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The Biscuit Girls is the true story of biscuit factory Carrs of Carlisle, started by businessman Jonathan Dodgson Carr in 1831, told through the eyes of six of its former workers – Ivy, Dulcie, Barbara, Ann, Dorothy and Jean.

Ivy, the oldest of the girls, started working at Carrs in the years following World War II, and remained there for 45 years.  During her time there, she eventually helped to train some of the other women featured in the book.  Each chapter is devoted to one of the women (all feature in a number of chapters, which eventually bring their lives up to the present day), and as well as looking at their work at the factory, the book also delves into their personal lives.

I really enjoyed this book and found it to be a thoroughly entertaining and interesting read.  Although all of the women featured had different reasons for joining Carrs, and came from varied backgrounds, they all seemed to have enjoyed their jobs, and the camaraderie and friendships that came with it.  Each chapter incorporated some of the history of Carrs, and there was plenty of information about the area, and the wider biscuit industry.  Working there brought different rewards for each woman (Barbara for instance worked there purely for the money, while Ivy wanted to work there having seen other women going to work there and thinking how smart they looked in their uniforms).

The personal aspect of the book made it an interesting and relatable read, more so than a straightforward biography of Carrs would have done.  I thought it was interesting how just as Carrs passed down through generations of the family, you would find many generations of local families all going to work there.  It is clear that the factory was a major source of employment for many people living in the area, and by and large the Carr family treated their workers well.  Although labour-saving machinery and health and safety legislation have brought about inevitable changes in the industry and at Carrs, it appears that many of the old ways of working still remain, as the later chapters explain.  (Carrs is still in operation although it is now part of the United Biscuits Group, owned by McVities.  One of Carrs most popular and famous products is Carrs Water Biscuits, which still sell vast amounts today.)

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone familiar with the Carlisle area (although I really enjoyed it, and have never even been to Carlisle), or anyone who is interested in the lives of women in the 20th century.  It’s engaging and clearly well researched – and will definitely make you want to sit down with a cuppa and a biscuit!

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Anne Lister (1791 – 1840) was a Yorkshire woman, who inherited Shibden Hall (the family estate) in 1826, the income from which allowed her to live a life of modest luxury.  She was a noted diarist who wrote about her financial concerns, her life in industry (coal mining) and her lesbian relationships.  When writing about her relationships, she often used a code, which she created using Greek letters and algebra symbols.  She also loved to climb mountains.

This television film, adadpted from Anne Lister’s diaries (which were only published over a century after her death) concentrates on her love life, which is perhaps a shame, as there were other interesting aspects of her life which could have been featured – the death of all four of her brothers for example.

Anne Lister lives with her aunt and uncle at Shibden Hall, and is in love with Mariana Belcombe, but due to the conventions of the day their romance is a secret to all but Anne’s close friend and former lover Isabella ‘Tib’ Norcliffe.  When Mariana marries a wealthy older widower, Anne is devastated but seeks solace elsewhere.  Her relationship with Mariana continues in fits and starts with them meeting up whenever possible, but while Anne wants to ‘marry’ Mariana and live together, Mariana fears that the nature of their relationship will be discovered and refuses to leave her husband, although the marriage is not a happy one.

Eventually, when Anne realises that Mariana is never going to commit to a relationship, she starts a relationship with a neighbour Ann Walker, with whom she remained for the rest of her life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation.  It looks sumptuous, showing off Yorkshire’s natural beauty, and really creating a sense of what life must have been like in the early 1800s.  Anne’s sexual orientation is guessed at in the village where she lives and is generally disapproved of.

Maxine Peake plays the title role, and she is superb, conveying sometimes in just one look, the pain, heartbreak or love which Anne feels.  She is a fiercely intelligent woman, sometimes calculating, sometimes incredibly vulnerable, and Peake plays every aspect of the character beautifully.  Anna Madeley and Susan Lynch are also excellent in their respective roles as Mariana and Tib, and I should mention Christine Bottomley, as Ann Walker.  Her role might not have been huge, but she embodied it totally.

My attention was held throughout this wonderful piece of period drama.  However as mentioned earlier I did think it a slight shame that more aspects of Anne Lister’s fascinating life were left out, apparently to centre on her relationships.  Nonetheless, the excellent acting and scenery made it a joy to watch, and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Year of release: 2010

Director: James Kent

Writer: Jane English

Main cast: Maxine Peake, Anna Madeley, Susan Lynch, Gemma Jones, Alan David

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