The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott
Review by Lindsay Pettee
When I first read the synopsis for Kate Alcott’s new historical fiction The Daring Ladies of Lowell, I was seduced by the idea that I would be reading about the hardships of factory life in 1800s America, revealing the strong females in the textile industry responsible for a large part of the nation’s economic growth. This January, I was fortunate enough to visit the Cascades Female Factory in Tasmania, one of the largest institutions to house female convicts during the early days of the colony’s European settlement. The factory is so named because of the hard labor women were forced to complete as punishment for their crimes in the hopes that the back-breaking work and religious teachings would eventually make them suitable enough to become a domestic servant or a wife. After listening to our cheerful tour guide recount story after story of the horrific conditions in the factory, as well as the abuse female servants faced at the hands of their masters when they were “free,” the difficulties that arose in The Daring Ladies of Lowell seemed like a fairytale in comparison. Admittedly, it is unfair to compare the experiences of Australian female convicts with those of New England factory girls, especially with my lack of expertise in industrial American history. However, I felt as though there was something lacking in the experiences faced by the American girls in the book. The Daring Ladies of Lowell offers a charming look into the lives of nineteenth century factory girls but it is the historical events included in the plot that really add grit and intrigue to the narrative.
The book follows the experiences of Alice Barrow who has left the grueling life of a farm hand to work in a textile factory, a job that she believes will bring her independence as a woman through the incredible luxury of a savings account. Though Alice’s character is fictional, the murder of her best friend in the story, Sarah Cornell, and the sensational trial that tears apart the small town of Lowell in the book, are all based on true events from 1832. Alcott reveals the socio-political and religious tensions present in 1830s New England through her effortless ability to create characters who garner the reader’s empathy through their emotions. Through Alice’s point of view, the reader shares her disturbing fascination when she sees the accused minister, Ephraim Avery, for the first time. She describes being paralyzed looking into the “round, green-tinted glasses that magnified the size of his eyes” and “His lips—full and soft—curved into something of a smile, except it wasn’t quite a smile.” The green-tinted glasses seem to follow both Alice and the reader throughout the story, adding an underlying tone of uneasiness to the narrative that builds intensity and suspense. The reader is able to sympathize with Alice’s suffering after the murder of her best friend and it is Alcott’s straightforward method of conveying events juxtaposed with her vivid and emotionally charged character descriptions that makes the story a compelling read. The true reality for women during the time period is revealed through the powerful line, “Suicide…the natural death of the prostitute,” which exemplifies the disregard for lower class women during the time period. I felt as though more could have been explored with this idea in terms of the prejudice women workers faced when they threatened the male-dominated society with their independence. Unfortunately, the courageous actions of the main characters are somewhat dulled by the overarching fictional plot lines.
While Alcott does effectively highlight the significance of factories in terms of their importance to female rights and independence, Alice’s complicated romance with Samuel Fiske, son of the powerful mill owner, seems contradictory. Instead of being an inspiring gaze inside the strength that female workers possessed in the face of terrible working conditions and oppression, the romance detracts from the importance of the mill worker’s fight for fair treatment and gives the novel a storybook ending on par with Cinderella. Whenever the girls seem to be in trouble, like a knight in shining cravat, Samuel would magically appear to fix (or at least diminish) the issue. Also, it simply seemed too easy for Alice and Samuel to fall in love because their only flaw was differing social status, which many readers know to be no problem at all in the world of fiction. Perhaps my depraved and morbid soul was hoping that Samuel would at least have a mad Creole wife hiding in his attic.
Overall, The Daring Ladies of Lowell was an entertaining and interesting read, recommended for those who enjoy a good romance. Alcott certainly has a knack for storytelling, which made it an easy book to get lost in. Though I was rather disappointed with the “happily ever after” tone manifested in the fictional aspect of the story, the real life complications of Sarah Cornell’s murder trial entwined in the narrative were truly fascinating. Therefore, what really makes this novel worth reading is the historical truths that exist between the romantic encounters and the tragic drama that at one time divided a town. The Daring Ladies of Lowell prove that you don’t have to be a convict living in the wilds of Tasmania in order to assert your strength as an independent female.
You can find out more about Kate Alcott and purchase The Daring Ladies of Lowell here!