A Shilling for a Wife

Written by Emma Hornby
Review by Lynn Guest

In the 1850s, Sally, a workhouse orphan, is sold for one shilling to Joseph Goden to be his wife, and so Sally’s already unhappy life descends into hell. A drunk and a bully, Joseph uses Sally for sex and as an unpaid skivvy, daily beating her so badly she dares not show her face in the village. When he attempts to rape her while she is in labour, Ivy, a miner’s wife, rescues her. The baby is born in safety at Ivy’s. Joseph disappears, but even so, Sally knows she must move away to Manchester. There, despite finding family, friends and work she lives in constant fear that Joseph might track her down and reclaim his lawful wife. With her child to protect, Sally grows in courage and determination but, although she is still a married woman, she has fallen in love with the wrong man.

This first novel is based on the author’s own family history in the Lancashire slums, which gives the story a particular power: the filth, the cold and the grinding poverty are painfully real. Without work, it is starvation in the gutter or the workhouse. Although carefully balancing brutality with acts of kindness, her characters, if often stereotypes, can also be realistically unpredictable, reacting to events and strict moral standards in ways that give them a strong 19th-century validity. Manchester and the mining village are drawn with grim realism. Hornby’s excellent use of Lancashire dialect is rich and colourful but, mercifully, comprehensible. The story is gripping and the action well-paced. There are clichés and the ending is a little too facile, but these are minor points in an impressive debut and an enjoyable, if sometimes harrowing, read.