"That Lass o' Lowrie's"
by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924)
London: Frederick Warne and Co., Limited., n.d. (First published 1877)
Although she is best known for her children's books, Frances Burnett's first novel was written for adults. After a somewhat slow start, getting used to the Lancashire dialect, I thoroughly enjoyed reading "That Lass O' Lowrie's". The novel portrays working-class life in a Lancashire pit mining town with gritty, even painful realism. For all that Burnett cannot resist involving her characters in romance, this is not a pretty sentimental tale. Class differences, and their implications for the characters, are central issues of the book.
Joan Lowrie, a young woman who works in the mine, is the centre around whom the many subplots of the book revolve. With everything against her -- a vicious and abusive father, a poor education, and the rough environment of the mine -- she stands out as a strong and independent woman. When a young friend returns home, ruined and deserted by a ne'er-do-well "gentleman", it is Joan who she turns to, and Joan who defies the gossips of the town to give Liz shelter. Joan's beauty and strength -- both physical and mental -- clearly merit the regard of others. But the gulf between a pit girl and the parson's daughter, or an engineer at the mine, yawns deep. "I am na a lady," she says. And yet, her most heroic and admirable actions are possible precisely because she is not a lady. Awkwardly confessing a desire to learn more "womanly arts", Joan is subtly diminished. Defying convention and asserting bravely, "If I wur a lady, I could na ax yo' what I've made up my mind to do;" she demands our admiration. In portraying Joan as she does, Burnett challenges not only class but gender roles.
Having written the rest of this announcement last night, it was a shock to pick up the newspaper this morning and read the headline "W. Va. mine blast traps 13". "The condition of the men -- 260 feet underground -- was unknown. Gases delayed rescue efforts for 11 hours." I am reminded most painfully today that the dangers of the coal mines, which Burnett described in 1877, are not a thing of the past. I would like to dedicate this online edition to all miners and their friends and families.