5 May 2014

Harold Brighouse and Charles Forrest: The Novel of Hobson's Choice (formerly titled Hobson's) (1992)

Harold Brighouse, of Eccles, Salford, wrote the play Hobson's Choice, which was published in 1916 with a dedication to Charles Forrest, who the following year published this novel based on the play. Since 1917, the novel – originally just called Hobson's  hadn't been republished until 1992, when Cliff Hayes published it for Printwise under their Northern Classic Reprints imprint.

The British Library records a Charles E. Forrest, who wrote a number of plays – such as The Shepherd (1922), The Stolen Horse (1925) and Roadside Farm (1927) – which may be the same man.

The book is almost entirely set in Salford town and impresses me as a kind of New Woman novel. It is set in a very patriarchal environment where the widower Henry Horatio Hobson (the heroic-sounding middle name being heavily ironic) successfully runs a shoe shop where underpaid workers slave to make shoes below and his three unpaid daughters ensure things run smoothly on the sales floor while Hobson disappears to the pub to talk with his cronies about – among other things – the inadequacies of the female sex.

It is Maggie – Henry's eldest daughter and already dismissed by her father as an unmarriageable spinster – who is not only the instigator of much of the action, but someone who reverses the gender roles and manipulates men (and sometimes women) to conform to her wishes.

There is also a rather skewed version of the fin de siècle New Man here: in novels such as Sarah Grand's The Beth Book (1898 [1897]) and Mary Cholmondelay's Red Pottage (1899) the emphasis is on re-educating the Old Man (i.e. a young but old-fashioned adherer to the conventional social structure) into a truly equal partnerhship. Maggie's task is similar but with a difference.

The main difference between Hobson's Choice and the more conventional New Woman/New Man sub-genre is that there is intitially a difference in social classes between the two main characters. Maggie comes from a relatively comfortable background, whereas thirty-one-year-old Will – her choice of partner – not only earns a pittance in her father's workshop but he is the son of a man from a workhouse and he is not only illiterate but painfully gauche socially with no experience of women.

On the surface he seems totally unsuited to Maggie's world, although Maggie – a very spunky young woman with a sound sense of business acumen – knows that she can achieve great things with Will because he (completely unaware though he is) is a wonderful shoemaker.

Defying the wrath of Hobson, the couple run away to another part of Salford to marry and to set up a business which, thanks to Maggie's abilities, becomes very successful. At same time, she educates Will and transforms him into a self-assured businessman who also sees his wife as an equal companion.

Will soon takes Hobson's trade from him, although Maggie pulls her father from the brink of terminal alcoholism and secures herself and Will in Hobson's house with Will as a business partner, although Hobson is in fact deduced to being a sleeping partner.

The Sydney Morning Herald of 23 June 1917 said 'Rarely has one read a first novel of such promise; one must look forward to its successors with interest.' Forrest perhaps continued with plays only, but thankful we must be for this republication, although it is to be regretted that Sylvia Hayes retyped the original edition making an enormous number of typos that obviously weren't picked up on by Cliff Hayes's editing. Most of the time these typos merely omit a letter or include a superfluous one, or inverted commas are left out, but occasionally meaning gets lost, as in: 'The woman examined Maggie, and then got up to to' (p. 188). Such a pity, as it spoils the book.

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