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Bessie Quinn by Ursula Howard

Survivor Spirit

From Galashiels Mills to Garden Cities - the story of an Irish family in Scotland 1845-1922

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Rating 7 (from 13 votes)
Rating: 3.00 out of 5 (5 customer ratings)
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Reviews

Polly Tuckett
A moving and deeply engaging
Review date: 7th April 2022

Ursula Howard sets out to recreate the life of her grandmother, Bessie Quinn, with only a few precious objects as clues to her fascinating past. Bessie, almost wholly obliterated from inter-generational memory within the family as a result of her husband’s all-consuming grief and attempt to destroy all traces of her existence, was also condemned to obscurity by her position in social history as a working-class woman and second-generation Irish immigrant whose family had fled the horrors of the Great Famine as penniless refugees, seeking work and a new life in Scotland. From these few prized objects and the scant cold facts about a person’s life as set out in Victorian/Edwardian officialdom, like censuses, birth and death certificates (although, for fascinating reasons we discover along the way, the details of these public records are notoriously unreliable), the writer breathes miraculous life into one woman’s remarkable journey from the slums of Galashiels to the utopian Hampstead Garden City Suburb where Bohemianism flourishes alongside the passion for social and political change. This is no ordinary tale of rags to riches but instead, as the author makes clear in a radical, class conscious argument, a journey that was made possible by the very resilience borne of her family's lifelong oppression.

As much social history as personal biography, the text weaves anecdote, conjecture and fact with a meticulous historicism, always flagging up as such any flights into fantasy, these being, however, eminently plausible when set within the wider socio-historical context. This is as much a hidden history of nineteenth-century working-class life as it is one woman’s story. Bessie’s life, as the eighth child of ten who all, incredibly, survived to adulthood, is intimately entwined with that of her immediate family. The precariousness of their situation is set out un-sentimentally yet with warmth and empathy: descriptions of the ravages of poverty and tuberculosis, dangerously inadequate housing, unemployment, appalling working conditions and cruelly shortened lives make for sobering reading and we become as emotionally invested in the fates of the entire Quinn family as with that of Bessie herself. Bessie, though, with her central enigma, remains the star of the show. Her personality is deftly sketched from the bare facts of her life as passed down anecdotally through the generations, through painstaking research and imaginative recreation – her selflessness, reserve, poise, unconventionality, fierce loyalty; her shyness, resourcefulness, determination and above all, her bravery.


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Ann Kelcey
A remarkable book
Review date: 20th April 2022

So far I’ve only read a few chapters of this remarkable book and already I’m immersed in a time and lifestyle so remote from my own experience. Like the warp and weft of the linen that made up Bessie’s linen smock, Ursula skilfully weaves the numerous characters in her grandmother’s story within historical detail. In her own words, she describes “taking the black and white ink-sketches that official records offer, [adding] brush strokes and a colour-wash to documented facts, figures, and reports…to create my sense of their story.” If I were to compare her with an artist, it would be Pieter Bruegel the elder, with his lively pictures of peasant life. Ursula brings Bessie Quinn to life again.


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Guest Reviewer
Review date: 25th April 2022

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Rating: 3.00 out of 5 (5 customer ratings)

Paperback eBook

£18.99
ISBN: 9781914151330
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Description

Bessie Quinn was an early 20th century New Woman, a mother living her love story in the enchanted world of the Garden City. When she died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19, her shattered husband abandoned her memory, belongings and life history. Her disappearance reverberated down generations.
Starting with only an Arts and Crafts kettle, one photo and a linen smock, Ursula has restored her grandmother to life. After long searches she found Bessie in the Scottish Borders, eighth child of working-class Irish parents who’d fled hunger after the Great Famine of the 1840s.
This biography of a poor family unearths hard journeys of love, luck and loss, weaving historical fact with memory and imagination into a compelling story.

