Captain Swing and the Blacksmith

Written by Beatrice Parvin
Review by Rebecca Kightlinger

Since 1830, threatening letters signed Captain Swing have incited agricultural workers to rebel against landowners for implementing work-saving inventions, particularly the threshers that have put so many out of work and sent thousands to the spike: dark, crowded workhouses that serve as repositories for the poor.

In Captain Swing and the Blacksmith, Parvin takes the reader into the dingy, exhausting world of working-class 1840s England, where seamstress and laundress Susan Trindall dreams of one day owning a market stall and selling the buttons she finds on the street. But when she falls for the handsome blacksmith Jack Straker and makes an ill-advised (if understandable) decision, she is disgraced. Her father, who signs his letters Captain Swing, banishes her into a life of poverty and homelessness. Fueled by desperation, unrequited love, and a stubborn (if, again, understandable) quest for revenge, she begins her years-long struggle to survive.

From the workers’ uprising to the perilous world of a seventeen-year-old social outcast, to the Andover Workhouse, Parvin characterizes Salisbury Plain with harsh, sometimes gruesome, detail. Her depiction of the spike, whose deplorable conditions smack of starvation and torture, sent me to the library. In investigating the Swing Riots of 1830 and reading George Orwell’s account of a night he spent in a workhouse (“The Spike”), I realized that Parvin’s description was on point.

Her debut novel, though driven by an obsessive love, is no romance; and while a character finds redemption, it is no parable. Rather, it is a portrait of a time. Evocative of a mean age, Captain Swing and the Blacksmith is both riveting and relevant. Recommended.