the bold, rakish behaviour of Laurence Aspinall resembles the heroes she has read of in the circulating library- also rakes in need of reform.
Intriguingly, Laurence Aspinall does resemble Arthur Huntingdon in Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, even down to his cheerful wildness, his prized chestnut curls, bright blue eyes and addiction to the bottle, besides being a Regency contemporary.
However, the author’s appendices state that these characters and the events of their relationship leading up to their marriage are based on real characters from an earlier date. This is even true of some of the quotes from Augusta, ‘I’ll please my eye even if I plague my heart’ and their two foiled elopements between Aspinall and Augusta.
Parts of Aspinall’s abuse are, in fact, so extreme that I guessed that it had to be based on fact – no author would try to convince readers of such excesses in fiction. For instance, he rides his horse up the stairs to the bedroom where his wife lies with their new baby (not so difficult a feat as it might seem, given the wide staircases and shallow stairs of Georgian mansions).
As I say, the author often falls into purple prose: ‘Poor Mr Ashton’s care was his stricken child, whose white shoulders, bathed in blood, were washed by a father’s tears’. Still, much of the writing is strong, ie, on the victims fleeing from St Peter’s Fields: ‘From their windows they had seen men, women and children flying along, hatless, bonnettless, shoeless, their clothes rent, their faces livid and ghastly, shrieking in pain and terror as they ran by or dropped in the path of pursing troopers…’
I would recommend this book to anyone who are interested in reading historical fiction set in the UK during the Regency and the late Georgian era. The story provides not only drama and excitement, but a realistic account of the everyday lives of people from varied backgrounds in the Lancashire at the beginning of the industrial revolution.