The Sweetest Thing by Fiona Shaw
Fiona Shaw’s novel opens with a couple of flither-lasses, Harriet and Mary, arriving in York during the second half of the nineteenth century, on the run from their harsh lives on the coast.
The story unfolds through two alternating voices; that of Harriet, a young, displaced working-class girl trying to make her way in the world; and that of Samuel Ransome, a wealthy and established Quaker industrialist.
Ransome is a complex character, the product of overbearing and ambitious parents. He lives on the earnings of a tannery without having much involvement in the day-to-day running of the plant, giving his time over to cultural pursuits and work with charities for the poor and unfortunate. From an early age he has been obsessed with the appearance and plight of young working girls, often following them around in the poorer quarters of the city, sometimes at risk to himself. Lately he has been making photographic records of them, having them dress in their working gear for the portraits. His introduction to Harriet and Mary comes about in exactly this way.
Although the author does not explore this obsessive, almost fetishistic side to his nature, it stands there throughout the narrative, giving the man a somewhat sinister aspect.
A relationship or sorts develops between Harriet and Ransome when he arranges for her to work at his cousin’s chocolate factory. In the meantime Mary becomes involved with the man who took her photograph and it gradually emerges that she is earning far more than Harriet or other girls, and sets off speculation about what exactly it is that she does for a living.
Harriet falls in love with a clerk at the chocolate factory, Thomas, a man who is also involved in the business of industrial spying for the Quaker owners, a task which takes him away frequently, and where he is at constant risk from competitors intent on jealously guarding their recipes and key employees.
Ransome’s cousin, the owner of the chocolate factory, also hits on the idea of using a human model, a girl instead of flowers and landscapes, to advertise his chocolates. Thus is brought together the development of the camera and the idea of the first female models to sell commodities. Harriet, unpaid for her involvement, and totally unaware of the implications, is photographed popping a chocolate into her mouth, and the resultant image is used extensively to promote the brand.
The novel is predictable but gratifyingly so. In the tradition of much good literature, the main protagonists are always the last to discover what fate has in store for them. But the picture of a northern town in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, seen from both sides of the fence, is what will remain as an enduring image for me. Shaw’s novel, set during the birth pangs of modernity, is an excellent read, and one I would heartily recommend.