Now that has to be the worst way ever to begin a story. Right? ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ Seriously? Does anyone really begin a novel with that sentence? Not me, that’s for sure.
Umm, hang on, SARAH ANN ELLIOTT‘s story begins on a dark and stormy night. Oh dear. Can’t get around that because it’s a fact. I could have chosen another night to begin the story. “It was a clear, moonlit night” or “The night sky was filled with stars”. Or clouds. Or rain.
Or even better, a once-in-a-lifetime blizzard that devastated the whole of northern England in February 1823. Sounds a bit Dickensian, but then Dickens wrote about those times as they were, not as they were imagined, and bad weather meant terrible hardship for many. It still does if you don’t live in a civilised part of the world with good infrastructure, a well built home, a comfortable income and central heating.
“It was a dark and stormy night” could be used as a lead in to a great love story – the heroine facing some sort of crisis under terrible conditions, overcoming all odds to eventually find her Mr Darcy. Oh come now, that’s been done to death, and surely we all know in these times of social media and 24 hour news broadcasts that life isn’t really like that. Not all dramas have a happy ending, although some naive souls still cling to that myth.
But Sarah Ann Elliott’s story is indeed a love story, just not particularly romantic. It starts off badly, continues uncertainly and sometimes perilously, but endures despite the harsh realities of working class Victorian England. But back to that dark and stormy night beginning…
Chapter 1 of SARAH ANN ELLIOTT Book 1 begins with a personal tragedy in the Elliott family and a dramatic event – the Great Snow Storm of 9 February 1823. A dark and stormy night indeed. Sarah Ann was born three months after that terrible storm. Her mother, Nancy was pregnant with her and twin sister Jane when the blizzard raged across northern England, leaving towns and countryside buried under eight to twelve feet of snow. It was indeed a dark and stormy night for them and most probably a time filled with terror, for when it was over Stockport was under so much snow that the populace had to tunnel their way through the frozen drifts to reach neighbours in distress, to tend to livestock and property, to seek out food and fuel to keep their fires burning and prevent them from freezing to death, to make their way to the textiles mills to work, or simply to get out of their cottages and houses for breathable air.
Did I hear you say “Stockport?” Oh, you don’t know where that is? Well, these days it’s a southern suburb of Manchester in Northern England with a population of over 280,000. When Sarah Ann’s parents moved there from Ireland at the beginning of the 19th Century, it was transitioning from a once fine rural Market Town into the hub of the Industrial Revolution’s textile mill boom.
Stockport had an identity of it’s own back then that was quite separate from Manchester. It has seen better days, or so my Stockport-born researcher told me, but it is currently undergoing regeneration, part of the cycle of many of those Industrial Revolution towns around Lancashire and Cheshire. Locals are known as Stopfordians, not Stockportians. It may be seen as a suburb of Manchester in Lancashire now, but it is mostly south of the River Mersey and therefore in Cheshire, a whole different county. And people from Cheshire are not Cheshirians. If you’re a Stockport born and bred Stopfordian, then you’re a proud Cestrian. (If I am wrong and you are Stockport born and bred, please feel free to correct me.)
In 1802 when the Elliotts arrived in Stockport, it was still spoken of in glowing terms by those who passed through it. A pleasant town with a good Market Place and fine cobbled streets, albeit those streets were often narrow and steep as Stockport lies in a deep river valley. But by 1844 Stockport was home to over 50,000 and was described in the most horrific terms in Friedrich Engels book, “The Condition of the Working Class in England”:
‘Stockport is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent. But far more repulsive are the cottages and cellar dwellings of the working-class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of the town from the valley bottom to the crest of the hill.’
A grim picture indeed.
Taking all that into account, I probably could have used “it was a dark and stormy night” to open the first chapter of the first book. But I didn’t. I opened the story with an equally dramatic line: “The keening began on the firs day of the wake…”
You can find that first chapter here in another blog. Enjoy!