The Convict’s Wife by Libby Ashworth: A gripping historical saga - book review -
When her husband is sentenced to transportation to Australia for swearing an illegal oath to the Luddites in 1812, Lancashire wife and mother Molly Holden faces a bleak future.
Left with their baby daughter Annie to care for and with no income and no husband to protect her, Molly must find work if she is to keep both herself and her child from starving in the years ahead.
Libby Ashworth – who has written several historical novels and non-fiction books featuring fascinating corners of the county’s rich heritage under the name Elizabeth Ashworth – was born and raised in the Blackburn area and can trace her family back to the village of Whalley in the Middle Ages.
Now a successful author of gripping historical sagas set in Lancashire’s industrial communities, Ashworth’s ancestors worked in the cotton industry as spinners and hand loom weavers through several generations and it was while researching her own family history that she realised there were many stories about ordinary working people that she wanted to tell.
The Convict’s Wife is the first book of a new series from Canelo, an up-and-coming new publisher which was shortlisted for Independent Publisher of the Year at the 2021 British Book Awards and which takes the best from the old world of publishing and combines it with the best of the new.
This new series sprung from Ashworth’s curiosity about what happened to the wives of men who were transported to New South Wales in Australia, and her research uncovered the true story of Thomas Holden from Bolton and the letters he exchanged with his family when he was convicted at Lancaster Assizes.
Often reduced to tears by the letters, which revealed the thoughts of ‘a frightened young man,’ Ashworth set about using Thomas Holden’s experiences as the inspiration for what promises to be a gripping and emotionally-powered saga series.
When weaver Thomas attends a secret night-time gathering of men sympathetic to the cause of the Luddites, who were opposed to the mechanisation of the factories, he only goes through curiosity but is soon much taken by the ‘atmosphere of hope and determination.’
However, one man at that meeting, Isaac Crompton, who lured Thomas and his father John to witness the get-together, is acting as a spy and has designs on bringing down Thomas, the man who Crompton believes stole Molly, the woman he loved and lost.
And when the militia turn up at the meeting, Crompton deliberately points out Thomas to the soldiers who arrest him and charge him with swearing an illegal oath to the Luddites.
Despite the efforts of Molly and Thomas’s parents to get him freed, Thomas is convicted at Lancaster of being a Luddite on the word of Crompton and is sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.
Bereft and alone, Molly tries everything she can to get her husband freed while looking desperately for work to keep both herself and baby Annie. But Crompton, Molly’s former suitor, believes that with Thomas out of the way, she will return to him.
Molly’s plan is to join Thomas in Australia and she decides to raise enough money to pay for her own passage by first turning to the coal pits for work and then teaching herself how to weave quilts. But she must stay on her guard and keep one step ahead of Crompton because, by hook or by crook, he is determined to get her back.
Steeped in the kind of rich and authentic detail that has become the hallmark of Ashworth’s gritty novels, The Convict’s Wife delivers an emotional rollercoaster ride as we follow the trials and tribulations of Molly and Thomas in the devastating aftermath of his arrest, sentence and transportation.
Hardship was only ever a heartbeat away for many in these early 19th century industrial towns and cities, and with it came the threat of penury, homelessness and starvation.
As always, the portrait of a close-knit Lancashire community is beautifully drawn with each character – whether good or bad – playing an integral part in an enthralling story which brings to vivid life some of the challenges facing families both at home and at work, and the ties of love that bind them together.
Using her vast local knowledge and research, and her gift for transforming real history into page-turning drama, this is a captivating opener to what promises to be an exciting new series.
(Canelo Saga, paperback, £8.99)