- Finding Her Voice(s):The Development of a Working-Class Feminist Vision in Ethel Carnie's Poetry
The effort to recover and reevaluate British working-class women's writing is still in its early stages. One writer who certainly deserves such attention is Ethel Carnie (1886-1962), the first British working-class woman to sustain a long and varied publishing career. This essay will focus on Carnie's earliest publications, three volumes of poetry that appeared between 1907 and 1914, and interpret their themes and developments against the backgrounds of both nineteenth-century working-class poetry and early twentieth-century labor unrest and women's suffrage agitation.1 Carnie's poetic growth across the seven years between 1907 and 1914 is striking. Although she began writing as a factory girl supported by middle-class mentors, her first volume, Rhymes from the Factory (1907 and 1908), barely touches on the realities of working-class life and is largely unmarked by class consciousness or feminist concerns, focusing more on imitations of Romantic odes to Nature and filled with impressive allusions to Greek and Roman classics. Gradually, however, Carnie's poetry begins to reflect both the context she writes in and the influence of earlier working-class poets. When her poetry reaches maturity in her 1914 volume, Voices of Womanhood, Carnie moves from ignoring her working-class background to embracing it with detailed poems dramatizing working-class women's lives as well as poems that critique ideals of art that ignore its basis in class distinctions. Like Ernest Jones and other Chartist poets, Carnie's later poems often employ a collective voice, and, like such working-class predecessors as Scottish poet Janet Hamilton, she writes with a particular awareness of the issues that face working-class women. But Carnie does not merely place herself in the working-class poetic tradition; she revises that tradition through her strongly feminist interpretations of traditional working-class metaphors such as slavery and motherhood that tended to align women with political passivity or, at most, allowed them the virtue of endurance. In fact, I would argue that Carnie's Voices of Womanhood is unique in its careful rereading [End Page 297] of the place of working-class women and their importance to working-class politics as a whole. Carnie is distinctive in her emphatic stress on women's liberation as a necessary component of working-class and human liberation. In Voices, her dramatic monologues bring a remarkable range of working-class women's voices into play, voices which resonate with the words of their foremothers and fathers and yet also strike out on their own, inspired by the women's suffrage and union movements. Further, her collective voices are gender-egalitarian, and, in concert with her socialist background, offer images of a transformed artistic practice that challenges past traditions' reliance on gender stereotypes or class exploitation.
As a British working-class woman writer, Ethel Carnie had a unique career, both in terms of its length and its variety. Between 1907 and 1936, Carnie produced three books of poetry, eleven novels—one of which, Helen of Four Gates, was made into a silent film—four books of children's fairy tales, and one novella, in addition to numerous short stories and journalistic pieces. She also edited the weekly newspaper, The Woman Worker, for nearly a year.2 In 1913, Ethel Smyth, the composer of the suffrage anthem, "March of the Women," set two of Carnie's poems—"Possession" and "Song of the Road"—to music, dedicating them to suffrage leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Thus, while a website on Smyth now refers to "the completely forgotten Ethel Carnie,"3 during the first decades of the twentieth century Carnie's work attracted considerable attention. Carnie's work is also significant because of her background and political affiliations. Born in 1886, the daughter of two cotton-mill weavers, she began half-time work in the mill at age eleven and left school for full-time work as a winder at thirteen. Her volumes of poetry usually announce her background with titles such as Rhymes from the Factory and Songs of a Factory Girl (1911), and her...