Christy Fearn. Local History Through Storytelling.
I rather like it when someone makes local history their passion and goes about creating a means of sharing it with a wider audience. As well as having a lifelong interest in Lord Byron, Christy Fearn has been gaining a reputation for spreading the word about notable moments in history that people may not immediately associate with Nottingham, frame breaking in particular. She has now combined all these interests in a novel Framed.
Tell me about yourself.
I was brought up in Lord Byron’s home town of Southwell in Nottinghamshire (it’s pronounced ‘South Well’, not ‘Suthell’). People always argue about how it’s pronounced. Lord Byron lived in Southwell in the early 1800s before going off to Cambridge. I went to the Minster School, but the part I went to is no longer there in Church Street, because it’s been demolished and they’ve now built a fantastic new school on Nottingham Road.
When I left Southwell I went to York StJohn’s University in York. I also studied at Clarendon College, which is now part of New College Nottingham, where I studied English and Drama and became fascinated by the local poet, Byron. But I’d already become fascinated with him by the time I was five or six, when I was taken to Newstead Abbey on a school trip and saw Boatswain’s tomb. Boatswain was Byron’s dog. I was just fascinated by the idea that this person had a tomb made for his dog. I had a pet dog as well, and the tomb introduced me to the idea of making a monument for your pets. It seemed a really strange thing to do and I really like the idea that he’d had all these pets and cared about animals.
You became interested in Byron at a very early age, how have you developed this interest and woven it into your current profession?
I’ve writing about Byron since I began my degree. When I moved back to Nottingham years later, I decided to do a performance at Lowdham Book Festival, because I was invited to a poetry afternoon at Lowdham Library. Ross Bradshaw, of Five Leaves, who runs Lowdham Festival, along with Jane Streeter, from the Bookcase, had asked me to do a talk about Byron at the Festival. We had to read poems at the event by your favourite Romantic poet and I said that Byron was like a rock star, because of his lifestyle and all the groupies and fans that he had. He traveled around Europe and it was like a tour. So Ross said, ‘I’d like you to do a talk at the Lowdham book Festival, about Byron being a rock star.’ I said, ‘All right,’ and performed that piece at the festival. It was packed out, to such an extent that Ross asked me to do another talk about someone else.
So I wrote a talk about Shelley. That was called ‘Shelley Was He Punk or What.’ It was about Shelley’s political beliefs and activism, as well as his poetry. It’s spiralled from there.
How do you do your research? What resources do you use?
I go back to the original writing of the poet, whenever I’m giving a talk about them. So I go back to Byron’s original poems, his letters, and his journals. The personality of the writer really shines through in his writings. His letters are very witty, very funny and he was a very lively person, as well as very charismatic.
I then read around this, to find things that other people have said about him.
For the book I’ve just written, Framed, which is about the Luddites, I had to do a lot of research into the background and the history. Being from Nottingham, I have a long standing history myself with Nottingham. So I learned about the Luddites and what happened in the Nottingham Lace Market. I also went to Ruddington Framework Knitters Museum, where they have the original frames and the equipment that the frame knitters would have used. They’ve got the original houses of the frame knitters. They’re typical of the type of houses that would have been in the centre of Nottingham, up to Sutton in Ashfield and out to Loughborough and Leicester. The stocking industry was huge in that area.
I walked into one of the kitchens and it was like walking into one of the pages of my novel. It was an amazing experience. It was cold and quite damp, even on a summer’s day. It made me think, if that was what it was like in summer, what would it have been like in winter? It must have been absolutely bitter. So going to the museum really gives you an insight into how they lived. I was able to go into the workshop and actually have a go on one of the frames. That was amazing. I was shown how to use one of the frames, but I wasn’t very good at all. It really is a skilled job and you have to be very well trained to be able to do it properly. I don’t think I would have made a very good stocking knitter.
Explain what a Luddite is.
Today people think of a Luddite as being someone who doesn’t like technology or progress. Or someone who’s not very good at operating pieces of machinery. In those days it meant a follower of Ned Ludd. Ned Ludd is a character who it’s difficult to work out whether he was real or made up. There was apparently a boy called Ned Ludd, who threw a clog into a stocking weaving machine, because he’d been asked to do some extra work for no money. So really a Luddite then was somebody who rebelled against employers and somebody who refused to work for less wages or unpaid. It became synonymous with becoming a rebel. During the Luddites activity, or ‘frame breaking’, the stocking knitters decided to break the frames that were putting them out of work.
Their employers had brought in ‘wide frames’ which were wider than the traditional frame and the operator didn’t need to be so well trained in order to use them. A normal stockinger would have to serve an apprenticeship of about seven years to become really expert at it. You would knit the stockings all in one. If you look at a pair of tights, or a pair of socks, you can see the toes and the heels are really fully fashioned, that is how the stocking knitters would knit them. The wide frames, on the other hand, didn’t need that sort of training, and the people who were brought in, were untrained. They were called ‘colts’, which was a derogatory term for them.
The stocking knitters were a very close community, because it would be done by more than one generation of the family. If you were a stocking knitter, your children would become stocking knitters and so on.
So the Luddites were the people who decided to break the frames that were putting them out of work. To start off with they just removed parts of the machinery that would prevent them from being used. After a while, they decided they were actually going to smash up the frames, because the employers were just replacing the ‘sinkers’ which were the little bits that they were taking out. So they had to get together and be organised. They referred to their leader as ‘Ned Ludd’.
There is no evidence that there was one specific person, who was called Ned Ludd, so it ended up being a term for a leader. It was like Robin Hood. It’s not a necessarily a real person, just a name that bands people together. A bit like a Che Guevara character in a way.
