Postal Reading group
March 2019
Notes on the book Falling away by Candida Crewe

Falling away by Candida Crewe follows Dorothy who works as a midwife in a small Somerset town. The hectic nature of her job does little to offset her loneliness, or the memories of her past. At the age of 19, Dorothy had fallen pregnant and been sent away to an institution for ‘wayward’ girls by her outraged parents. Now aged 52, Dorothy meets Harold who allows her a glimpse of a happier life.

First of all, I must confess that I found this book particularly hard going, and did not enjoy it. This, of course, does not make it a bad book, but merely means that its not the type of book that would ordinarily interest me, that I simply couldn’t face it at the time! Certainly, with much of the book centered around childbirth, its fair to say that it does little to inspire me, or to hold my interest. Although I don’t like to stereotype, this alone is sufficient to suggest that it is more likely to appeal to women. Perhaps men should be more interested in childbirth, but this is partly the fault of society as a whole, and not of any one individual.

The other theme is that of Piccadilly Park, the institution for ‘wayward’ girls. Although I assume this particular institution is fictional, it was based on the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. Interestingly, The author notes that a few such institutions were still in existence as recently as the 1970s, or maybe more recently. Again, I feel that this is unlikely to encourage anyone to read this book. Although its good that the author has told the story of someone typical of the countless forgotten women who ended up in the laundries, it was never going to make enjoyable reading. Yes, of course, we need to be aware of the shameful aspects of our history, and of the darker side of human nature, but I fear that this book will do little to raise the consciousness of those who need it most.

To be fair, the author has researched this well, and as far as I can tell the depiction of of one of the laundries is accurate; perhaps all too accurate. Similarly, the writing style is perfectly adequate. Introducing Piccadilly Park as a major part of Dorothy’s memories, alongside her present life, does help to provide more interest to the story, although it failed to do so in my case. This is partly because I found the ‘recollections’ format confusing, and would have preferred more continuous narrative. Equally, though, it is due to the fact I am not really interested in the themes in this book. For this reason I should apologise for the negative review; some of the failing is doubtless mine!

I don’t know which is more worrying, that these institutions were run by the church, enabled by a complicit state, or that parents actually chose to send their daughters there. You can argue that given the secretive nature of the laundries, the latter had very little idea of what went on. The state was only too pleased that it saved social services time and money. For the parents it was a convenient way of covering up their shame and embarrassment, and for the church it was a good money making scheme. On this basis, the church must take a lot of the responsibility, as it was they who founded the institutions, and only they knew what really went on. However, this is not to absolve the others: the state was clearly failing in its duty by not enquiring more closely, while would you really send your daughter away voluntarily without enquiring after their welfare? Apparently many did.

What I hadn’t fully realised was that the women in the laundries were usually incarcerated for the remainder of their lives. Of course this is necessary to perpetuate the scheme; if you release the women they could tell the truth. However, it is contrary to one of the principles of good justice, while for the innocent girls it must have been in contravention of basic human rights. As time went on it is therefore all the more shocking that questions weren’t asked.

While I don’t doubt the historical accuracy, I feel that it is surprising that Dorothy should have been sent away when she was and at that time. After all, she was a young adult, not a girl, sent away in the 1960s, not the Victorian era. This left me with too many questions: couldn’t she have run away from her parents? Why didn’t her sisters make more of an effort to find her? Wouldn’t her mother have been more likely to help? Similarly, if one pregnancy had caused so much trouble, wouldn’t it make you rethink your career choice? Her father’s religion can explain a lot, after all “It takes religion to make good people do bad things”, but I remain unconvinced. The power of religion was waning by then and too many people were complicit in his crime.

In summary, while the author must be congratulated on the historical accuracy, and for raising awareness of these barbaric institutions, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book; in reality it just made me angry. While I can understand that it will appeal to some, I’m afraid that I wasn’t one of them. If I have judged the book too harshly then I apologise.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler