Rose: Mining and Murder in mid-Victorian England

colliery-girls-at-work-in-the-early-1900s-163293834Have you ever wanted to go down a mine shaft? Like miners do, on an open lift? Plunging a mile down into the bowels of the earth? With highly combustible methane gas and its deadly chemical cousin carbon monoxide a threat at every instant? Me neither. But when I picked up Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Rose, set in the Lancashire coal mining town of Wigan, I couldn’t stop reading.

The story chronicles the return to England of the mining engineer Jonathan Blair. He has earned the disapproval of his paymaster, Bishop Hannay, for taking the side of the Africans in the Ashanti wars. (For this the English call him “Nigger” Blair, and I wondered if the author really needed to include racist terms to convince us of the racism of the times.) Blair’s only wish is to return to Africa but must earn the fare, so he is obliged to carry out a mission for Bishop Hannay. Much of Hannay’s immense wealth comes from his ownership of Hannay Mines. Blair’s task is to find the missing Reverend Maypole, who was to marry the Bishop’s heiress, Charlotte Hannay. The plot wasn’t all that convincing, but the story takes you on a fascinating guided tour of a nineteenth-century mining town. The miners are a perhaps a bit stereotyped but you are left in no doubt as to who produces the Bishop’s wealth. The author’s research is impressive, and he gives us a clear picture of the appalling working conditions the miners endure. Particularly fascinating is the depiction of the pit girls, independent and sexually liberated and under attack from moralistic Parliamentarians.

The dark sky turned darker, not with clouds but with a more pungent ingredient. From the window, Blair saw what could have been the towering effluent plume of a volcano, except that there was no erupting volcanic cone, no mountain of any size, in fact, between the Pennines to the east and the sea to the west, nothing but swale and hill along the long tilt of underground carboniferous deposits. The smoke rose not from a single point but as a dark veil across the northern horizon, as if all the land thereafter was on fire. Only closer could a traveler tell that the horizon was an unbroken line of chimneys.

Chimneys congregated around cotton mills, glassworks, iron foundries, chemical works, dye works, brick works. But the most monumental chimneys were at the coal pits, as if the earth itself had been turned into one great factory. When Blake wrote of “dark Satanic mills,” he meant chimneys.

For fans of historical novels, with the added suspense of a murder mystery, Rose is guaranteed satisfaction.

— Catherine Vigier, Zeteo Contributing Writer

 

References

Martin Cruz Smith, Rose, New York, Ballantine Books, 1996.

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