When six-year-old William Hothby’s mother dies, he is adopted out of poverty by his Aunt Betsy and raised as a middle-class boy. The novel follows William’s life as he marries and has children of his own. The turning point in his life comes when he becomes a member of the Primitive Methodist Church and travels throughout the area as a preacher. William’s son, John, while apprenticed to a lawyer, is inspired by his cousin to work to both expand the right to vote and to end the practice of forcing the poor into workhouses. This struggle has a profound effect on John’s life and marriage.
Theme of the Book
Ranter’s Wharf is a family saga of struggle against entrenched practices and for religious and social change. It is a story of change and growth on a personal level as well as on a social and political level.
What I liked about the story
What I liked most about the novel came at the very end in an “Author’s Note”. Revealing this will not spoil the outcome of the book but will, I hope, bring a greater understanding and appreciation for the story of the characters. The events described in the novel are based on the lives of the author’s ancestors. If readers read the author’s notes before reading the novel, the significance of both William’s conversion and John’s political activity will be more striking.
There are a number of inspiring characters in the book. Aunt Betsy, a spinster who believes firmly in education, is one of the strongest. She is, in fact, the only independent woman in the novel. The other women characters are defined as strong and supportive (William’s wife) or weak and immature (John’s wife) or bitter (Joe’s wife). This is unsurprising considering the social position of women at the time in which the story takes place.
Ranter’s Wharf is unstinting in its realistic descriptions of the conditions of life in Grimsby and the surrounding areas. Some of those descriptions are hard for a modern reader to read but the novel is true to its time frame.
What I didn’t like about the story
Despite several areas of conflict during the era (the established church vs the new preachers; the landowners and capitalists vs the poor; the position of women in both society and the family), the author does not take advantage of this naturally occurring tension to add drama to the story. Finally, there is frequent misuse of commas and semi-colons. These are not hard to use correctly and a good editor/proof-reader would have caught the mistakes.
Ranter’s Wharf is a good picture of England after the Napoleonic Wars. It is sometimes slow going, but as a picture of history on an individual scale, is worth reading. Readers unfamiliar with English history are strongly advised to keep Wikipedia open to learn about Primitive Methodists, Chartists and the Poor Laws.