Jessie Fothergill came from a long and respectable line of yeoman Quakers. Carr End, the farmhouse in Wensleydale, Yorkshire, where her father John grew up, had been inhabited by Fothergills since 1668; and the family had produced various men of note: among those whose careers are recorded in the Dictionary of National Biography are John Fothergill, M.D. (1712-1780), a physician and botanist; George Fothergill, D.D. (1705-1760), principal of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford; and Samuel Fothergill (1715-1772), merchant and Quaker minister, who spent some years in America endeavouring to make peace between the colonists and the Indians. John Fothergill, Jessie’s father,learnt about the cotton trade at Rochedale, before going into business with a friend in Manchester. His marriage with Anne Coultate, daughter of a Burnley medical man and a non-Quaker, forced him to leave the Society of Friends, but his nonconformist inheritance remained strong and had a considerable influence on his children, none of whom, as adults, stayed with the Established Church. Jessie herself gives sympathetic, albeit not uncritical, portraits of the Quakers and their way of life in at least two of her novels, Healey (1875) and Kith and Kin (1881), and her background is reflected both in the austerity of many of her protagonists and the way love of luxury and dependence on material comfort characterise the morally suspect.
Jessie was her parents’ first child and was born in June 1851 at Cheetham Hill in Manchester. She lived most of her short life within twenty miles of her birthplace – first at Bowdon, a pleasant suburb on the Cheshire side of Manchester, and then, after her father’s death in 1866 had left his now numerous family ‘much reduced in circumstances’, at Littleborough, near Rochedale, where they lived in ‘an out-of-the-way house appertaining to a cotton- mill’ in which their father had had an interest.
I quite well remember going home to this place for the first Christmas holidays after my father’s death and being enchanted and delighted – despite the sorrow that overshadowed us – with the rough roads, the wild sweeping moors and fells, the dark stone walls, the strange, uncouth people, the out-of-the-worldness of it all. And the better I knew it the more I loved it, in its winter bleakness and its tempered but delightful summer warmth. I loved its gloom, its grey skies and green fields, the energy and the desperate earnestness of the people, who lived and worked there. Helen C. Black, Notable Women Authors of the Day, p. 189.
When she had finished her formal education – a small private school at Bowdon, then a Harrogate boarding school – Jessie returned home to Littleborough. In the 1890 interview with Helen Black she describes how she rejected the young lady role, finding happiness in reading omnivorously, in rambling about the Tadmorden valley, in studying ‘the routine of the great cotton and flannel mills, the odd habits, the queer sayings and doings of the workpeople’, and in writing stories in an attic. The Lasses of Leverhouse (1888) with its novelstruck adolescent narrator and her impoverished but boisterous family clearly draws on this period of its author’s own life.
Healey, the first of Jessie Fothergill’s novels to be published, was based closely on her long and minute observation of the local industry and the people involved in it. Both it and Aldyth, published the following year, had a modest reception, although the Athenaeum praised her rendering of Lancashire dialect.
The First Violin, her third published novel and the one which made her name, was begun during a fifteen month stay with a sister and two friends at a boarding house in Dusseldorf, where Jessie studied German and discovered German music. Many of her own impressions of this time are incorporated in the novel – indeed, her interest in Germany and its music was to be reflected in episodes in most of her subsequent works. Henry King, who had published her first two novels, refused The First Violin, as did at least one other publisher, before it was finally accepted by Bentley. Royal Gettman, in her study of the Bentley papers records that the £40 originally paid for the copyright was changed to £200 when the commercial possibilities of the book were recognised; subsequent novels fetched £250, £300, £500 and £600.
The First Violin was the only one of Jessie Fothergill’s novels to be published anonymously, although the authorship was acknowledged in most subsequent editions. Michael Sadleir describes the unpublished first edition which does have her name on the title page and notes: ‘The late Mr Bentley (speaking presumably from memory) told me that the author’s father intervened at the last moment and insisted that the book be anonymous’ (.XIX Century Fiction, 1:133). Any such intervention must have come from someone else, since Mr Fothergill had died more than ten years previously. However, given their Quaker background, some members of the family may well have been unhappy about the undue romanticism of the story and the insufficiently moralistic handling of a married woman’s involvement with another man, for whom she eventually leaves her husband. These elements may also have prompted Henry King’s refusal of the novel.
