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>> Victorian history helped inspire debut novel

Victorian history helped inspire debut novel
12/09/2019

Victorian history helped inspire debut novel


Liz Hyder blogs about how a visit to a disused mine inspired her novel, Bearmouth, which draws on research into the working conditions of children in Victorian mines, and which has parallels with the exploitation of child workers in today's world.


About Bearmouth:

"Time down here is a diffrent thing see. Lyke on the other side you sees seesons change, leeves grow bold an grene an fayde to gold an red, then drop off and kirl up and disappear into snoe. But Bearmouth is black. Black an warm an dark an wet an full o coal. All days all weeks all year. Forever and ever. Amen."

Newt has been living and working in Bearmouth from a tender age. Daily life in the mine is full of strict routine and a quiet acceptance of how things are – until, that is, Devlin arrives and starts to ask questions. Newt fears any unrest will bring heightened oppression from the Master and his overseers. Life is hard enough and there is no choice about that. Or is there? Newt is soon looking at Bearmouth with a fresh perspective - one that does more than whisper about change: one that is looking for a way out.


Liz writes: 'I'll be honest - I've never really liked caves or mines. The deep dark underground world always feels to me like a sort of strange eerie shadowy version of the world above. Tunnels winding into pitch blackness, strange sounds and smells, the warm dampness of the walls, textures and scents that feel utterly otherworldly. The claustrophobia of the rocks surrounding you, that notion that you're physically standing within the weight of the earth's crust...

A few years ago, I found myself donning a hard hat and venturing down a disused slate mine in North Wales on a rainy day on holiday. It wasn't a particularly deep mine but it was atmospheric with a sad sort of feel to it. The more I explored, the more appalled I became. Young boys having their nostril slit to prove that they were 'man enough' to work down there and stretchers shaped like coffins to shepherd out anyone unlucky enough to be wounded on the job. There was also, and you had to squint at it from a distance to see it, a huge stone figure in the rocks that the workers would doff their cap to as they left the mine at the end of the working day. The whole place had the feel of a strange sort of cult to it and I left feeling unsettled, haunted by it but also knowing that there was a spark of a story that had been lit within me.

In school, I remember being taught about Victorian child labour, chimney sweepers and mill workers, miners too but it wasn't a subject we lingered on. My trip down the slate mine inspired me to delve more deeply into the world of child miners in British history and what I found horrified me.

Children as young as four working 12-hour days, six days a week. Children made bald from dragging weights with straps around their heads. Children working semi-naked in the heat of the mines, forced to work in ever-narrower passages to get the last of the 'black gold' of the coal out. Children maimed, blinded, gassed and killed outright in explosions, pit collapses and more. Their voices, calling out from the darkness, telling their story simply and clearly for a report to parliament that resulted in the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, absolutely broke my heart.

My fictional mine, Bearmouth, was heavily inspired by my research but it is not a Victorian mine per se, more a Victorian-esque mine, one that could indeed be from our past but that could also, just possibly, be from our near future. In Bearmouth, the workers, like the pit ponies down so many of the mines, not only toil down in the depths of the dark, claustrophobic mine but also live, sleep and eat down there too.

I wanted my mine to be somewhere in which I could set a fable that explores truth and hope, that highlights the importance of probing the status quo, that challenges authority and that shows the power and importance of asking questions. In our modern age of zero-hours contracts, where workers for courier companies must pay for a van and branding out of their own pocket and where they get fined if they miss a day's work, I wanted to write a story that would resonate with today's readers in our age of fake news, where asking questions is more important than ever and where exploitation has been rebranded as opportunity.

Above all though, I had a strong, sparky character whispering in my head at night – the voice of Newt, the protagonist at the heart of Bearmouth. Newt's distinctive voice, smart, inquisitive, impatient and passionate, informed the story, shaping and guiding it, the dialect a mix of Shropshire, Cumbrian, Cockney and a million and one other things.

Bearmouth is not just a story about power and rebellion, ultimately it's about hope too. The idea that one person can create a revolution, or, as Newt would spell it 'revolushun', feels particularly timely with the likes of Greta Thunberg causing waves around the world with her school strikes and strong environmental message.

Meanwhile, although we have in the UK mercifully banned child labour, there are children working in and down mines across other parts of the globe. Coltan, a precious material that is used in all sorts of modern technology (from your phone and laptop to your computer at home - it's almost certainly part of the device you're currently reading this on right now) is mined by children in Congo in open cast mines.

Child labour and exploitation hasn't ever really gone away, it has just changed, transformed itself into something else but, as ever, it remains hidden from view. I hope that in a small way at least, Bearmouth and those who read it will bring it to the surface again.'


ReadingZone Review of Bearmouth:

Newt has been living and working in Bearmouth from a tender age. Daily life in the mine is full of strict routine and a quiet acceptance of how things are - until, that is, Devlin arrives and starts to ask questions. Newt fears any unrest will bring heightened oppression from the Master and his overseers. Life is hard enough and there is no choice about that. Or is there? Newt is soon looking at Bearmouth with a fresh perspective - one that does more than whisper about change; one that is looking for a way out.

I have to admit then when I started this it took a while to get used to the writing style and the language but after a very short time I found myself racing along with it and absolutely lapping up the dark world of Bearmouth where it's bleak, it's claustrophobic - but it's a wonderful place to find yourself now the nights are drawing in and the days are getting shorter.

Inspired by the history of Victorian child labour in the mines, Bearmouth is a sophisticated, intelligent and original young adult read that needs to be put into the hands of your avid readers. It will definitely appeal to fans of Frances Hardinge.

320 pages / Ages 14+ / Reviewed by Lucy Georgeson, school librarian

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