It is 1888, and sixteen-year-old Lottie Perkins works for Bryant & May match manufacturers in London’s East End, where she catches the eye of a manager, Oliver Steed. The journalist and social reformer, Annie Besant, questions Lottie and her companions about the appalling conditions under which they work, but it is the death of Lottie’s friend Cassie from ‘phossy jaw’, the necrotisation of the jawbone caused by the handling of white phosphorus, that galvanises Lottie into involvement in the ensuing Matchgirls’ strike. This milestone in the fight for safer working conditions was all the more remarkable in that the strikers were disenfranchised women and girls at risk of losing their livelihoods altogether. Besides Besant, other historical figures who get a mention are William Morris and George Bernard Shaw.
Lottie herself is an engaging heroine, but there are some anomalies of plot: she goes from being deeply uncomfortable in Steed’s presence to being on near-intimate terms with him within a few pages. Phrases like ‘filing for divorce’ and ‘it sure does’ sound too new and too transatlantic, and ‘blackout cellar’ anticipates aerial bombardment by decades. The family go to church, but the celebrant is described variously as a vicar and as a minister, so the reader is unable to visualise the setting – the candles and incense of a Victorian high-church mission or a plain Non-Conformist rostrum? But The Matchgirl nevertheless tells a satisfying tale of the triumph of justice over adversity alongside the touching love story of Lottie and a young docker turned reporter.