Edward Unwin is being reared by his aunt and uncle. It’s something of a hand-to-mouth existence, the Unwins are poor, even with Uncle Clarence’s job at the Ebonson Carrying Company. It’s also something of a brutish life; Clarence is free with his fists towards his wife Hannah and will give Edward a slap as soon as look at him.
This destitute life in 1830s Birmingham, England, is what Edward knows, until an elderly man, Henry Beechworth, moves in nearby. He seems just as poor as the Unwins, but there’s a difference. He can read and write, and he seems to be decently educated. And he takes a special interest in Edward and the boy’s drawings, and Henry teaches him to read and write.
Edward believes what he’s been told about his parents – that they died in an accident at the carrying company when he was an infant. But too many people are taking an interest in Edward, and it’s not only Henry. There’s a middle-class lady, Mrs. Forsyth, who lives in a better part of Birmingham. And there’s Hugo Ebonson, heir to the Ebonson estate, who on his good days is a cad and a bounder and on his worst days simply downright evil.
Changing the Guard by James Farner is the story of the young Edward Unwin, stretching from the late 1820s to the 1840s. It has the “big story” sense of a Charles Dickens novel, the mystery and suspense of a Wilkie Collins novel, and the sweep of a R.F. Delderfield novel. It is the story of a boy in strange circumstances growing to manhood, and it is the story of the rapid changes in British society with the growth of the railroads, ongoing industrialization, and the beginnings of cracks in the class structure. This is also the period when Dickens was writing Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, and A Christmas Carol, when literacy was exploding and more and more people were understanding the need for and value of education (which plays an important role in Changing of the Guard).
Farner has written numerous historical novels in several series exploring British history: Pomp and Poverty (6 books), King of the City (3 books), Johann’s War (7 books), The War Years (5 books), and Made in Yorkshire (7 books). Changing the Guard is the first novel in the Pomp and Poverty series.
Changing of the Guard is a big story, a historical novel, and a mystery all rolled into one. Farmer has done well in capturing the period and its people, and writing a fascinating story of greed, power struggles, and love.