Further details

Endorsements

“This is the stuff of real history - atmospheric, emotional and acutely well observed. Bessie is a captivating figure. From the moment you see her wonderful, knowing smile on the cover, she has your attention and affection. This is a superb piece of patient and loving work.”
Alistair Moffat, author

“A marvel of dedicated research, energy, presentation and imagination - with lucid writing holding it all together.”
Grey Hen Press: https://www.greyhenpress.com - publishing poetry by older women

“A book that shows why family history matters so much. A moving story about a grand-daughter’s quest for her grandmother’s origins in famine-ravaged Ireland, a granular evocation of industrialised Scotland, a social history of early 20th century Bohemianism, and an examination of the damage done to families by pandemics and silence. Bessie Quinn, Survivor Spirit, deserves the widest possible readership.”
Ian Marchant, writer and broadcaster

“In a trajectory one can only describe as miraculous, Bessie Quinn leads a transformed life in Hampstead Garden Suburb... Rich historical detail is woven with memories and vivid imagining of the losses and gains that Bessie’s rise to the middle class inevitably entails. An innovative contribution to histories of migration, class mobility, and family relations.”
Lyn Thomas, Professor Emerita, Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research, Sussex University

“A journey of Irish and Scottish roots ending in a garden suburb, cut short by Spanish Flu. Drawing on archive sources, fascinatingly illustrated with contemporaneous photographs, the book retrieves the untold story of life on the other side of a family that produced Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City movement. Ursula Howard searches for answers to questions about lives hidden among fragments of evidence, and in so doing brings to life not just Bessie Quinn as a resourceful, resilient woman, but the hard grind of family emigration in difficult circumstances at a time in which urbanism was remade in remarkable ways... An absorbing social history from below, in which Bessie Quinn’s life is both remarkable in itself and illuminates themes of poverty, class, social change and the transformative remaking of place.”
Susan Parham, Academic Director, International Garden Cities Institute

Rating: 3.00 out of 5 (5 customer ratings)
5 stars
100%
4 stars
0%
3 stars
0%
2 stars
0%
1 stars
0%

Reviews

Polly Tuckett
A moving and deeply engaging
Review date: 7th April 2022

Ursula Howard sets out to recreate the life of her grandmother, Bessie Quinn, with only a few precious objects as clues to her fascinating past. Bessie, almost wholly obliterated from inter-generational memory within the family as a result of her husband’s all-consuming grief and attempt to destroy all traces of her existence, was also condemned to obscurity by her position in social history as a working-class woman and second-generation Irish immigrant whose family had fled the horrors of the Great Famine as penniless refugees, seeking work and a new life in Scotland. From these few prized objects and the scant cold facts about a person’s life as set out in Victorian/Edwardian officialdom, like censuses, birth and death certificates (although, for fascinating reasons we discover along the way, the details of these public records are notoriously unreliable), the writer breathes miraculous life into one woman’s remarkable journey from the slums of Galashiels to the utopian Hampstead Garden City Suburb where Bohemianism flourishes alongside the passion for social and political change. This is no ordinary tale of rags to riches but instead, as the author makes clear in a radical, class conscious argument, a journey that was made possible by the very resilience borne of her family's lifelong oppression.

As much social history as personal biography, the text weaves anecdote, conjecture and fact with a meticulous historicism, always flagging up as such any flights into fantasy, these being, however, eminently plausible when set within the wider socio-historical context. This is as much a hidden history of nineteenth-century working-class life as it is one woman’s story. Bessie’s life, as the eighth child of ten who all, incredibly, survived to adulthood, is intimately entwined with that of her immediate family. The precariousness of their situation is set out un-sentimentally yet with warmth and empathy: descriptions of the ravages of poverty and tuberculosis, dangerously inadequate housing, unemployment, appalling working conditions and cruelly shortened lives make for sobering reading and we become as emotionally invested in the fates of the entire Quinn family as with that of Bessie herself. Bessie, though, with her central enigma, remains the star of the show. Her personality is deftly sketched from the bare facts of her life as passed down anecdotally through the generations, through painstaking research and imaginative recreation – her selflessness, reserve, poise, unconventionality, fierce loyalty; her shyness, resourcefulness, determination and above all, her bravery.


please wait
Ann Kelcey
A remarkable book
Review date: 20th April 2022

So far I’ve only read a few chapters of this remarkable book and already I’m immersed in a time and lifestyle so remote from my own experience. Like the warp and weft of the linen that made up Bessie’s linen smock, Ursula skilfully weaves the numerous characters in her grandmother’s story within historical detail. In her own words, she describes “taking the black and white ink-sketches that official records offer, [adding] brush strokes and a colour-wash to documented facts, figures, and reports…to create my sense of their story.” If I were to compare her with an artist, it would be Pieter Bruegel the elder, with his lively pictures of peasant life. Ursula brings Bessie Quinn to life again.


Verified Purchase
please wait
Guest Reviewer
Review date: 25th April 2022

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