Recognising Robert Neill: Song of Sunrise/The Mills of Colne

Though Mist over Pendle and Moon in Scorpio were both retitled for the American market, Neill’s sixth novel is an extremely rare example of a book being retitled between its hardback and paperback editions in the UK. The novel first appeared in 1958 as Song of Sunrise, a gracious and poetic title that, for reasons unknown, was abandoned for the utterly prosaic The Mills of Colne when re-published in paperback in 1961.
The only other instance I am aware of when a book changed names in this manner was Harry Pearson’s sequel to The Far Corner, that I read in hardback as North Country Fair but that I could only buy in paperback as Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows.
On that occasion, the earlier title was replaced by something more vivid, which is the reverse of this case. It is as The Mills of Colne that this became the last of Neill’s novels that I would originally read, and though I’d normally side with the original title, I have to agree that the plainer name is the more apt.
This novel – Neill’s longest, at 448 pages – is a complete departure from his work to date. The scene moves to the Nineteenth Century, to the very beginnings of Victoria’s long reign. There is no adventure story, no Thrills or Romance, though there is of course the standard relationship to be formed. The setting is Colne, near Burnley, in Central Lancashire: only a few miles away from the scene of Mist over Pendle, but two centuries and an unimaginable distance from the début novel. And instead of the tightly-plotted events confined to mere weeks, or even days, The Mills of Colne stretches over two years, from 1837 to 1839.
For this is a social realist novel, a study of turbulent times, scenes that were being replicated all over England, as hand-weaving and hand-looms were being squeezed out by powered-machines, when frightened, hungry, resentful men were fighting for their lives in trying to hold the Industrial Revolution from coming into being.
Robert Shaw is a clerk working for John Phillips at his corn-mill outside of Colne. Trade is poor, and Phillips encourages him to take a chance of betterment, if it comes, which it does almost immediately, through a chance encounter with Nick England, a self-made man, intelligent, far-sighted and charismatic. Shaw, who is somewhat reserved and cautious, goes into England’s employ, inspired as much by the opportunity to learn the cotton trade as by England’s youngest, and only unmarried sister, Anna. Miss England, who is of an age with Robert, shares her brother’s intelligence and good sense, but her life is spent on an unending round of her married sisters, managing their households every time one is due to go into confinement.
Over the course of two significant years, Robert learns the trade and sets up himself, becoming the first employer to introduce power looms into Colne. Despite setbacks, and despite an atmosphere of unrest during the Chartist Movement, he is clearly going to succeed in business, and support Anna as his wife.
And that’s about the story, none too enthralling. The meat of the book is those two years, from just before Victoria’s Accession, to the dissolution of the Chartist Movement in failure: this is what The Mills of Colne is about. It’s about a country experiencing what we now call Recession, about the transition from horse and hand-power to machine power, about the fears of starving men and the determination of masters make their businesses a success.
There is even the political undertone, slight though it is in this book, of fear of rebellion, of the first questioning of places, and of a hierarchy that has always existed.
Given the times in which he wrote, and Neill’s general loyalty to what we would call The Establishment, it’s no surprise that The Mills of Colne is firmly in agreement with the masters. The demands made in the People’s Charter are ridiculed by all, though all but the one about Annual Parliaments have long sine been enacted, and there’s no space for anyone to argue for any of these points. Neill does portray a contrast in approaches between the alert,sympathetic Nick England and his pig-headed, aggressive brother-in-law Tom Thornber over how they treat their men. It’s paternalism vs. antagonism, and we’re clear;y meant to approve the former.
In this way, the book is a product of the Fifties: less than ten years later, sympathies would have been firmly with the poor and downtrodden workers.
Robert is clearly meant to be a master not a man, and he industriously works toward his goal, with more effort and enthusiasm than he puts into winning Anna. But he’s no hero, not even on the limited level on which his personal story takes place. Though his business-like qualities begin to grow, he rarely acts on his own ideas: each step, each progression, is conceived for him by one or other of the folk around him, and he’s often too slow or cautious to see what these more imaginative people mean.
The novel’s biggest problem, as the lack of initiative in Robert demonstrates, is that it lacks Invention. By that, I don’t mean that it is repetitive, dull or hackneyed, but rather that the story, especially in its latter half, is so firmly based in real life events, and on the shoulders of real life people, that there is no space in which Neill can invent things for Robert to do. He’s a generally peripheral figure in all the riots, public meetings and actions that take place. Where Margery Whittaker could be slid into the true-life events of Mist over Pendle in a position to see all things without being officially part of them, there’s nowhere for Robert Shaw to go, and he is diminished by such absence. His story is a veneer on events.
As a work of social history, The Mills of Colne is fine. As a novel about people, Song of Sunrise is hopelessly outweighed by that social history.
Speaking of which, and having read this novel for a second time looking for a hint, I am at a complete loss as to why this title was ever applied to the story. I can find nothing in the book that makes the poetry appropriate in any way, no moment, sequence or even incident that suggests it. Unless Song of Sunrise was part of a quotation, used as an epithet in the hardback and excluded from the paperback, but such a thing would have been uncharacteristic in Neill’s work to begin with.
As for the return to Central Lancashire, the proximity to Pendle is touched upon only once. In a rare scene near the end of the book that sees Robert paying time to Anna instead of his mill, the couple go riding towards the hill. They stop for a time outside a house called Rough Lea, once home to the elegant Alice Nutter. But there are no in-jokes for faithful readers, beyond the simple nod, and no mention of witchery.
Perhaps that’s a pity. The novel is never actually dull, but even in scenes of riot, it is uninteresting. Except to social historians.
Looked at it context, Neill’s sixth novel would appear to be an experiment into a different kind of historical fiction than that with which he was experienced and comfortable. It would not be his last departure from the style of work that had brought him such success thus far.

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