Monday, November 18, 2019
New Novel by Andrew Miller, "Now We Shall be Entirely Free," Animated by Brutal Child Labor of Early 19th Century England
The first phase of the industrial revolution unfolded in England during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The early cotton mills of that period were known for being sweatshops and dangerous to life and limb. They were typically manned by women and children, the latter often working in brutal, virtually slave-like conditions. These were the types of environments, of course, that inspired Dickens as he wrote Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
Notably, before workers and reformers ever lobbied for safety, for changes to tort law, and then for workers’ compensation, they argued for restrictions on such labor.
This environment comes alive, if only briefly, in a new historical novel by British author Andrew Miller. In Now We Shall be Entirely Free (Europa Editions 2019), the protagonist is a young army officer (Lacroix) who has fought against Napoleon in the British effort to ally with Spain in trying to repel (unsuccessfully) the French invasion. Unfortunately, the British are routed at the Battle of Corunna (1809) and, during the retreat, LaCroix is put in charge of a group of stragglers, wounded, and ne’er-do-wells. Mentally and physically overwhelmed, in the end he is unable to prevent his soldiers from committing atrocities against Spanish villagers.
Back in England, Lacroix seeks to find himself, journeying to rural Scotland, but he is pursued by a pair of assassins charged by both the British and Spanish to exact revenge for the massacre.
As it turns out, the lead assassin, a British corporal, is a sociopath who developed his violent instincts while working in an early cotton mill, brought in from London as an orphan boy to undertake forced labor. Calley (yes, that’s his name) relates that unforgiving work – fourteen-hour days – to his colleague as they traverse the English countryside in pursuit of Lacroix.
For a boy, Calley relates, to fall asleep in the final hours of the day, brought beatings “without pause” from the overseers, but this punishment was not as hazardous as the unshielded moving machinery: “There was a girl called Lizzie …. She had ginger hair for a start. Anyway, the dozy cow slipped when she was under the machine and the belt caught her hand and took off her arm at the shoulder. She was nine…. She lived. They gave her a job running messages, one arm being enough to carry a piece of paper with.”
The brutality of the cotton mill, particularly in the punishment of young girls, is to have a direct effect in the Spanish atrocity.
Andrews has the special skills of creating atmosphere and making the reader care about his characters. The fan of historical fiction will be engrossed by this dark, unusual account of human suffering in the early days of the industrial revolution.