It’s been a long time since I updated this blog: there are a number of reasons for this but sadly one of them is certainly the winner for 1951, Cynthia Hartnett’s The Wool-Pack. I’m generally very fond of historical fiction, and I remember enjoying Hartnett’s A Load of Unicorn, so I am not sure why I really got hung up on this one, but ye gods, I found it dull.
It’s set in the 15th century, and follows the fortunes of 12-year-old Nicholas, son of a prosperous wool merchant. At the opening of the book, Nicolas’s father announces he’s betrothed Nicolas to Cecily, the young daughter of another merchant, and this forms one key narrative thread: Nicolas coming to terms with the idea that it’s time for him to transition from boyhood, his meeting with his betrothed, and their negotiation of the relationship. The second narrative thread is Nicolas’s discovery of villainy which threatens to ruin his father’s good name and business: his father’s wool-packer, Simon Leach, supposed to be responsible for ensuring the quality of the wool as it’s packed and sent away to be sold, is instead packing the bales with dross and stealing the good wool. These two threads weave together, as Nicolas and Cecily work together to uncover the plot, and Nicolas moves from being perceived as a boy (his father dismisses his initial concerns) to greater maturity, successfully unmasking the plot. The book ends with his father’s recognition of Nicolas as ‘a man of honour’.
There’s lots to enjoy in this book: some of the detective work that Nicolas does to detect the plot is fun, and there’s also a genuine sense of menace from Leach and the Lombards. It also does a good job of conveying that people in the past were real people, while showing how they were shaped by the historical moment. For example, both Nicolas and Cecily are anxious about the betrothal, but it’s clear that the concept of having their marriage arranged for them is completely taken for granted. What they are worried about is whether they will actually like each other and how they negotiate moving into this more adult role while still being children. Harnett engineers a nice meeting for the two before they have a formal meeting under the eyes of their parents, in which they establish a genuine liking and understanding of each other as similarly lively; this contrasts nicely with the formal meeting in which they are both on best behaviour. Later on in the book, they try out the exercise of new agency because of their newly betrothed state: for example, Nicolas steps in to stop Cecily being punished for bad behaviour. All this feels very real and establishes how an early betrothal of this kind (to result in marriage only when both parties were adults) could have been the foundation for a happy marriage within this cultural context.
I also enjoyed the sense of England as part of a European community which is present throughout this book. by making the wool trade such a key part of the plot, Harnett is able to push against some popular misconceptions of medieval England as isolated, backwards, etc. International trade is key to the prosperity of Nicolas and Cecily’s families, they are shown as enjoying imported goods and priding themselves on their knowledge of and access to customs and goods from outside England. In the current political climate, all this seems like quite a crucial dimension of English history! This only goes so far, however, as the major antagonists are the Italian Lombards, who are conspiring with Leach to smuggle the stolen wool out of the country for sale on the Continent. This aspect serves to put forward an impression of Englishness as linked with integrity and honesty, while foreignness is linked with trickery, plotting, and generally sinister behaviour. It’s not ahistorical to cast the ‘agent of the noble banking house of the Medici’ as less than 100% morally upright, but the presentation of his secretary as ‘sallow and pock-marked, with little eyes that peered under heavy lids, and a large flabby mouth’ works to cast the Lombards as intrinsically evil in a way that is quite xenophobic.
Where the book falls down, I think, is that its commitment to historical accuracy is *so* great that it starts to weigh down the plot. There are lots of expositional moments about particular historical details: there’s a long, detailed passage about Nicolas’s clothing, for example, which slows everything down. Most disappointingly, the plot is wrapped up largely ‘offscreen’: Nicholas sends a letter to his father which arrives in the nick of time, but the account of how it enables him to effect his release from prison and demonstrate that he is not responsible for the illicit sale of wool is told after the fact, when his father returns home. It makes sense that Nicolas isn’t present for these events – but if the story had built to a climactic moment in which Nicolas was there in person speaking in defence of his father, it would have been considerably more exciting. Ending the book with the information that Nicolas *will* be the chief witness in the coming trial is a little disappointing.
Having finally gotten around to writing about this book, I’m still not sure why I found it quite such a stumbling block, but it took me three goes to even finish what is a very short book. Oddly, I think I might have enjoyed it rather more as a child, because I did have a taste for stories with lots of details on ordinary life. So maybe the Carnegie committee were onto something. But it’s telling, I think, that this is one of the winners that’s not still in print (or even particularly remembered) today. C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian was also published in 1951, and while that’s definitely not an unproblematic read it’s a lot more fun than this. Plus (not to tip my hand) a win for that might have saved us from the award for The Last Battle later on.
SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…
My overall rating: 5/10 – There’s stuff to enjoy here. But I didn’t enjoy it.
Plot: 5/10 – What starts out as an exciting plot goes off the rails by moving the action away from the protagonists.
Characterisation: 6/10 – There’s some good character work, and I find that I do remember Cecily in particular, although I was occasionally annoyed by the obligatory ‘plucky girls like climbing trees more than needlework’ trope. I liked that trope as a kid, though, and it was a bit less tired in 1951!
Themes: Growth, cosmopolitianism, trade, adventure
Illustrator: Cynthia Harnett. The illustrations are quite charming, detailed line drawings of the type typical of books published in this period.
Author’s nationality/race: White English
Intended readership: Definitely children’s.