There were letters written to the authorities telling them that if they didn’t keep the frame knitters wages at the same level, if they didn’t remove the wide frames that were putting them out of work (for every one person in work, six were made redundant) . They told the authorities that if they didn’t conform to their requests, then it would have dire consequences. All these letters were signed Ned Ludd. There are several of these letters (which I seen) and they’re all in different handwriting. So the same person couldn’t have been writing them, and this is why I think Ned Ludd was a totem character to unify people.
They must have had some educated people amongst them to be able to write letters.
They were educated. Generally people were educated, because they used to go to Sunday school and they would learn to read and write. It’s a popular misconception that people were illiterate in the Regency period. From the seventeenth century onwards, ordinary people were highly literate and were able to read and write. They would write letters to each other and read newspapers. It’s only when you really get into the Victorian age that people from the countryside were moving into the industrial cities, that the children ended up working all the time and so they couldn’t go to school. Then it was left to benevolence charities to set up schools for the poor children.
At this time, although they were able to read and write, there was no standardised spelling, because there was no dictionary. Samuel Johnson may have written a dictionary, but it was not like a dictionary that you would have today. So people pretty much spelled how they talked.
So how did they organise themselves?
They organise themselves by meeting together. You would know everybody who worked in your workshop and would be friends with the people you worked with. They would all drink in the same pubs. In fact the pub that’s in the Lace Market, ‘The Old Angel’ as it is now called (used to just be called the Angel), is in the novel. So they were drinking the same places and they would talk together.
There were secret meetings as well. Eventually they had meetings in St Mary’s churchyard, where they would all get together. They had secret signs as well, so that you would know a Luddite and this is also in the novel. You would raise your hand over your eye and the other person would put a finger over their lips and things like that. It was quite complicated and almost like the Masons. You would know who your fellow Luddites were and you had to swear that you wouldn’t give any information about your fellow Luddites and wouldn’t betray them. This was done in quite a serious ceremony. On pain of death you swear loyalty.
The plot of frames revolves around the problem of the heroine’s brother, who is a Luddite, being falsely arrested. How did you put the story together?
Originally what I wanted to do was to have a couple of characters who are very close. Instead of having a boyfriend and girlfriend I thought I would have a brother and sister. I decided to make them have as many disadvantages as possible, because I wanted them to have plenty to fight against. Lizzie and Robert are French émigrés. Their mother died when they were born. Their father brought them over from France to England to escape the terror of the French Revolution, because the French Revolution ceased to be about getting rid of the aristocracy and became about getting rid of the servants or anybody that knew them. It did happen. There were quite a few people who came over to escape.
Lizzie and Robert work in the stocking industry as the father did. He went off to America to find other relatives, they think in New Orleans. So they’re both left on their own.
Roberts gets involved in frame breaking, because he’s going to be put out of work. He ends up being arrested for a crime which he swears he didn’t commit and ends up in Nottingham jail, facing transportation, or the gallows, if it’s proved he did it. So his sister has to show all her strength and resourcefulness to try and save him.
So it’s really a Regency thriller.
Yet it has been described like that. One review said it was a ‘Right rollicking read’, which I thought was a nice way of putting it.
It is quite a thrilling book, because it’s got saucy scenes and intriguing plots. What I didn’t want it to be was a really soppy romance. On the other end of the scale I didn’t want it to just be an action story, and I didn’t want my heroine to be too feisty, because I can’t stand that word. So many heroines these days are unrealistic and feisty, which means you can get a lead female character in a historical novel that doesn’t behave how the women of the time behaved. Yes there are strong people and strong characters in Framed, and Lizzie has to go out of her own experience in many ways, in order to try and help her brother. She finds a lot of strength that she really didn’t know she had, as well as displaying a lot of intelligence.
Lizzie is also slightly psychic, they both are a little bit. This is something I found out about twins. A lot of twins of have had almost psychic experiences where they been thinking the same thing at the same time or one of them has been injured and the other has felt pain at exactly the same time. One of my friends is a twin. His sister was pregnant and she went into labour and he didn’t know she’d been taken into hospital. He was at work and had the most tremendous headache and felt really sick all afternoon. He got home to be told that his sister had had the baby. So he thought that’s why he did been in as much pain as he had. It could have been coincidence, but it does seem to happen quite a lot twins.
Are you a writer who always carries a notebook and makes notes of things that are going on around you?
I tend to make mental notes of things. I hear conversations between people and think ‘Oh that sounds good.’ Or someone will do something and I’ll think that’s exactly how my character would behave, I’ve got to put that in the book. Or if I’m trying to get a handle on the character, I trying think if it’s someone I can remember who’s a bit like them, although it’s likely to be an amalgamation of several different people.
I’ve got friends who worry if I’m going to put them into my next book. I know DH Lawrence got into a lot of trouble for writing about people he knew because he was writing contemporary fiction. I nearly did get into trouble myself, when I began to write my book, because there’s a particularly nasty piece of work, Ben, who’s the nephew of the employer who died. His father and his uncle were in charge of the business and now his uncle is in charge. Ben is a real villain. To start off with I gave them a name that was a real name from the time. I’m a member of the Newstead Abbey Byron Society. I told the chairman of the society about this character and he said ‘I think you’d better change the name because his descendants are still alive.’ So I did change his name slightly so it won’t upset anybody, because although you can’t libel somebody who’s dead, you can upset the descendants. You have to be a bit careful, especially when you’re writing about a local experience, because someone may be a descendant of a particular person and it’s part of their family history, so you have to be sensitive to that.