Reading this week’s book was a tradeoff between enthusiasm and perseverance. It’s long, detailed, and the main character is often less than sympathetic. But the uncompromising mirror it holds up to life in a time I’ve usually seen through Dickens’ sentiment or Horatio Alger rags-to-riches mythology pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. Although epic in topic and length, the actual subject is a miniature—a look at the impact of the industrial revolution through the viewpoint of one family. I asked author Chris Pearce to join us and discuss his life and writing. (NOTE: for a chance to win a copy of A Weaver’s Web, please add a comment below.)
Chris Pearce was born in Surrey, UK in 1952, and grew up in Melbourne, Australia. He has qualifications in economics, management/ marketing, and writing/ editing. He worked as a public servant (federal and state) for 25 years and in the commercial world for 12.5 years.
His inspiration for writing A Weaver’s Web was a postgraduate creative writing course he topped from 30 students in the mid 1990s. After unsuccessfully targeting many literary agents, including one who compared his manuscript to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he decided to publish it as an ebook.
He also has a non-fiction book, Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway, which has been available in print for some years and is now an ebook. He now writes full-time and has several projects in progress or planned. His other hobbies include family history and tenpin bowling. Chris and his wife live in Brisbane, Australia.
1. What was your first car? A Toyota Corolla, way back in 1971. It was a good little car. Did plenty of miles. Petrol was cheap and we used to go for long drives just for something to do. There was far less traffic in those days, so a drive way out into the country and back was more enjoyable. It had an eight gallon tank and did about 40 miles per gallon. It cost about $4 to fill it up.
2. Who would you like to sit next to on an airplane? Can I pick someone no longer here? It’d be out of Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, John Lennon and Nelson Mandela. Can I go on four plane rides and talk to each one? I’ll go with Dickens first up. His writings are legendary. No one did more to bring the plight of the ordinary folk in mid 19th century UK to the attention of the authorities. Other writers tended to write about royalty and well-off people. The authorities didn’t want to know about the poor and newspapers were often censored.
3. Why were you the right person to tell this story, and how did you get started? A Weaver’s Web is set in the Industrial Revolution period in the UK and needs someone with a knowledge of history and perhaps economics. I have always had an interest in history and have read a lot of history books and historical fiction. I researched and wrote a non-fiction book on an Australian convict, Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway (now an ebook). Pamphlett grew up in Manchester, UK, so I had done a lot of research into the social, political, cultural and economic issues in that part of the world in the early 19th century. So I decided to write a novel with this setting. I’m also an economist. I was also top in a postgraduate creating writing course. So I guess I had a suitable background to write the novel.
4. As a child (or now!), what did you want to be when you grew up? From the age of about 6, I wanted to be a writer. In grade 1, I preferred to write words and numbers and little sentences on my blackboard rather than sit on the floor and listen to stories. By grade 2, I was writing stories of a few pages about the holidays or whatever when we were supposed to be writing a few sentences. I started but didn’t finish about four novels between the ages of about 11 and 14. I said to Mum I wanted to be an author but she said I needed a “proper job”. I ended up in accountancy, the same as Dad. I lasted four years. But most of my jobs involved a lot of research and writing, so things worked out okay.
5. Are the names of the characters in your novels significant? They are to some extent. I don’t go as far as Dickens who came up with a name for a character before writing him or her into the story and made sure the name fitted the character. I think that sort of thing can be overdone, although it certainly worked for Dickens. A Weaver’s Web has about 150 characters (plus crowd scenes) of whom 66 have a name. Eleven are real people and I used their actual names. I’ve included some traditional old English first names, such as Henry, Sarah, Albert, Benjamin, Charlotte, William and so on. I also used a lot of traditional old English surnames such as Wakefield, Crowther (a bit of a baddie), Hobsworth, Cripps, Grimshaw (actually a nice lady), Featherstone, Miss Brody (a baddie), Pilkington, and so. Usually the name came straight away or soon after they were introduced into the story.