The First Violin finally appeared in 1878 and was run as the lead serial in Temple Bar throughout that year too. Other novels followed and Jessie Fothergill enjoyed a growing reputation, notably with Probation (1879) and Kith and Kin (1881). The Spectator review of Kith and Kin declared:
There is in it enough genius – that is, enough imaginative insight, vital realisation of character, and dramatic presentation, of situation – to place it in almost the first rank of English fiction, to entitle it to equality with, let us say, Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, if not with the greater Jane Eyre and Villette…Where Kith and Kin is strong, and it is strong in many places, it would be difficult to say that Jane Eyre is stronger… The Spectator 55 (27 May 1882): 697.
Jessie Fothergill appears to have suffered throughout most of her life from a chronic lung complaint – although invalidism may well have been the very thing that liberated her from other duties and enabled her to devote herself to writing, as it did many of her sister novelists. Deteriorating health took’ her abroad several times to a milder climate, and was the reason for her thirteen month stay in America in 1884-5, mostly spent in a Pennsylvanian mountain resort. At the time of Helen Black’s interview with her in Manchester in 1890, Jessie Fothergill was preparing to leave for Rome to escape the British winter. She died suddenly at Berne on 28 July 1891, aged 40. Her novels were to remain popular for at least another thirty years – Mudie’s Library Catalogue for 1928 lists all but one of her twelve full length works.
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It is unfortunate that Jessie Fothergill should now mostly be remembered, if at all, for The First Violin. Although this was the most popular of her novels, as the many editions it ran to and the numerous copies of it still to be found in second hand bookshops testify, it is probably also the most uneven and unsatisfactory, consisting as it does of an uneasy mixture of a first-hand picture of life at Dusseldorf, as seen through the eyes of a naive English girl, and a highflown novelettish situation worthy of Ouida.
Its hero, ‘Eugen Courvoisier’ – an aristocrat who has accepted disgrace and banishment to shield another’s guilt and is hiding under an assumed name in a provincial orchestra – comes straight from the world of fiction instead of from the familiar worlds of manufacturing and medicine to which most of her other protagonists belong. The First Violin is still quite acceptable reading for a rainy day, in spite of its defects, and has the interest that any extremely popular novel must have for students of its period.
But it is on her other eleven novels that any justification for a serious reconsideration of Jessie Fothergill must be based.
A critical assessment of Jessie Fothergill, published in The Novel Review the year after her death, justly claims for her the enduring significance of any writer who captures a particular region and its people at a specific stage in its evolution, or who ‘writes with intelligent perception of the social revolutions or the intellectual storm and stress of the age in which he lives’. Jessie Fothergill’s novels are founded solidly on the actual places and the types of people amongst which most of her life was spent – the Yorkshire moors, the encroaching manufacturing towns and everyone, from owners and managers to ordinary factory workers and their families, involved in the local cotton industry. Littleborough is the Hamerton of Healey and The Lasses of Leverhouse. Rochedale, where her father spent his early manhood learning about the cotton industry, is the Thanshope of Probation, a novel which covers the cotton famine of 1862 and gives a particularly vivid, sympathetic and uncondescending picture of the lives of the workers. Manchester is the Darkingford of Peril and the Irkford of the opening chapters of Kith and Kin. Scarfoot, in the latter novel, is Carr End, known intimately to Jessie from the stories of his childhood with which her father ‘used to keep us entranced, as children, living in a stiff Manchester suburb’.
I never saw it till I was a grown woman, and, standing in the old-fashioned garden with the remembrance of my dead father in my heart, I formed the intention of making it the scene of a story, and did so. Black, pp.187-8
Jessie Fothergill’s male characters are firmly placed in terms of their class and profession and hence have far more substance than the ‘women in trousers’ through whom some of the female novelists of the period live out their desire for a larger existence. Wilfred Healey and Sebastian Mallory are mill owners, Ughtred Eamshaw and Myles Heywood are overlookers, and their stories are closely related to these occupations. Myles Heywood, a tough, rebellious, prickly factory worker who rises to become manager, is far more vigorous and convincing as a socially mobile hero than John Halifax ever is. Michael Langstroth in Borderland and Godfrey Noble in A March in the Ranks are medical men, like their author’s grandfather. Through Godfrey Noble, Jessie Fothergill exposes the charlatanism of a Yorkshire hydropathic establishment (based, one suspects, on some institution which her own ill health may have forced her to try) and makes an informed attack on the then fashionable ‘rest cure’. The political sympathies of her heroes – and heroines too – are liberal, even radical, and in religion they lean towards agnosticism. This naturally gave offence to some of her reviewers: ‘Of one thing we must express our disapproval, and that is the author’s tone about religious belief…If Miss Fothergill’s heroes must be free-thinkers, let them at least be gentlemen’ (review of Aldyth, Spectator 50 (5 May 1877): 574).
