Magnificent re-telling of the Luddite Rising speaks to us today.
What’s in a name? For most of us, our contribution to time’s rolling credits will be in the briefest of acknowledgements - two dates and a handful of syllables in between - solely of interest to lexicographers and genealogists. Those of us who are remembered by the official records and narratives for impacting on key events more forcefully, remain vulnerable to being maligned and misrepresented, by what E.P.Thompson described as ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. None more so than the Luddites, most of whom are seemingly anonymous figures in the historical record, yet whose collective name is hurled accusingly a thousand times a day across offices and the airwaves, by the inheritors of a misapprehension; that the Risings of 1812/13 in the North of England were largely about technology.
Those picking up Georgina Hutchison’s third historical novel may also share this assumption, yet be drawn to its narrative by a nagging echo of their own political unconscious; that the actions of this collection of nascent class fighters, counted for something profounder than 'just' the replacement of the skilled cropping trade by the new mechanised cutting frames. Somehow, we sense that this seductive teleology of ‘progress’ is really a chimera for the exercising of political power and control; we can see how technologies carry the values of those who design and fund them; why there seems little difference between the hated mill owners of the early nineteenth century and the rogue multinational corporations parachuting their enterprises into vulnerable minds and societies today.
Representations of the Luddites have come a long way from the thugs of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, and in recent decades this is because of intellectual and methodological shifts in how we look at history. Thanks to the emergence of the working class histories, the feminist and cultural studies perspectives of the generation of E.P.Thompson, we now take a more nuanced and anthropological reading of what he described as ‘the lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution’, in order to ‘discover insights into social evils which we have yet to cure.’ (i) This is now a default position of many writing historical fiction.
Under the Canopy of Heaven is a magnificent evocation of these truths; a complex, engaging and heart-wrenching exegesis of people trying to retain their humanity whilst fighting for their lives and communities. Seen largely through the eyes of the leader of the Huddersfield Luddites, George Mellor, a charismatic inventive and passionate young cropper – this is a riveting, sometimes almost hypnotic read – which aims (in the author’s framing words) to elucidate ‘their plight, purpose, bravery and continuing relevance’. Given that Mellor almost certainly assassinated mill owner William Horsfall, after the Luddite campaign was met with deadly force at Rawfolds Mill in April 1812 and the clampdowns and military occupations began, this puts the reader in an interesting ethical position as to how one acts in what might be seen as a guerrilla war situation.(ii)
As with Hutchison’s earlier, more female-centred histories – Cartimandua (2012); Daughters of Lac (2014) - the authenticity of time, place and cosmology is utterly convincing, with the accessible period dialect conveying this very male environment in all of its strange idiosyncrasies. It is a time of recession, massive infant mortality, industrial strife throughout England, and the continuing political fallout from the imaginative hold which the French Revolution has over people of all classes. Military and political leaders in London want to suppress any industrial action as brutally as possible, which is why Parliament passes legislation making machine breaking a capital crime (something Lord Byron famously spoke out in opposition to). There is even a comet in the sky at the time as an omen, and the unrelated shooting of the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval hardly helps the Luddite cause.
If you are coming to this book hazy on the key events of 1812/3, then this is as fine an introduction to how the Huddersfield croppers drew the full force of government wrath, as the now classic social history Liberty or Death by Lesley Kipling and Alan Brooke, to whom the author pays plenty of homage. (iii) With good reason, for the legacy of the Luddites is a rich area of ongoing historical research, exemplified by Hutchison’s own work on the family trees of those who hung at York in January of 1813 and how they were remembered over the generations.
The harsh realities of the struggle absorbs us right away, in its opening view from the gallows, as Mellor and his two Luddite friends, William Thorp and Tom Smith contemplate the paths that brought them there. Framing the book this way not only gives the narrative an almost unbearable dramatic tension – as we flick backwards and forwards to reveal the initial successes, the miscalculations, the betrayals – but it serves to underpin something much more profound than the actual tactics: the power of friendship, family, and community, rooted in the unique geographies of the Pennine valleys.
This is significant: one of Hutchison’s main themes in her fiction is ‘invasion’, centred on the protagonist’s preparation for impending military and political onslaught; where the inner world of those in the eye of the storm is revealed and tested along with their personal friendships and relationships. Here the foe is more subtle, as the trust of communities in each other is slowly stretched by fear of Luddite association, the temptations of being bought off, or how those who play both sides will act. In such circumstances, one is never sure whether one is seeing the whites of an enemy’s eyes, as one jostles for position and air in the claustrophobic sweaty throngs of alehouse meetings or the cropping shops of Huddersfield. Many of the situations here are universal – the politics of division and infiltration – but knowing how we would react to a situation where a word or accusatory finger may save our lives (and our families from penury) is quite another.
