Secrets of the Jam Factory Girls by Mary Wood
Elsie has had a traumatic past, working at a jam factory from a relatively young age, while having immense family responsibilities for her younger brothers even before her mother’s recent death. This is 1912, when the position of women was still very difficult, not being able to vote, enduring few legal protections from abusive husbands and others, and being extremely limited as to career choices. Elsie and Dot have always been close, and in this second book in the series Dot is experiencing profound challenges despite her love for Cess, Elsie’s half-brother. Mary Wood’s experience and ability to make characters live in a multi-dimensional way from the start mean that it could be read as a stand-alone book with its well-constructed plot and lively dialogue. Speech is one of the things that divides Elsie and Dot from the third member of their trio, Millie, who is keen to mark their sisterly relationship with typical generosity but soon discovers that not everyone can be trusted, and that what has happened in the past will have long term results for all her friends.
As the jam factory at the centre of the story which brought the girls together improves in terms of conditions for its mainly female workers, life in a big house is sharply contrasted with the tenements in which Elsie and Dot grew up, and brings a whole new set of problems. While all three girls believe they have found love, they soon discover that it may not be enough to enable them to live happily. This is the story of young women whose friendship may be the only thing they can depend on. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this moving and well written saga of life for women in the early twentieth century.
As the novel opens, Elsie is facing a testing time as she deals with the women workers in Swift’s Jam Factory who have put up with long hours, poor pay and hazardous working conditions for years. Indeed, as recorded in the first novel of the series, there was even a real danger of death before some of the improvements brought in with the support of the National Federation of Women Workers. These are women who have repeated pregnancies depleting their strength as well as meaning big families on little money. The women are concerned about Dot, who has been absent for some six months, apparently looking after an aunt. In reality she has escaped her controlling and abusive mother and is in hiding, expecting a baby while being supported by Cecil. When news arrives that a baby girl has been born whose appearance confirms her parentage, Elsie is particularly happy and relieved, and informs her youngest brother Bert that they now have a niece. A trial that the young women were fearing has been averted, and it now seems on the surface that their lives may well be plain sailing, with Millie looking forward to marrying the handsome and able Len. Elsie is quietly attracted by Len as well, but will never reveal it to Millie who is so obviously in love. When Dot reacts badly to the strain of her relationship with her mother and her life with a young baby, she becomes very ill; can Cecil, Elsie and Millie come together to be supportive of the young mother? Will the pressures on Elsie to fit in with a new lifestyle be too much to manage, especially when someone puts undue pressure on her? Will Millie’s natural generosity and love for Len disrupt all of her other relationships?
This is a vivid novel in which all the characters are brilliantly described and play their parts. I think that it is a mark of excellent writing when the characters actually seem so real that you can feel real emotion for them; in this book there is a whole set of challenges which test everyone to their limits. Real friendship is the consistent element which carries them through the events of this novel, in a setting which is a true picture of life at the time, and a series of challenges that reflect some of the problems that were faced by women before the First World War. I look forward to the next installment with excitement!