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Clash

Ellen Wilkinson
Green Print, an imprint of Merlin Press 2018 ISBN 9781854251190, Paperback £9.99

Joan Craig is a Trade Union organiser, passionate about social justice and rights of her class (working). She is tiny, wild haired, out spoken - and irresistible to men of all ages and classes. The author of the novel was notably passionate about social justice, tiny, wild haired, out spoken and undoubtedly knew of what she wrote whether or not the entire novel is strictly autobiographical.

The novel forms a debate on the choices to be made by a politically active, independently minded, clever, working class woman who is able to move relatively successfully but not always totally comfortably between different social milieus. It is partly a gripping account of what it was actually like to be on the ground during the frenetic nine days of the 1926 General Strike and partly a love story. The former is more credible.

As a Trade Union organiser, Joan travels the country delivering supplies and information, speaking at meetings, exhorting workers into action whilst always trying to keep up to date with a developing situation. Whilst in London she stays with her very wealthy London socialite friend, Mary Maud. At the end of the General Strike she is sent to a mining area in Yorkshire to work with the wives of still striking miners surviving on charity. The love interest is Tony, one of two journalists working with Joan during the strike. Tony and Gerry are both sympathetic to the workers’ cause, both belong to Mary Maud’s social set but Joan soon finds that their views on women’s place in society differ. It is difficult to empathise with Joan in her dilemma, whether to pursue an active life in politics or to fall into Tony’s arms, as Tony is portrayed as a one-dimensional charmless chauvinist - us readers are told what he’s really thinking.

The trappings of life, interior decoration, clothes and particularly food feature strongly in highlighting the gulf between the classes. Joan and friends set off on the campaign trail with a picnic: ‘chicken, foie gras, a marvellous pie, cake, wine and things.’ In the mining village, she listens to miners’ wives too under nourished to bear yet another child as they discuss the need for birth control. Joan is shown as ‘already unconsciously on the path of those who draw a distinction between “we” and “they” in her thinking about her relationship with the miners’ wives.

The author squeezes plenty of polemic into her tale but Joan is a delightful and sympathetic character, the style is light and vivid and so there is no sense of lecturing. The novel was first published in 1929. Ellen Wilkinson reflects the thinking of that time in expressing certain attitudes that we find unacceptable today but the novel deserves its reprint.

Paula Moorhouse