The heroines of Jessie Fothergill’s novels are frequently ‘masculine’ by the standards of the time – strongminded, capable women, taking an active interest in political issues and often shown doing a man’s work Katherine Healey helps run her brother’s business; Alison Blundell in A March in the Ranks manages the estate and affairs of her invalid brother and Hilda Noble is headmistress of a girls school; Margaret Hankinson in Peril works for the liberal cause through her writing. Others, like Judith Conisbrough in Kith and Kin or Helena Spenceley in Probations long for ‘a place in the world’. Judith Conisbrough and Peril in the novel of that name are strong expressions of the frustrations and revolt experienced by a woman of energy and ability cramped by a too narrow environment Women who are content with a merely decorative role, like the aptly named Lizzie Vane in Kith and Kin get short shrift.
Jessie Fothergill’s literary preferences, as recorded in the 1890 interview with Helen Black, show she had the standard radical tastes of her generation:
She delights especially in Ruskin, Darwin, Georges Sand, and George Eliot’s works, which she says have solaced many an hour of pain and illness. In lighter literature she prefers some of Anthony Trollope’s novels, and considers Mrs Gaskell’s “Sylvia’s Lovers” one of the masterpieces of English fiction, and “Wuthering Heights” as absolutely unique and unapproachable. Herbert Spencer and Freeman are great favourites, whilst in poetry Browning stands first of all in her affections, and next to him, Morris, Goethe, and bits of Walt Whitman. Black, p. 195.
She was deeply impressed by both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights: an enthusiastic tribute to the latter appeared under her initials in Temple Bar and the hero of Probation responds to ‘the burning radicalism’ of Jane Eyre ‘with its passionate expression of the equality of soul and soul, and its eager conviction of the supremacy of mind over the difficulties of rank or place’.
Comparisons with the Brontes and with Mrs Gaskell were inevitable, given the similarities of location and subject matter. Jessie Fothergill must have been influenced to a certain extent by predecessors whom she so openly admired, but her own work can by no means be dismissed as a pale imitation of theirs.The relationship is better described in terms of the encouragement their example would have given her to draw on her ‘unromantic’ immediate surroundings for the subjects of her own novels. Jessie Fothergill’s evocation of the local scene is as full and as vivid as theirs, and often closer to its realities – her fallen women, for instance, have little in common with Mrs Gaskell’s madonna-like Ruth.
Apart from the sort of objections to the political or religious views of her characters that were to be expected from conservative journals like the Spectator the most frequent criticism of Jessie Fothergill by her contemporaries related to her failure to provide a closely structured plot:
When the book is closed, one first fairly perceives that there was no plan of construction, no real evolution of character… What saves the book and makes it preeminently readable is its style, which knows no stagnancy, and a certain modern boldness in its point of view, which puts a fearless finger upon the affairs and relations of life. The book is, perhaps, too much like a piece out of real life, in its inconsequence and its unlinked happenings, to be really good art… Review of A March in the Ranks, Nation 51 (4 Sept. 1890): 195
Any such deficiency, more obvious in an age with a taste for Wilkie Collins and an ‘important unforeseen event for the last volume’ (an omission from Healey about which the Athenaeum complained), is more than compensated for, to a present day reader, by Jessie Fothergill’s ‘modern boldness’. Her real interest was less in developing a plot than in exploring a particular situation – the revolt of an individual, male or female, against the restraints of poverty, class, convention or of an intellectually sterile environment; the problems of a woman’s relationship with a brother who is her moral or intellectual inferior but who dominates her because of their respective sex roles or her greater love and need for his affection; the tension between two people who are attracted to each other across the barriers of class, money or a previous commitment. The particular flavour such preoccupations give to her novels is well summed up by Linda Gardiner in her 1892 Novel Review article:
What attracted her were the problems of life, both in human beings themselves and in their relation to their environment, and very few of her leading characters can be truthfully described as amiable or genial personages… The most prominent of them are battling, as human beings are apt to do, with their own hearts and with fate, and inclined to rebellious independence and bitterness of spirit. This gives a somewhat gloomy and aggressive tone to her stories, most conspicuous, perhaps, in “Healey” and “Borderland”. But the same qualities which are answerable for this – earnestness, intensity, and individuality – make the reader feel that time spent over Miss Fothergill’s novels has not been misspent or given in vain, and secure for her an honourable place among the novelists of the Victorian era. Op.cit., n.s.1: 159-60.
To this contemporary appreciation one might add that it is also as a regional novelist, worthy at her best of comparison with the Brontës and Mrs Gaskell, and as one who captures something of the restlessness and uncertainty of an age we usually associate with their opposites, that Jessie Fothergill deserves to be remembered, rather than merely for the authorship of one popular and conventionally romantic novel.