6. If your characters were alive today, how would their challenges be different? They wouldn’t get away with as much. Henry wouldn’t be able to treat family members as poorly as he did in later chapters. I am sure today they would jack up much sooner. In early chapters, the main family in the story, the Wakefields, lived in abject poverty and it was a matter of whether there were enough potatoes for a meal; these days, it would be a case of what not to eat too much of. Factory masters would have to find new ways to sort out workers rather than flogging them. Factory owners would need to pay proper wages, and not keep orphans locked up for use on the night shift. At the asylum, Brody would not be able to mistreat patients the way she did.
7. Do you use an outline or do you just wing it? I kind of go in the middle. I like to start off with an overall plan (and character profiles) and then a brief subplan for the first chapter or two. Then I write. Sometimes I go back to the chapter plan and make changes; other times, I find the writing flows and I just write. With A Weaver’s Web, I went back to the overall plan a number of times and made some changes or developed it a bit further, and prepared subplans for other chapters. I found the whole process a bit like a giant jigsaw, just getting all the scenes to fit together, making sure everything flowed, and that what I said on page 71 didn’t contradict what I said on page 243. I went through the draft many times, rewriting, editing and proofreading.
8. What is the single biggest challenge of creating the settings in your novels? For historical novels, I think creating detailed, realistic settings that no one has personal experience of is the hardest thing and one that takes a long time. You can’t just go and visit a place or talk to someone who’s been there or knows the people. The early chapters are set in Middleton, which was a village about six miles from Manchester, and now it’s part of the suburban area and totally different. Manchester itself is also totally different. I found I had to do a lot of background research into rural and city living back then, and all the social, cultural and economic issues; how people lived their lives and how they coped at home and at work. For the non-fiction book and the novel, I went through a large amount of material in books, newspapers, journal articles, etc. I think the more research and reading you can do, the better.
9. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever heard? I think it’s probably that fiction is very subjective. It’s something that a lot of literary agents mention as part of their thanks but no thanks replies to writers trying to get their manuscripts published commercially. What one person likes, another doesn’t. A few agents came close to taking A Weaver’s Web, while a few others had issues (rarely the same issues), although most just said we’re not passionate enough about it or it’s not for us or something similar. It’s the same in the indie world. I’ve had some good reviews (including quite a few five-star ones), but not everyone loves it. If writers keep in mind that fiction is subjective, this will perhaps ease the pain of a negative review for them. Perhaps the other piece of good advice is to write because you love it. Treat it as a hobby and you’ll be less upset when you don’t make a million from it. Actually, there’s probably more chance of winning the lottery!
10. What’s the best way to get the word out about your novel? I don’t think there are any magic solutions. I think basically it’s a case of getting you and your novel well known or as well known as feasible. I find reviews are one of the best ways. Respective readers will usually or often want to know what others think of your book before they plunge in themselves and spend many hours reading it. Goodreads have various services. Their self-serve ads are a good way to get interest in your book. There are other book reading sites too. Also, there are sites where you can pin the details of your book. Social media is probably a good way too, although I wouldn’t overdo it. People aren’t usually on Facebook, Twitter, etc. looking for books to buy/read.
11. Do you write full-time or part-time? For many years, I wrote part-time, juggling it with full-time work and sometimes university studies. I wrote both the historical novel and the convict book on a part-time basis. I’m now moving towards writing full-time after I took a redundancy package a couple of years ago. I’d been in the Queensland (Australia) public service for a long time when a new government decided to throw out thousands of people. I was one of those who drew a short straw. We had the option of applying for other positions, but there were hardly any advertised vacancies at the time so I opted out.
12. What are you working on right now? I’m researching and writing a book on the history of daylight saving time around the world. Next year, 2015, it’s the 100th anniversary of its first use in World War I. It’s one of the most controversial issues of our time and there are some amazing stories of how passionate people are on both sides of the debate. I’ve also got some notes and thoughts for a novel set about 80 years into the future. A sequel to A Weaver’s Web is a possibility. I also want to write a script based on the novel for a TV series or movie.
