‘Brighter lights of other towns’


“The Innkeeper’s Daughter”, Val Wood

Before I begin, I’d just like to say that Val Wood should be counting her blessings that the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” exists because, goodness me, the cover of The Innkeeper’s Daughter – and, indeed, of each and every one of her books that Corgi has published – is an embarrassment to behold. With its naff image and cheap tag line I was actually reluctant to get it out in public for fear people would think it was some kind of seedy publication. Although this doesn’t seem to have hindered her novels’ popularity (they’re often bestsellers and among libraries’ most popular), it is still a shame, because what’s inside is really rather good.

The novel is set in the “hummocky”, “low-lying”, “marshy” (15) area of Holderness and in the port town of Hull, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The story begins in 1847 and continues through the early years of the Crimean War, making it the first example of historical fiction we’ve come across in this literary challenge!

The plot revolves around the Thorp family, who own the Woodman Inn in Holderness. The lives of mother Sarah, sons Joe and William, eldest daughter Bella, young rebel Nell and new-born Henry are turned upside-down when Bella’s father dies and leaves them to run the business. Sarah chooses to move her family to Hull, her birthplace, against their wishes, and they take on tenancy of the Maritime Public House – all except William, who goes to fight in the Crimean War, and Nell, who runs away to join the theatre shortly after they arrive. After a lot of hard work in the new, grimy city, they have huge success with their ever-expanding venture – mainly thanks to Bella’s skill and dedication.

When I first started this Placing Myself journey, I had to think for quite a while about whether I would allow historical fiction on my List at all. After all, I made rather a big deal of stipulating that ‘all books I read must be published after the year 2000’ so as to give an insight into life in modern England; is it appropriate, then, to select one that is set 150 years ago?

The Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Painting by Richard Caton Woodville.

The Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Painting by Richard Caton Woodville.

I eventually reached the conclusion that if writers such as Val Wood (and her publishing entourage) consider mid-19th century England relevant to readers in 2013, then there must be a reason for it – perhaps there are parallels to be drawn in the kind of events, characters or political situations associated with the two eras; perhaps Wood’s depiction of life in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1847 really can shine light on more recent happenings too.

As it happens, my hopes for this novel did come to fruition. Writing historically – during the time of the British Empire – allows Wood to offer greater critique on the subject of ‘the state versus the individual’: while national propaganda surrounding the Empire’s foreign military efforts in the Crimean War focussed, conveniently, on images of England’s ancestral and military glory, verdant pastures and hip happening capital city to encourage patriotism as well as perturb potential enemies, the hard lives of impoverished individuals in industrialised northern counties – which are believed to do nothing to boost the magnificent, romanticised reputation of the country – are swept under the carpet. This ostracism of individuals from popular society in order to better suit the needs of the state remains hugely relevant today; just think of the tourist industry of ‘Britain’, which actually fails to represent most of its territory and thrives instead on attributing the same magnificent stereotypes as above to highly select parts of England.

Wood presents Holderness as one such area of England that is deemed insignificant, populated as it is by “country bumpkins with straw in [their] hair” who, as the stereotype goes, “onny know about country matters, about haymaking an’ pigs an’ sheep” (175). The view that they are “salt of the earth” and that the “country couldn’t keep going wi’out [them]” (68) is definitely in the minority, for even within this small farming community residents are conditioned to think of themselves as “different” (99) from ‘most people’, as “strangers” (186) in their own homes, as “working folk” (239) who don’t “stand a chance against authority” (346). This point of view is shown in Bella’s observation that Jamie Lucan, her rich, doctor love-interest from the coast is “without an accent like theirs” (69) – usually, of course, it’s the “incomer” (97) (sound familiar?!) who is thought to seem strange or different; in this case, Bella is shown to paint herself as the accented oddity. (Like many other characters we’ve seen in other novels in this challenge, Bella also suffers from a distinct lack of belonging: she is not drawn to the town of Hull as her mother is, being a “townie” (178) at heart, or back to Holderness, like Joe, who is “a fish out o’ water” (308) anywhere else. Rather, she makes the best of what she is allowed to have.)

"How Jack Made the Turk Useful at Balaklava". British propaganda during the Crimean War. Sketch by John Leech from Punch, 1856.

