The Wool-Pack (1951), written and illustrated by Cynthia Harnett. Not in print (last reprint 2001).
In the period after the Second World War, historical novelist enjoyed high critical esteem. Authors were keen to establish a sense of identity and personal and cultural inheritance, particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War. This popularity is certainly reflected in the 1950s and 1960s list of Carnegie Winners – so much so that I’ll have to write a separate post on historical fiction for children.
The Wool-Pack is the story of Nicholas Fetterlock, son of a Cotswold wool-merchant at Burford in the time of Chaucer at the end of the fifteenth century. He is a pleasant boy, and his intelligence helps him to protect his father from being ruined by Lombard money-lenders. A by-plot tells how he becomes reluctantly betrothed to Cecily, the daughter of a clothier of Newbury, and finds to his surprise that he becomes very fond of her.
In The Wool-Pack, the reader gains an understanding of all aspects of the wool trade, from the management of sheep to the dyeing of yarn, making of cloth and export. It is borderline overdone, there are a couple of scenarios where Nicolas is being shown stuff, fictionally in the guise that he’ll need to know for his future career, that feels slightly contrived, but the fictional pull is enough that Harnett is forgiven.
In my view, the best historical novels are stories of everyday social and economic life in other times. Cynthia Harnett herself was not keen on military or constitutional historical details, previously very popular in historical fiction. She said: “I was tired to death of the boy who sailed with Drake or bowed his way as a page through the intricacies of dastardly plots against the Crown”. Research was key to her – she worked from research, waiting for a plot to develop. The Wool-Pack is all about the historical detail while managing to make a story about illegal adulteration in the wool trade fascinating. Major historical events are kept in the distance but there is sure handling of innumerable details which, like pieces in a mosaic, add up to an accurate and lively panorama of everyday history.
Harnett’s illustrations are not of many actual scenes in the book, they are more a kind of annotation in the text with inserts of clothes and weapons, buildings etc. but each object she draws has its place in the story. Then in a glossary at the back tells you what they were for and where to find them in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is scholarship lightly borne but nevertheless profound. This kind of research and fact-gathering was an extension of the information given in the (nonfictional) The Story of your Home but reading the two in quick succession for this challenge I was struck by how much the two mirrored each other. Indeed, facts given in The Story of Your Home was repeated and re-enforced in The Wool-Pack.
Harnett’s characters are real, vivid and authentic within their period. Both Hal, Nicolas’ foster brother and Cecily, his betrothed, are portrayed as having a degree of independence and subjective agency and play central supporting roles. The Wool-Pack is a coming of age story as it charts Nicolas’ changes from boy to man. He is portrayed as a very modern person in his relationships both with his ‘servants’ and with his wife-to-be. Is this historically accurate or realistic? It would be lovely if that was the case, but I feel that this may be one of the instances where story is prioritised over history. The slightly xenophobic treatment of the Italian merchants also shows the book’s age.
Keith Barker says “Cynthia Harnett was one of the early and most successful exponents of the genre with her richly detailed, but still hugely enjoyable, novels of which The Wool-Pack is the best (…) the writer’s mastery of her research is exemplary for it is not overdrawn on to the main events; thus the child reader will still gain much insight into what life was like at the time”. I totally agree with this even though I am not a child, I learnt much and was entertained all the while.
On the subject of Keith Barker, my edition of The Wool-Pack (the Classic Mammoth edition published by Egmont in 2001) states on the back that it was voted one of the 100 best children’s books of the twentieth century in the Keith Barker Millennium Awards. But I’ve searched high and low for this list and can’t find it except on some sort of unsecured Russian website where I had to put in my credit card details to get access and, even in the name of research, this felt like too big a gamble. So I can’t verify this in any way but must assume it is correct. If anyone has this list, I’d love to see it!
I always Wiki the authors of the Carnegie Winners as part of my background research (I obviously do lots of other research too!) but Cynthia Hartnett’s entry is sadly sparse. Given that her books by popular and critical account are good, that The Wool-Pack won a Carnegie Medal, that I found it still extremely readable with lively characterisation of various social classes and non-restrictive views of genders, I would expect her entry to be more than 156 words long! Elfrida Vipont, a far inferior author in my view, gets 847 words. Overall there’s an argument to say that authors, whose chosen periods happen to tie in with the historical topics of the English National Curriculum generally do better and stay in print longer. Rosemary Sutcliffe, for instance, has many books still in print. So the reason The Wool-Pack is out of print may be because of the period it describes, or it may be that the mix of fiction and non-fiction does not fit the current mould for historical fiction?
Thinking about historical novels for this challenge I have discovered (or rather, consciously identified for the first time) that I really enjoy historical (children’s) novels. I am not keen on adult historical novels which are often, in my view, excessively costume-y or focussed on politically significant people or events. Children’s historical fiction often tells of historical times or events as seen by those not involved or at the centre of events. They describe how people were impacted by events and of how people lived on a day to day basis. They talk about the basic things like food and warmth and love. The best give story precedence over history while developing an appreciation in the reader for what life was like for previous generations. That’s my kind of historical novel!
I really enjoyed The Wool-Pack. The themes of history are ageless and for no particular age. It has its flaws, but these feel minor. I might try my children on it; I can certainly recommend it! 8.5/10
For this post I’ve based my research on Out of the Attic – Some Neglected Children’s Authors of the Twentieth Century, ed by Pat Pinsent (2006), Exploring Children’s Literature by Nikki Gamble (2019), Outstanding Books for Children and Young People by Keith Barker (1998) and Chosen for Children by The Library Association (1967)