What I’m reading: Catholic girl and Protestant boy
Katie Hutton: ANNIE OF AINSWORTH’S MILL
1897. Following her mother’s death Annie Maguire and her father escape the poverty and unemployment of County Down and relocate to Cumberland, where there is work – hard, dangerous work – in cotton mills and iron-ore mines. When her father moves away again to live (in sin) with an abandoned married woman, Annie makes a temporary home in a series of lodging houses, treated as an outcast because of her father’s situation. She falls in love with Robert McClure, who has also fled from County Down. But Robert is a Protestant and Annie a Catholic. The hatred between the two branches of Christianity is as strong in 1900s Cumbria as it was in the time of the Tudors – and still is today in the more sectarian areas of Northern Ireland. The ancient enmity creates a wall against which the love of these two young people is hard pressed to prevail.
Harsh deaths – consumption, childbirth, hideous accidents – are a daily risk, as is the threat of the poorhouse. There are rare moments of tenderness or humour. Robert compares the Roman ritual of confession and penance to “an account book at the Co-operative”, a simile that will stay forever with Annie (and with me). There is one priest with a reconciliatory mindset; at the other extreme there is Philomena, one of Annie’s landladies with a merciless soul.
Katie Hutton is a gifted writer. A lot of the novels I read I devour in great chunks; Annie of Ainsworth’s Mill is a book you want to read slowly, savouring the lovely lilt of every page, every paragraph. You hear the rise and fall of Irish accents in every line of dialogue. The evocation of harsh lives in the harshest of times stands comparison with writers like Arnold Bennett and Mrs Gaskell. This is a novel at the very pinnacle of the Historical Romance genre.