In ‘The Spinning House Affair’ Taylor tells an atmospheric tale, inspired by the true stories of Daisy Hopkins and Jane Elsdon, imprisoned at the Spinning House, Cambridge University’s infamous house of correction in the late nineteenth century. She also highlights the broader struggle of women at this time, through the plight of her characters Hope Bassett (daughter of a college porter) and Aurelia Travers (daughter of a newspaper proprietor).
While there is pathos, the novel is light on sentiment, to the extent that a friend gave up on it because she was bored and didn’t care about any of the characters, not even Rose Whipple, a housemaid who is erroneously arrested by the proctors and incarcerated in the Spinning House – not once, but twice. Perhaps Taylor set out in her style to reflect the seemingly restrained nature of late Victorian Cambridge. The tone is genteel and not especially demonstrative, although it is often lyrical and pleasing.
I understand my friend’s frustration. To be honest, I like a dash of emotion in my history. The historian, David Olusoga, argues that public historians need to embrace the emotional, human aspects of the subject. In a 2020 interview with De Montfort University, he declared,
“I get lots of messages saying that in a programme like A House Through Time, I am destroying the spirit of history and being over-emotional … But if I don’t make the people in history real to me, how can I get people to care about them on the programme?”
We should bear in mind that Taylor is not a historian and that her account is fictional. Interestingly, her author biography tells us that she has a doctorate in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia and that she intends to further explore the blurring of genre boundaries through her fiction.
On the creative side, I really enjoyed Taylor’s tableaux vivants, especially of late nineteenth century Cambridge in winter; the snow that,‘promised to grant a disguise for all rough edges, and must surely offer a brief respite to personal worries, dissolving them in its whiteness just as it promised the illusion of comfort and an untainted tomorrow.’ The snow felt mysterious to young Aurelia Travers in that it augured a most exhilarating, ‘period of difference.’
Various activities of the people serving the town and the university are skilfully staged; the undertaker, the butter seller, the college servants collecting dirty crockery from student lodging houses. And it is nice for those of us who know and love Cambridge to see familiar trade names such as Hawkins’ pastry counter, the Eaden Lilley emporium and the Fountain Inn.
Taylor’s descriptions are eloquent and articulate, but I agree with my friend. The characters are underdeveloped and as a consequence, it is hard to empathise with them. I did finish the book. Not because I cared about Rose, Hope or Aurelia, but because I appreciated the lexicon and I’m interested in this period of Cambridge history, Cambridge being my hometown and the scene of my great-great grandmother’s tragic life, mired by poverty and prostitution.
Whether casual or professional, the town’s prostitutes were viewed as a necessary evil, although many were arrested and detained on a regular basis. Victorian double standards flourished in this university town, where the visiting and resident scholars exploited vulnerable local women and girls for their own ends. According to the nineteenth century author and magistrate, Robert Mackenzie Beverley, Barnwell was ‘set apart and dedicated to sin… prostitutes swarm there’.
The University proctors and their constables (known as bulldogs) would patrol the town precincts for women they ‘suspected of evil’. For a few years after opening his first shop in Fitzroy Street, Barnwell, William Heffer, founder of the great Cambridge bookshop that is Heffers, worked in his ‘spare’ time as a proctor’s bulldog. (In the 1890s William took pity on my great-grandfather, described by the Heffer family as a ‘bright specimen – practically uneducated and from a miserable home’. He undertook to educate this son of a ‘Barnwell lady’, insisting he write in a copy book and work out simple sums each night, bringing the results to work the next morning. The boy thrived by this strange tuition, and eventually became head of the Science Department at the Petty Cury bookshop.)
The proctors had the power to arrest and would escort their arrestees to the infamous Spinning House, where they were tried and sentenced by the University Vice-Chancellor. Women who had been plucked off the streets were charged with a range of misdemeanours such as, ‘consorting with a student’ and, ‘walking with a young man in the street suspected to be an undergraduate.’ Critically, although ‘suspected of evil’, not all those imprisoned were street walkers, and in the 1890s, the Vice-Chancellor’s unpopular authority on this matter was abolished by Act of Parliament, the much-hated Spinning House being finally demolished in 1901.
I scoured the Spinning House Committal Books at Cambridge University Library for any mention of my great-great grandmother and learned that she had never been detained there, although several of her neighbours in Wellington Street, Barnwell, had. She had instead been detained in the town goal, several times. The Borough Police would patrol the streets of Barnwell, known locally as ‘a place of leisure’. Women arrested by the police were usually older than those arrested in the town by the university proctors. They were brought before the Cambridge Borough Magistrates and upon conviction, incarcerated in the Cambridge town goal on Castle Hill.
Taylor eloquently describes Barnwell as a ‘suburb of open cesspits, feral cats and dogs and baleful vapours of decay curling through an extended warren of shabby tenements, cramped passageways and overcrowded dens.’ Joined to Cambridge town by the smart houses along Jesus Lane and Maid’s Causeway, the area was notorious for its brothels and private receiving houses. The social reformer and founder of the Save the Children charity, Eglantine Jebb, in her 1906 social study of Cambridge, described the people of Barnwell as pitiful caricatures of men and women, ‘creatures of stunted facilities, of wasted and misused gifts, of poor and mean experience, prisoners of their circumstances, ground down by the difficulties of their lot, or ruined by its dangers.’ My ancestors’ neighbours in late nineteenth century Barnwell included carpenters, painters, gardeners, compositors, bricklayers, plumbers, shoeblacks, shirtbinders, brewers, bedmakers, lamplighters, coprilite diggers and organ grinders.
Jebb asked why we still see about our streets, ‘men and women whose very faces tell us how low we have allowed them to sink?’ Her study highlighted concerns about the very large number of hotels, inns and public houses in the town; 279 establishments, or one to every 138 persons. She was citing a 1903 deputation to the Cambridge Borough Magistrates on the need for a reduction in the number of licensed houses in the town. The ‘memorial’ for this plea mentioned a stretch of 796 yards, from the east side of Wellington Street to the south side of Newmarket Road, which contained a total of 22 public houses. By this time, Cambridge had had its first temperance mayor, Alfred Isaac Tillyard, and the temperance movement was growing. Tillyard was the editor and proprietor of the Cambridge Independent Press.
Taylor appears to emulate Tillyard in her fictional portrait of William Travers, founding proprietor of The Mercury, a daily Cambridge newspaper. Initially restrained by a keen interest in the ‘mundane of everyday existence in Cambridge’ and an aversion to sensationalism, in response to the outcry over Rose Whipple’s case, Travers eventually decides to challenge the University’s disdain for ‘his Cambridge’, and the abuse of its power to ‘shamefully insult our womenfolk.’ In doing so, he demonstrates his desire to enter into a ‘new intimacy’ with his readers.
Like Travers, I sense that his creator needed to engender greater zeal in her final execution. The novel reads like an extended exercise in creative fusion that is somehow missing an essential ingredient. Perhaps Taylor was trying to do too much. Her rendering of this ‘wave of terror’ and ‘historic struggle’ may be cleverly written in parts, but overall it lacks feeling and as a consequence is underwhelming.
While appreciating the ever-constant need for proof reading in my own writing, and while I could, with a stretch, overlook the date apostrophe (‘1890’s’) in the back cover (and Amazon) blurb, it is astonishing to see that Hope Bassett and Rose Whipple’s names are spelled incorrectly. I suspect the author did not sign this off.