a laundress and an heiress

Netflix is usually pretty good about recommending period films for me to watch, more often than not based on books… so I can thank it for a few recent discoveries, including Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and now Catherine Cookson’s The Black Velvet Gown.

After watching the ITV adaptation of the novel, I felt that the film only touched the surface of the tale and left a lot to be desired. Therefore, in a very Hermione-esque fashion, I turned to the library. And there were dozens of Cookson novels, including The Black Velvet Gown.

As I thought, the film did not do justice to what is an engaging and captivating novel about class conflict, the power of education, and the position of women in Victorian England.

Cookson’s novel tells the tale of Riah Millican’s struggle to survive as a widowed mother of four in the Northern English countryside. Born in a seaport town, Riah married an outsider from the coal pits of the North, but wants more for her children than the sea or the pit. Taught to read and write by her husband, Riah and her children possess more education than most of the members of the lower class. Not only are they educated, her children have never been forced to work in the pits. Consequently, most of the other miners frown upon the Millican family, regarding them as snobs and social-climbers. Rejected by her neighbors when her husband dies, Riah is forced to return to the seaside port she so hated as a child, until an opportunity arises that changes her family forever.

Moving to the country, Riah finds employment as a housekeeper in the home of Percival Miller, gentleman and recluse. Initially refusing to suffer the presence of Riah’s children, the master soon becomes taken with Riah’s children, particularly her son Davey, and makes it his duty to further their education. However, it is Biddy, Riah’s eldest daughter, not Davey who takes to the plan, exhibiting an insatiable desire to learn that raises her far above her station, if only in education.

The master’s scheme irrevocably alters the Millican family and allows them to learn the meaning of knowledge and power as Biddy rises from her position as an abused laundress – the lowest member of the rigid hierarchy that exists among the servants at the local great house where she is sent into service – to establish herself as the intellectual equal (and often superior) of the members of the household that she serves.

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