"You're only a girl," her brother Teddy disdainfully tells Elinor Rillsden. "Girls don't count. Menm run the country, and fight for it, and make all the money. Girls just have to be pretty and obedient."
Teddy gets to attend Eton and go where and do what he wants. Elinor, although she's almost 14 and longs to attend boarding school, is under the care of a governess, isn't to read a newspaper nor to go anywhere by herself, and must even eat dinner in the school room instead of with the family.
It's the Edwardian summer of 1914, and the world is astir. At her father's cotton mills down below Highbeck Hall, the women and children who work long hours over the looms have begun to ask for improvements and rights.
War is brewing on the Continent, and in London suffragettes are being sent to prison for their efforts. "Unwomently women who want to ape men. They want the vote and to help run the country," her prim governess tells Elinor. "I'm content to leave the decisions to fine men like my father and yours."
Things begin to happen for Elinor when she meets Tom and Betty Greenhaugh on a secret excursion to her beloved moors and when her recently orphaned cousin Amy comes to Highbeck Hall. Tom and Betty tell wonderful tales of school studies and games. And Amy has a friend who is a suffragette, and she herself wants to work and be independent.
Through a summer of change, both for herself and England, Elinor sees and learns and leaves childhood behind.
This quietly told, well-crafted tale unfolds a many-faceted view of women's life in a circumscribed but shifting time. Though the book is one that could easily sink into didacticism, it never does, for each character is a real person , a mix of traits both good and bad. As with the time, the ending answers questions but asks some too.
"The Mills Down Below" is a believable story of individuals seen through the eyes of an awakening girl in an awakening world.