BlurbHandloom weaver Henry Wakefield, his wife Sarah and their five children live in abject poverty in the Manchester area of the UK in the early 19th century at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Henry hates the new factories and won’t let his family work in them. He clashes with Sarah, a factory agent, a local priest and reformers, and son Albert runs away. The family are evicted and move to Manchester but are even worse off, living in a cellar in a terrace and have another little mouth to feed.Henry’s love of money overrides his hatred of factories and he starts one of his own, but it is beset with problems. The Wakefields eventually become quite wealthy, but Henry holds the purse strings and this has a devastating effect on the family. Albert is caught stealing and is transported to New South Wales. Her baby’s death, Albert’s unknown fate and society parties become too much for Sarah, who hears voices and is taken to the lunatic asylum. Son Benjamin faces eviction from the family home for having a baby with an orphan girl too soon after their marriage.Family members, including Sarah who has got out of the asylum and Albert who has returned to England unbeknown to Henry, have had enough and seek revenge.
- Book Title: A Weaver’s Web
- Author: Chris Pearce
- Genre: Historical
- Length: 401 pages
- Release Date: December 6, 2013
Contact Links For Chris Pearce
Purchase Links for A Weaver’s Web
My Review: 4 out of 5 stars for Chris Pearce’s A Weaver’s Web
In 1776, a few years before we meet the Wakefield family in Chris Pearce’s epic tale, A Weaver’s Web, colonists in America were declaring their inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Up in Glasgow, a moral philosopher named Adam Smith attempted to explain the historical development of industry and commerce in Europe—and in the process invented the “dismal science” of economics. A thread running through Smith’s theories is that a person’s economic environment shapes their life choices.
“Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that….But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. ”
― Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations: An Inquiry into the Nature & Causes of the Wealth of Nations
When we meet Henry Wakefield, he’s a thirty-seven year old handloom weaver, pursuing the craft of his father and his grandfather. His rural workshop allows him to appreciate the natural beauty on his little acre and a half, but already the sound of the future intrudes.
He watched the autumn leaves fall on the lush green grass, still wet from dew and now shimmering under a weak sun. Through mist and between low trees and bushes across the laneway, he could see the dim outlines of scores of drab cottages dotted over the valley, most of them home to other weavers and their families. Smoke poured from chimneys and hung in the air, above the mist. He listened to the birds and the cows and pigs. And he heard the faint clanking of metal from workshops in nearby Middleton.
Indeed, very soon his work and his life are interrupted and forever changed when an agent from the nearby mills tries to recruit Henry’s wife Sarah and their children as workers. To the children, lacking warm clothes and living on potatoes, the mill salary sounds like riches. But Henry’s knee-jerk response is passionate. “Young children taken from their mothers to work all day in a factory. No education. Starving families living in filthy dungeons. Sickness and crime. You call that prosperity?”
Henry vows, “No child of mine is going to be brought up by a factory master. I’ll bring them up myself, teach them good manners, respect, Christian ways. They won’t get that in a factory. They’d get in with the wrong type, start stealing, who knows what.” He turns to the two main forces in his life—the Church, and his fellow weavers and working men. But he’s rebuffed by the priest. “He’s in his great big house with servants and tells me I’m poor because I don’t go to church enough. I seek his advice and he’s too busy opening churches and fighting dissenters.”
Soon the family is evicted from their rural home. They move to Manchester, where Henry’s worst fears come to pass. Bewildered and rudderless as his family crumbles, he turns to gambling and spending time in pubs. Oldest son Albert is arrested for stealing and transported to New South Wales. And the dissenters Henry joins are dispersed when hundreds are killed or wounded in what historians come to call the Peterloo Massacre. Henry starts his own factory, using the wages earned by his wife and children as his capitol. But even as his wealth increases, Sarah’s mental state crumbles with the loss of her baby. Inflexible and uncompromising in his determination to claw his way to wealth and security, Henry has her committed to a horrific lunatic asylum. At home he treats his remaining children as property, maintaining complete control over their income and lives.
Before he published Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote in what he personally considered his most important work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)—
“The poor man’s son, whom heaven has in its anger visited with ambition, goes beyond admiration of palaces to envy. He labours all his life to outdo his competitors, only to find the end that the rich are no happier than the poor in the things that really matter.”