Yet, for many months of 1812 no one broke ranks, and those who had been ‘twissed’ into the Luddite Oath (where the book’s title originates) protected by the sense of tight social unity. Here the landscape not only aids the struggle – as frame breakers slip away through the maze of darkened snickets and cloughs, or march ‘after hours’ across moors in their training ‘divisions’ - but offers respite. Amidst all of the cacophony of workshops and taverns and shattering frames, there are moments of stillness and transcendence, as the reader is afforded a glimpse into the emotional terrain of Mellor’s mind, as he sits and watches the sun go down from Castle Hill above the town, or takes a walk with a potential lover through the turning autumn trees, wondering about the life he might have lived beyond the paths which he has taken.
Hutchison is good at these imaginings in her work, and relaxes out from the clipped terseness of describing a meeting or an action into more speculative metaphysical prose, befitting of the Romantics who were penning their views of nature in those very years. Chiefly, this is through Mellor’s Methodism, as he tries to reconcile his faith with the lack of politics in the sermons he hears, searching for a balance between the light he yearns for his world and the apparent absence of a just God. Such ideas may be familiar to us as inheritors of the legacies of Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, but there are also reminders here of the strangeness of the world of the croppers; where in a largely non-tactile macho culture, the power of the touch of a hand (from a family member or friend) is seemingly more sensual than anything shared in the arms of a pub prostitute. Such a disparity is indicative of the believability of this fictional universe, as are the moments of Mellor brawling or poising (kicking people who are in your way) or the helpless fury, depression and guilt he feels about the death of his friend John Booth at Rawfolds.
As for the ethics of targeting the mill owners directly, no doubt some readers may find the relative indifference conveyed here of the shooting of Horsfall a bit shocking; yet Hutchison is smart enough to write this as a military ambush in a war which has come to the croppers on many fronts. From Mellor’s viewpoint, his associates have been killed, others tortured by the investigating authorities, women have been assaulted by occupying forces, and there is no sign of the kind of accommodation which had occurred in Leeds the decade before, as union activists played the mill owners successfully and peacefully (against each other) to delay attempts to deskill a variety of other artisan trades. Horsfall himself had boasted that he would ride up to his saddle girths in Luddite blood.
In a speech on the bi-centenary of the hangings, anarchist historian Alan Brooke noted that the Left have been careful not to turn Mellor into a martyr (iv) and our fictional ‘George’ does not appear to contradict this. There are of course plenty of romanticisations of the Luddites, particularly in song, but more interesting perhaps are cultural rememberings which occur less obviously. In her companion article to the novel, ‘Dead Ends?: The Quiet Legacy of the Hanged Luddites’, Hutchison’s genealogical research on the families (v) shows how the names of the convicted were passed on, especially that of William Thorp. This underscores the views of other historians that the families of those who had died at York (there were 17 in all, most of them for the attack on Rawfolds Mill) were not shunned – unlike those who turned King’s Evidence – but absorbed back into a strong community that had only been temporarily fractured by the military occupation.
Why we remember the Luddites so vividly is because of their ongoing relevance. The wider narratives have not changed - the struggle around deskilling and control, of communities sacrificed for money, of technologies dehumanising the individual – some of which are more pervasive than ever. The bi-centennial celebrations in 2012/3 yielded considerable international interest, finding the space to debate the Luddite Rising in terms of the politics of genetics and artificial intelligence. Now, as other early Industrial Revolution era movements, such as the Cragg Vale Coiners, are receiving a re-evaluation, a novel such as Under the Canopy of Heaven is indicative of how we can write histories of the present even as we empathise with the cold truths of the struggles of the past.
Some of those nineteenth century insurrections may indeed have been lost causes, but in our contemporary appreciation of small scale technologies, the artisan, the interconnections of ecology and democracy, we continue to breathe the same air of the possible and the just. Sometimes, in the whirl of the information age, we need the storyteller, the song writer, the poet, to connect us to the realities of lives already lived; to call out those names, light up those dark wretched moments with a hope that many only saw momentary glimmers of in their travails. ‘Lads of high renown’ indeed.
(i) Thompson, E.P. (1980) Preface to The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth, Penguin); originally published 1963: p12.
(ii) Many of the actions described in the book take place only within a few miles of each other, yet the varying terrain – often covered in darkness – made these significant endeavours even by fit men at the end of a day’s work. Any second edition would benefit from a period map (or web-link) which provides some detail of the topography to those unfamiliar with West Yorkshire.
(iii) Brooke, A. & Kipling L. (2012) Liberty or Death: Radicals, Republicans and Luddites 1793-1823. Huddersfield: Huddersfield Local History Society (original edition 1993).
(iv) Brooke, A. (2013) ‘The Luddite Legacy’ talk given at York Guildhall, January 19th, reproduced at https://undergroundhistories.wordpres... (accessed 11/9/2018).
(v) Hutchison, G. (2018) ‘Dead Ends?: The Quiet Legacy of the Hanged Luddites’ in Journal of Huddersfield & District Family History Society, V 31 no 4 July. p26-29. see www.hdfhs.org.uk
NB: On the Cragg Vale Coiners - see Benjamin Myers (2017) The Gallows Pole, Bloomsbury (originally Blue Moose)