Riah Millican has been left widowed with three small children to take care of so she takes up a role as Housekeeper to well read and slightly hermit like Master who through some quite underhand machinations manages to ensure Riah stays in the house despite her best efforts to leave after an unfortunate event seemingly would suggest this is not the best place to be raising young children.
Biddy is Riah's daughter, well educated whilst a child under the tutelage of The Master, but sent as a laundry maid to the big house where an ability to read write and even recite poetry immediately makes her a target for bullying from those that think that girls should be seen and not heard. The book follows her struggle for her intelligence and ability to be recognised and the finding of a kindred spirit in a most unusual place.
Anyone with an interest in Historical Fiction will be aware of Catherine Cookson but I suspect that she might well have fallen out of fashion with such a plethora of books to choose within this genre. That is an awful shame.
I first read this book back in my late teens and like many others was introduced to catherine Cookson by an random marauding of my Grandmother's bookshelves, but I balk at the idea that this is an old ladie's book. It has a complex plot in two distinct halves one focusing of the struggles of Riah and the second the travails of her daughter Biddy.
Both Mother and Daughter are literate thanks in part to Riah's husband who shared his own ability with his wife before he dies. Unable to remain in the mining village, she and her children set out onto the road to try to find work and a place to live. Ultimately she finds it at the home of the Master who becomes both boon and burden to them both.
As with all Cookson novels the divide between rich and poor is examined at length and the differences in the privileges afforded to women and girls and men regardless of their level of education are also in stark relief. I found myself sympathising with Riah and the way that perhaps by seeking to escape a prison of poverty, she is bound more tightly through the need to protect her children even giving up all hope of a happy and loving relationship despite finding one who might make her happy in that regard. Her strength is perhaps more than strident daughter Biddy.
Biddy rebels against injustice, battles for the right to express herself and for others to be allowed to learn as she has done and will not be quietened and so through making an example of herself, she begins to rise on her own merits and comes to notice to more than her mistress and bewitches one of the sons of the family. Her fight for equality has resonance even today. It is a a rich tale with sharp edges, but a wonderfully hopeful ending.
Why this is in my Top 20 list?
I associated strongly with Biddy. Also I think that the time I read this book for the first time as a idealistic student has a strong bearing on my enjoyment of it. I think that this has indelibly marked itself in my reading consciousness and contributed to my involvement in adult literacy support classes whilst I was at University.