A Weaver’s Web seems, at first, to be little more than the personification of Adam Smith’s warnings. Henry’s inflexible drive to acquire the money that represents safety and success certainly puts him in that mold, with very little evidence of character development or change. Usually when I review books, I look at a number of factors such as pace, plot, style, and especially character development. The pace of A Weaver’s Web is uneven, with the characters sometimes bogged down in repeating actions, while other huge pieces are glossed over. The plot outline is simple, and basically laid out on the jacket blurb. Character development is almost nonexistent. Normally, this would have stopped me cold. I might not have even finished this 400+ page epic. Except…
Except for a couple of things.
First was the amazing, spellbinding description of a world that I might have seen in its major historical highpoints, but never from the point of view of an individual family. But even more, what I realized, slowly and reluctantly, was that Henry wasn’t a caricature of a man who’d lost his soul to greed. His character didn’t develop or change because given his background and the economic changes around him, there was no other way for him to be. He lived in a world that saw children and wives as the property and assets of their father or husband. And that man had the responsibility and the complete right to use those assets to protect and enrich himself, and—but only through him—the family as a whole. If as an old man, Henry had a chance to read Charles Dickens, he would not see himself in the character of Scrooge. For Henry, turning his back on his past—the Church, his working class ideals, and even his wife—is a necessary and inevitable step toward finally taking proper care of his family, and thus achieving his destiny. He is pleased with himself and what he’s accomplished.
“Henry sat at the head of the table, grinning proudly at what he saw as his great achievement of the family having plenty of money and food, and living in luxury. He took in the aroma before picking up his silver knife and fork and proceeding to eat with relish. If only Father Edmond could see him and Sarah and their brood now, he thought, in a house as splendid as those of many of society’s leading figures.”
So despite what I saw as issues while reading it, I’d give A Weaver’s Web four stars out of five. Even with the uneven pacing and plot, the work holds up a lens that focuses on a miniature, the lives of one common family, and through that magnifies the unfolding sweep of history. And Chris Pearce succeeds in doing this even as Henry’s character settles into the inflexible and inevitable rigidity that his time, his economic status, and his background make inevitable.*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**
A Weaver’s Web Excerpt
As they rode off, Sarah felt her heart pumping. She would see her son Albert for the first time in a year and a half. Her grip on Henry’s waist and rib cage was so tight he had to take her hands and ease the pressure so he could breathe properly. The road was better than yesterday and in an hour they were at the docks searching for Albert’s ship. Vessels of different sizes were moored on the still, grey waters of the Mersey. Gangs of men, some of them convicts in their chains, were on the wharves loading and unloading goods. In another spot, men were constructing and mending ships. Further along, several ships were anchored away from the bank and Henry tried to read their names through the fog.
“Look,” he said suddenly, “there it is, the Argot.”
Sarah nearly fell off their horse, trying to see where Henry was looking. “Where? Which one?” she said. She could hardly read, despite his occasional efforts to teach her, and names on sides of ships were meaningless to her.
“Over there, the one with crates and bags piled up near the stern.” He pointed to a large ship a little way on. “It must still be waiting to dock.”
She put her hand over her heart which felt as if it was about to leap out of her body.
“There’s someone on the deck,” she said.
“That’s Captain Hardwick. I hope he remembers me.”
“I don’t see anyone else,” Sarah said.
“Albert’s sure to be there if produce is still to be unloaded.”
“Won’t the convicts unload it?”
“They only work on the government ships.”
“Let’s go closer,” she said, geeing the horse with her feet.
“Captain Hardwick,” Henry bellowed as they drew level with the ship.
A man of about fifty, his skin bronzed from the sun, glanced up. “Hello there,” he said.
“Do you recall who I am?”
He looked hard at Henry. “Ah, indeed I do.”
“Do you have my son, Albert?”
Sarah gripped Henry’s arm. Surely he was there, and the captain was just hard of hearing.
“Albert Wakefield, for ten pounds,” Henry said. “Remember?”
She tightened her grip and bobbed up and down with excitement.
“Where is he?” Henry called out.
“I’m afraid I have bad news, Sir.”
Sarah raised her hands to her face and shook.
“You mean you haven’t got him?” Henry said. “Have we come all this way and he’s not here?”
He jumped off his horse and hurried down to the water’s edge, followed by Sarah and the driver. But after a few steps, Sarah slumped to the ground.
