Monday, October 24, 2016

Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives

One of the books I was most excited to read on my TBR Pile Challenge stack was Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives, by Sue Wilkes.  When I first learned about this book, I was doing some preliminary research about my mother's family, who lived and worked in Oldham during the Industrial Revolution.  I got this book to help me understand the lives of my maternal ancestors, but it sat on the shelf until I finally made a vow that I would read it this year.

It was a great little history book, detailing the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire.  It's slim, only 160 pages, but full of interesting stories, facts, photos, and overall well-researched history, presented in a well-written, chatty style that is not at all dry or dusty.

Wilkes starts with the canal building craze, which was particularly fascinating to me because I knew so little about the canals in Britain.  She then covered the railway building craze that followed the canal building, and moved on to the various stages of textile production, detailing how the mechanization of various aspects, from spinning, to weaving to dyeing, affected the lives of the people, both men and women, who labored in the industry as it transformed itself from cottage to mill.

Not only did this book provide me with wonderful insights into the daily struggles that my ancestors faced--making it absolutely clear why my grandmother fled to Canada at 18 years old in 1920 when she was given the opportunity to break away--but it also helps me to understand better the context of the Victorian literature that I love so much.  Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of the plight of the working people in North and South, Mary Barton, and Ruth, and Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives serves as an excellent way to hear the voices and stories of the kinds of people that Gaskell knew and worked among and tried to serve with her fiction.


  1. That sounds really interesting, just the sort of book I like. I was a history major in college and now I really wish I'd pursued it further -- I love social history. I'm much more interested in how ordinary people live than politics and wars and that sort of thing.

  2. Thank you for the lovely review, Jane! I am so glad you enjoyed reading it. Mary Barton was very much in my thoughts while I was writing and researching Narrow Windows.

  3. Books that are connected to family history can be so insightful and enjoyable to read. It is so interesting that this book is so tied to the research that you are doing on your ancestors.

    I also think that these localized histories are a treasure trove of knowledge.

  4. How neat to be able to tie it in with your own family history!