Peterloo has fascinated Carolyn O’Brien for as long as she can remember – growing up in the city where the tragic massacre took place 200 years ago this year; when at least 15 people were killed and more than 700 injured as the authorities attempted to break up a peaceful protest for reform. Her debut novel The Song of Peterloo provides a very personal perspective on the events surrounding that fateful day, published by Legend Press on 1 August 2019, the month of the bicentenary.Carolyn O'Brien

Rather than a distant historical overview, The Song of Peterloo is a striking book – combining historical fact with a gripping fictional narrative. It follows the story of Manchester mill-worker Nancy Kay, encountering not just the events of the massacre, but themes such as the importance of change, the intricacies of family life and the ongoing fight for reform in many varieties, including gender equality.

After all, on the day of the 16th August 1819, over 60,000 men, women and children gathered in St Peter’s Field – the area now around St Peter’s Square – to show their support for a range of social and political change, including greater parliamentary representation. The unfolding events – when the authorities panicked and plunged into the crowd, causing devastation – undoubtedly affected all involved. The Song of Peterloo explores the bravery, sacrifice and determination upheld in the face of great difficulty.

Yet this book also allows readers to look beyond the statistics of Peterloo and to see the variety of livelihoods and backgrounds involved. The Song of Peterloo is pieced together through the voices of multiple characters living very real lives, including Nancy as she looks after her son Walter – a deeply anxious and socially awkward child.

Putting people at the centre matters to Carolyn, who was born and brought up in Manchester. After studying English at Cambridge, she has lived and worked in the North as a Solicitor for a number of years, also having a number of short stories published during this time. The Song of Peterloo therefore marks a fascinating novel-length debut, the story championing the inspiring ability of the human spirit to triumph over oppression.

Carolyn will be discussing her book as part of Peterloo 2019 – an events programme overseen by Manchester Histories marking the 200th anniversary of the massacre and leading up to the date itself, the 16 August. To find out more about these events and the book, HAUNT Manchester spoke to Carolyn herself…


Can you tell us more about your interest in Peterloo – and why did you opt for the form of a novel to approach it?

 “As a Mancunian, I’ve been aware of Peterloo for as long as I can remember. It’s a moment in history where a lot of my interests coincide: Manchester, women’s activism and the struggle for social justice. It also has a personal resonance since one side of my family were Lancashire cotton workers, and it’s possible my ancestors attended the meeting. In the past, I’d always been dismayed by how few people – even in the Manchester area - knew very much about it, and I felt very strongly I wanted to write something to address this. However, it wasn’t until the tumultuous events of 2016 – in particular the tragic murder of Jo Cox MP – that I was finally spurred to begin a short story. It wasn’t long, though, before I realised my characters required a novel instead.”

'The Song of Peterloo' is being released in the same year that marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. Why do you think recognising this event is so important, and have you been working to the deadline of the anniversary?

 “Yes, I deliberately aimed for the bicentenary. On a practical level, I realised it would help me catch the eye of a publisher, but it has also meant I’ve enjoyed the invaluable support of other individuals and groups preparing to mark the anniversary, in particular through the Manchester Histories networking programme.

 “I believe it would be important iPeterloo Cover n any circumstances to honour the memory of such brave men and women who fought for freedoms we now enjoy, but it is particularly significant that the bicentenary should fall now - a time of deep inequality and democratic crisis.  It seems to me, the necessity to fight for change – that instinct of the 1819 reformers – is more pressing than at any other point in recent history. I hope the light cast on their story by the commemorations – and my novel - will prove inspiring to new generations.”

How do you balance historical fact with fictional content in the book?

 “The reformers at St Peter’s Field were people with lives and loves just like us, and I approached the whole project as an immersion in empathy. Once I’d established my characters and their various back-stories, it became quite natural to imagine how they would have reacted to the unfolding events in Manchester in 1819. Indeed, in one of the first endorsements of the book, Brian Keaney (author) asserts, ‘This is history seen from the inside’ which is exactly what I wanted to achieve. This is very much a story where the personal is the political.”

The Song of Peterloo follows the story of Manchester mill-worker Nancy Kay. Why this perspective – and does it matter to you to celebrate hidden histories in your work?

 “Whilst the story follows Nancy, it is pieced together from a number of perspectives and in very different voices. These include Nancy’s family and friends and the two men she meets during that momentous year. As the book is essentially about change and a society in flux, it seemed necessary to hear multiple voices from across the social spectrum. The device also assists with the dynamics of the novel, especially in the massacre sequence when the action switches quite cinematically from one character to the next.

“Having this diverse cast of characters has also enabled me to explore a number of issues: the liberation and empowerment of newly-acquired literacy, as well as the darker theme of the prevalence of grief in the period, when so many lived with loss, shadowed by the closeness of death. As a mother to an autistic child, and as part of the exercise in empathy, I also wanted to imagine how life might have been for the neuro-diverse and their families, through the character of Nancy’s son, Walter – a relatively high-functioning but deeply anxious and socially awkward boy who’s haunted by his memories of Peterloo.”

What has been the biggest challenge of writing the story, and what has been the most rewarding thing?

“Ensuring that the voices of the multiple characters were appropriate and consistent as well as distinct from one another was one of the biggest challenges as the language ranges from formal Regency through lyrical Romanticism to earthy dialect. It certainly took a few drafts to get right the level of dialect for certain of the voices.

"In terms of the most rewarding, I wrote the story as a memorial to those who sacrificed themselves for the good of society – knowing it will be out in the world, being read on the anniversary of that sacrifice means so much to me.”

Can you tell us more about your involvement in Peterloo 2019 events – and how can people find out more about your work?

The Song of Peterloo is published by Legend Press on 1 August and I have two events at Manchester Central Library programmed with Manchester Histories.

 “The first, on 8th August is a musical collaboration which combines readings from the novel with music of the time as well as newly-commissioned songs. Since Walter and another of the novel’s characters find solace in the therapeutic power of music, the event is to be held in aid of the music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins.

“The second, on 10th August is an ‘In conversation’ event with Karen Shannon of Manchester Histories, discussing my inspiration for the novel and the theme of change.

“Further performances of the musical collaboration are planned and we’re currently scheduling more author events throughout the city. For more information, follow me on Twitter @CarolynManc or contact Lucy Chamberlain at Legend Press. The book is available to pre-order online.”

By Emily Oldfield