Adam Swann is a soldier, but he’s sick of fighting. Left for dead on a battlefield in India, Adam opens his eyes to spot a ruby necklace, the means for funding his dreams. When he recovers from his illness, he heads to England and decides to start a shipping company after taking the advice of a railroad man and exploring England on his horse. On his way home, he spots a young girl, half-undressed and washing in a puddle. This is Henrietta Rawlinson, daughter of a cotton giant, fleeing from an arranged marriage that makes her feel ill. Adam takes her with him, marries her, and launches Swann-on-Wheels, their brainchild. As the company grows and expands, so do the couple’s fortunes, and this novel is their epic story.
I want to start off by saying that this book took me a week to read but I loved every minute of it. I read a few smaller books in between, but I just adored spending so much time in Victorian England. I felt like I lived in Adam and Henrietta’s world and could understand their issues and problems but also cheer for them to push forward, move past whatever problems they were having, and succeed at everything. This is the kind of book that becomes a favorite, at least for me, because I love huge complex stories like this.
Since this novel was originally written in 1970, I assumed it would feel dated, but it really doesn’t. Even its treatment of women is open-minded; Edith remarks that women could rule companies very easily, were they given a chance, and then Henrietta actually does take the reins of leadership and proves herself an astonishingly capable woman both at home and at work. This may be a bit anachronistic for the mid-19th century, but having smart female characters to care about makes this an immeasurably better novel than it would have been otherwise. I felt a little uneasy with the fact that Henrietta’s character changes because Adam pushes it to do so, but as the novel progressed it became clear that he’d just given her an opportunity rather than actually pushing her at all; that was just how he thought of it.
I loved, loved, loved that this was set in Victorian England and didn’t just focus on London, but the entire country, and more so that specific issues are highlighted and addressed. For example, the use of children as chimney sweeps was a huge dilemma, and it’s brought right home here. The novel also includes workers’ strikes and the changing attitude towards employment going on around this time. The Swanns do have a comparatively cushy life, but we see how hard Adam works and his financial difficulties, so it is vastly different in feel than a book focusing on the aristocracy, for example. We even have mention of the Civil War in the USA and how it affected production in England; there is a sense of history here as historical events happen with Adam and Henrietta and their managers on what feels like the forefront of a new England. It’s a heady feeling; it’s a heady book.
If I had to say one negative thing about the book, though, it would mainly be that the setting up of Adam’s company does bog down at times. The beginning of the book took me much longer because it was more about the logisitics of his company than about the people in the book. I enjoyed the detail about setting up a company and being introduced to all the secondary characters, but I would have been happier with less. By contrast, I loved the sections about the main characters that followed, and once the business got off the ground the book sped much more quickly. I had at first set myself a goal of reading 50 pages each day, but by page 200 I knew I couldn’t go that slowly.
God Is an Englishman was a delightful, absorbing, utterly fascinating read. I could happily have kept on reading more. This is the start of a series, so while this book ended in a nice solid fashion, I know I’m going to seek out the rest of the series as soon as I can.