Georgina Hutchison, Under the Canopy of Heaven: A Luddite Novel, self-published (2018)

John Wheatley, Enoch`s Hammer: A Tale of the Yorkshire Luddites self-published (2019)

Brian Van Norman, Against the Machine: Luddites, Guernica Editions (2020)


You wait over a hundred years for a novel about the Huddersfield Luddites and then three come at once.  Or almost at once.  Three have been published each year since 2018. The previous one was Ben o’Bills published in several editions in the early 1900s and reprinted with a foreword by Lesley Kipling in 1988.  The Luddites have featured as an episode in family sagas – Phyllis Bentley’s, Inheritance (1932) and Aileen Armitage’s Hawksmoor (1981), where they provide some excitement and colour to otherwise uneventful stories, but add nothing new to an understanding of the Luddites themselves, or of the period in which they lived.  All these three novels manage to do just that, although with the authors’ individual take on the characters and events they depict.

I am eminently unqualified to review literary works, having read only a couple of dozen novels since leaving school, including two and a bit of the those referring to the Luddites (the bit being Inheritance). One (or three) of my favourite novels is Alexander Cordell’s Rape of the Fair Country trilogy, which vividly depicts the miners and iron workers in South Wales in the 1830s and 40s. To compare any novel of working class life with Cordell’s work would be unfair, since it means setting the bar very high indeed. In this review I will therefore not attempt to analyse the structure, characterisation and artistic merit of the novels as works of literature, but look primarily about what they contribute to our understanding of the Luddites. However, the style of the books frames the way the events of 1812 are portrayed and so I must briefly mention them.

Perhaps the stylistic difference can perhaps be best understood if we imagine that they were translated to another medium.  John Wheatley’s book would appear as a theatre production, since most of the action happens off-stage and is related subsequently by witnesses or participants. Dialogue dominates the description, although the back-drop to some scenes is vividly described.  Georgina Hutchison’s work would lend itself to adaptation as a BBC historical drama series, perhaps screen played by Sally Wainwright.  The first chapter, and some of the following ones, begin with the final grim scenes at York Castle, around which the main narrative appears as ‘flashbacks’, describing the events leading to the arrest of George Mellor and his comrades. The book is earthy and full of local detail, as well as having a foreboding inevitability as a result of this structure.  Brian van Norman’s book has the aura of a big budget feature film with lots of action and sweeping cinematography. Elsewhere I have described it as ‘Jane Austen meets Quentin Taratino’!  How then, do they use their respective styles to imagine the Luddites?

Of the three novels, Georgina’s keeps closest to the known events and exhibits a detailed knowledge of the daily lives of the croppers. This is expressed in her use of dialect for some of the dialogue, which is mostly accurate yet easy to read and not so impenetrable as the conversations in Sykes’ Bill o’Bens, which even I, as dialect speaker, find hard going.  This and the sense of place she evokes perhaps makes this the most ‘local’ of the books. Her interesting postscript sets out her own genealogical research, which throws light on some of the characters and their descendants. Brian, despite writing from afar (Canada) and after only a short visit to the area, still manages to capture the essential character of the time and place and helps us to look at it afresh with the eyes of an outside observer. He follows the historical events fairly closely, but enhances them for dramatic effect and adds details not in the primary sources, which follows the brief of a fiction writer in engaging the reader and bringing events to life. In so doing, however, he does not destroy the core narrative.  John, as I have alluded to above, does not directly describe the major events as they happened.  The account of the Rawfolds Mill attack and the shooting of Horsfall are both related by witnesses after the event.  This permits his particular twist to the story.  Since George Mellor, William Thorpe and Thomas Smith are not specifically described as the assassins of Horsfall the question of their possible innocence is left open. A fictional love story introduced into the account makes Smith’s fate particularly tragic.

Free rein for the novelists’ imagination comes is at its fullest where historical knowledge is least.  Little is known of Luddite activity after the assassination of Horsfall and the big question of exactly how the state finally penetrated the organisation can only be inferred from scattered references in the Home Office correspondence.  The counter-insurgency campaign and how the net tightened on the local Luddites and how the informers were induced, or coerced, to betray their oaths is dealt with very differently by the respective authors.  The involvement of Ben Walker, Mellor’s alleged accomplice, and Joseph Mellor, his cousin, are intricately drawn to account for the crack in Luddite solidarity, as is the intrigue and Machiavellianism of the civil and military authorities.  It would be a spoiler to say anymore, except Brian’s account of Mellor going on the run, although fictional, is worth reading as a thrilling piece of adventure writing


So, to my main concerns – how do the books add to our understanding of the Luddites?  And do they do the Luddites justice? Georgina states at the outset that she is not out to write an apology for the Luddites – since they need none.  She keeps close to the historical narrative of how stymied legal opposition to the introduction of machinery led to escalating direct action.  The possibility of Republican influence on the Luddites is posed by placing Mellor at a meeting addressed by John Baines at the Crispin Inn, in Halifax. The Baines link is emphasised even more by John Wheatley who places him at the centre of Luddite activity, including a meeting at the Shears Inn and the ‘twisting in’ of Luddite sympathisers.  The extent of the political nature of Luddism is still hotly debated by historians, polarised between the E P Thompson view of the Luddites as part of a wider working class movement and the M I Thomis view that machine breaking was separate from political conflicts. All the authors tend to the Thompson thesis.  Brian is the only one to refer to the only clear piece of evidence we have to the Luddites political involvement – the intercepted letter that Mellor wrote to Thomas Ellis from York Castle. However, he makes it a request to appeal to parliament for acquittal, rather than the declaration of support for parliamentary reform it in fact was.  Brian departs from the other two writers in not giving a detailed account of the trial, but all three point to the nonchalant inadequacy of the defence, the flaws of the prosecution case and the haste of the executions. Lesley Kipling maintained that George Mellor and his comrades were probably innocent of the Horsfall assassination and that this was a triumphalistic show-trial. Certainly, by today’s standards, the convictions could appear unsound.

All three novels make Mellor a complex, intelligent, sometimes conflicted, political leader and not the mindless thug some historians have portrayed.  The ‘one’s person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist’ aphorism is vividly exemplified in his portrayal.  All three emphasise the rationale behind the Luddite actions. Their relevance to today is implicit, but in Brian’s account it is also made explicit in George Mellor’s musings on the danger of men becoming subordinate to thinking machines. For me then, the success of the novels is not in that they tell a good and mostly accurate story, but in that they contribute to the argument against the concept of the ‘Luddite fallacy’.  This states that the Luddites were wrong because technology led to more jobs and economic growth.  But as these novels vividly show and has been explained by neo-Luddite writers, like Kirkpatrick Sale in his Rebels Against the Future, there was more at stake. The Luddite struggle was not only about job losses, but also about the erosion of independence, community and dignity. It was about resisting the concentration of power and wealth into relatively fewer hands. The consequences of our dependence on unfettered technology and its ill effects not only on humans, but the planet, is now all too apparent.

These three novels all contribute to the rescuing of the Luddites from the ‘condescension of posterity’ complained of by Thompson’. Intuition and imagination are also used by historians, especially those who try and bring history to life and show its continued relevancy, but they are always kept in rein by the facts. Novelists need not have such a constraint, but nevertheless they may reveal insights that increase our understanding of both individual characters and historical processes.  I will leave it to readers to judge how far they succeed in this regard.