Harrogate author follows in footsteps of ‘Call the Midwife’

Author of The Mill Girls of Albion Lane, Jenny Holmes. Picture by Adrian Murray. (1509151AM2)
Author of The Mill Girls of Albion Lane, Jenny Holmes. Picture by Adrian Murray. (1509151AM2)

Interview by Graham Chalmers

After writing more than 150 books, long-time author Jenny Holmes may finally have hit the jackpot by going back to her roots in Harrogate.

Already hailed as the next Call the Midwife, her heartwarming new novel The Mill Girls of Albion Lane was inspired by her own family’s history, reflecting tales handed down by family relatives in and around Harrogate over the years.

But ex-Harrogate Grammar School student Jenny said her new book, published by Transworld, part of the Penguin Random House group, wasn’t meant to be like Call the Midwife, though she is a fan.

“Call the Midwife is absolutely brilliant. The book and the BBC TV series get the period completely right.

“The characters are great and the narratives superb. It shows what women’s lives were like so well. But these are my familys’ stories.”

One of three children brought up in Harrogate, Jenny’s links with the area stretch back through many generations via a mother who served in the Land Army during the Second World War, a grandfather who was a blacksmith in Beckwithshaw and great aunts who worked as seamstresses, milliners and upholsterers in Edwardian times.

It was the latter that inspired much of The Mill Girls of Albion Lane which tells of the life of Lily Briggs, her family and friends who work in a mill and live on the cobbled streets of Bradford in 1931.

Jenny said: “When I was younger, I had an elderly aunt who was still alive who could remember the 1920s. In those days, before the NHS, women gave birth at home with the help neighbours.”

As someone who has been writing fiction for children and adults since her early twenties, Jenny has been a success for decades without ever really stepping into the spotlight.

Transworld certainly have plenty of confidence in her latest work, they’ve already commissioned two follow-ups. The sequel will be about shop girls while the final book in the trilogy will be, almost inevitably, about midwives.

It’s a nice position to be in for someone who, when she’s not writing, enjoys horse riding, gardening and walking her dog in the Dales.

As a child, Jenny belonged to a family that read a lot; her and her father would go to Harrogate library once a week without fail.

As a part-time teacher she had most enjoyed teaching children about the joys of reading.

Jenny’s breakthrough in adult fiction came with a family drama set in the East End called Paradise Court.

It featured strong female characters and laid muich of the ground work for her new series of novels.

But progress has been hard won and staying a published author these days is harder than it once was in the pre-Amazon market place and pre-digital publishing world.

Jenny said: “Someone once said that a great book is a matter of genius but it’s not really, it’s stamina.

“The difference between people who think about being a novelist and the ones who do it is all down to the amount of words you write.”

Although Mills Girls slots nicely into an established mass market – nostalgic sagas of triumph and adversity filled with a sense of belonging and a tinge of romance, it is, perhaps, still the most personal thing Jenny has ever written.

These warm-hearted figures from a previous era of austerity, Lily Briggs and her mother Rhoda and father Walter and brothers and sisters and friends, may not be real but scrape below the surface and you will find the author’s own past.

“My grandfather ran the Smith Arms in Beckwithshaw when it was still partly a blacksmiths. He was a blacksmith and a publican and the local postman.

“He used to deliver the post on horseback in the 1930s. “