“Where is he?” he yelled across the murky water.
“He’s committed another crime. They put him in a chain gang, making roads, out Parramatta way.”
“What? Where?” Henry shouted.
“It’s a couple of hours up the river from Sydney.”
“You were supposed to bring him back.”
“I tried to. I even went to Parramatta, and saw him in a long line of men chained one to the other.”
“Surely you could have done something.”
“Heaven knows, for ten pounds, given half a chance I would have, you know that.”
“You bumbling idiot, you …”
“They had three guards.”
“That’s not many.”
“… with guns, against my bare hands and those of my drunken crew.”
“I bet you were drunk too.”
At that moment, Jacob tapped Henry on the shoulder. “We’d better go, Sir,” he said, and went to gently take his arm.
“Let me go,” Henry said, shoving the driver hard. “I’m going to find myself a rowboat, Captain, and come aboard to make sure he’s not there. You might be keeping him as a slave.”
Hardwick laughed. “I’d be better off with ten pounds, Sir.”
“Mr Wakefield,” the driver said, again trying to take Henry’s arm. This time there was slightly less resistance.
“I knew I couldn’t trust him,” Henry said to the driver as they walked back.
Sarah was sitting in mud, near the road, where she had fallen. She had heard the conversation. “In a chain gang,” she said tearfully, her quavering voice barely audible.
Henry took her hand and helped her up. “We’ll find another ship to bring him back.”
He cast his eye along the Mersey at the dozens of vessels, many unloading goods from Europe, the New World, the East and New South Wales. Others were preparing to take goods, including cloth and apparel from Manchester and quite possibly from his own mill, to these distant places.
“There must be a ship going to Sydney before long,” he said.
“I’d save your money, Sir,” the driver said. “Another captain will have the same problem.”
“Miserable fools,” Henry said, struggling not to let Sarah fall over again. “I’ll buy a buggy instead and we’ll have some degree of comfort on the return journey.”
“It wouldn’t get through the mud for days, Sir.”
He sighed and shook his head. “Come on, then. We must get as far as we can towards home by tonight. I can’t afford any more time away from the mill.”
They got on their horses and rode off. Sarah flopped up and down, distraught, glimpsing at the river once or twice before she quickly had to look away. When they passed a wharf, she couldn’t help but notice a convict gang at work. One of the convicts had been unchained from the others and was being punished. Henry and the driver didn’t take much notice. They had seen this a number of times in Manchester. Sarah hadn’t. What she saw horrified her. A slip of a lad, no older than her Albert, had been tied to a post and was being whipped by a guard twice his size. She shuddered each time she heard the whip crack against the victim’s bare back and the consequent scream, and wondered what he had done wrong – if he tried to escape or swore at his overseer or slackened off. The cracks of the whip and the screams bounced off nearby buildings and ships. This seemed to prolong the agony. His back was bloody, but still the flogging went on. She saw the boy as Albert, under a hot sun in Sydney, exhausted, thirsty, hungry, being beaten because he couldn’t work hard enough, then collapsing on the barren ground, at the mercy of snakes and savages. How long he could survive this, she didn’t know. Perhaps he was dead already. She had no way of finding out.
She tried to control her tears as she sat behind Henry in silence, not wanting him or Jacob to see her in this state, for fear they would think she wasn’t strong and shouldn’t have come with them, not that the trip had achieved anything. She was cross with herself for believing Henry’s scheme would work.
For quite some time they rode through the rain and mud at walking pace. Later the rain eased and they passed several villages, local townspeople going about their business. Farmers walked their produce in wheelbarrows and handcarts. A young man was trying to get a horse and cart through the mud. And there were a few travellers on horseback. Unlike Henry and Jacob, Sarah didn’t acknowledge them. Her mind was consumed with thoughts of Albert and images of him at the hands of some brutal flagellator. She felt so helpless. Each step the horse took bounced her about and she ached all over and was cold and wet.
For this week’s Lie-dar, please choose how you think Chris would finish the statement—”If I could have one superpower it would be…”
- To fly
- To travel through time
- To make myself invisible
For a chance to win a copy of A Weaver’s Web, please add your guess about the correct answer to the Comments section below.