“How Jack Made the Turk Useful at Balaklava”. British propaganda during the Crimean War. Sketch by John Leech from Punch, 1856.

So what conditions the Holdernessians into believing they are so worthless? Why, the force of the imperial state, Wood seems to present. Her characters are used to being held back by their own national “officialdom” (346), so that they have become acceptant of their powerlessness and insignificance. To start with, the increasing prevalence of “mechanical machinery” is “becoming a threat to the rural population” (16) who, made unemployed, are thrown into workhouses at the whim of the state. In town, the initiation of “window tax […] put on buildings with more than ten windows” is another way in which the state seizes control of what we would now consider to be people’s rights; individuals are “robbed of light and air” (225) simply to generate more money for those in charge. Bella, in particular, feels the strain of a strong gender dichotomy that presents itself through state legislation and cultural practice and actively restricts women’s futures; she is made to exist “in a grey bubble in which she floated through the days, doing what was expected of her” (169). This is ironic as although Bella is not allowed to own property, her business success with the Maritime Public House proves her to be far more capable of managing an estate than Jamie is as a landowner’s son. Of course, one of the most significant ways in which the state cripples its population again and again is by sending off “the tens of thousands of infantrymen and thousands of cavalry” (330) to fight in a war that has “nothing to do with us” (344).

An example of the impacts of Window Tax: boarded up windows to avoid fees  in this house in Stanton, Derbyshire

An example of the impacts of Window Tax: boarded up windows to avoid fees in this house in Stanton, Derbyshire

At the same time as the novels’ various characters are feeling the pressure of the state’s control, Wood also shows their increasing frustration with its limitations as – thanks to advancements in science, technology, travel and military prowess – the world opens up opportunities around them. Bella is prevented from pursuing her dreams to be a teacher by her family’s domestic situation, despite the possibilities this career would afford her to “travel […] learn another language and even go abroad” (10); she knows there is “so much more” (10) of the world to experience, and her feet are awfully itchy. The rest of the country is certainly trying to get on the move too; Bella notices how “the narrow coast road opened up to the more adventurous travellers who braved the Holderness plain to reach the delights of sea and sand” (54); Nell dreams of “theatres an’ concert halls” (175) in Hull; and Jamie can’t wait to study in London, “its being so universal” (106). Ironically, the nature of the Empire in Wood’s novel inspires its population with the will to explore and extend their reach but, simultaneously, seems to disallow this possibility to most.

Florence Nightingale, one of the only women with a prominent role in the Crimean War, nursing soldiers

Florence Nightingale, one of the only women with a prominent role in the Crimean War, nursing soldiers

Another irony in the way Wood depicts Empire is that its age-old customs are becoming redundant or increasingly problematic with its continuing success, affluence and advancements. For example, as Bella is permitted (partly out of necessity) to take a more active role at the Woodman Inn – a very ‘modern’ shift – her class status also mutates. Running a respectable inn, she is neither a labourer nor a landowner; she is an example of the emerging middle class. This causes great confusion in the mind of Jamie’s younger sister, Mary, who has been strictly educated in the Empire’s standard but “perplexing rules of etiquette” (140) that only instruct behaviour towards the two extreme classes. As a result, she doesn’t “know how to address her” and cannot fathom whether or not “she [is] a servant” (143). Thus the pattern of manners that has suited English society for centuries is becoming obsolete in the modernising world.

Overall, Wood does an excellent job of balancing broad depictions of the Empire with intimate domestic scenes in an engaging way. In fact, the British Empire as a whole – and the fortune of its population – is set up by Wood at a crucial fork in the road; one path leads to greater prospects, wider horizons and “brighter lights” (250), while the other heads towards military and cultural downfall and the disillusionment of its population. I think it is through the build-up of these see-saw moments (as well as the endearing characterisation that encourages readers to take an avid interest in what the outcome is) that makes The Innkeeper’s Daughter relevant to 2013, in which the fortunes of ‘Britain’ as a joint Scottish-English-Welsh concept are equally up in the air. I cordially invite this novel to partake of 3/5 stars. Any thoughts?

Next week I’ll be reading Melvin Burgess’ Kill All Enemies, set in West Yorkshire. Join me!

WOOD, Val. The Innkeeper’s Daughter. London: Corgi, 2013.

Featured Image: Area affected by Crimean War.