The Chimney Sweep’s Sister

Written by Emma Hornby
Review by Simon Rickman

Think anger management. Orphan Jenny (aged 16) has, in her own words, “a gob the size of a train tunnel”. Uncontrollable foul-mouthed rants and a readiness to use her fists are continually getting her fired. With her living in a freezing 1860s Manchester slum cellar, this spells bad news for her and brother Noah (nine), who thus becomes the crust-winner, suffering brutal agonies inflicted by the sadistic chimney-sweep master. Jenny’s stand-offish older sister and her oddly rude spouse are no help either, but things are not what they seem. By chance, Jenny meets a nice lad and gets cleaning work in a pub, then, a crack at her first love, singing. An instant hit, she is persuaded by Svengali music-hall owner Sol to work there instead. This she considers but must leave Noah behind, as Sol’s lucrative offer demands entertainers not only live-in but also give in, when required. She succumbs, almost, and quickly realising there’s no easy out, rues her decision.

“Eee by ‘eck lass, tha’s in a reet pickle!” Interestingly, the Lancashire accent and dialect not only inhabit every line of dialogue but, unusually, also pepper the narrative. Once habituated, though, the reader gets a thorough dunking into the grinding filth and harsh struggles of mid-Victorian street life, aiding comprehension. One anachronism – back then would they’ve said (it’s a) “win win”? Otherwise a fine tale.