““They promise us all sorts of things she said, “happiness, success, adventure – don’t you know? Then suddenly we find ourselves left alone in a dull crowded street with no one caring and our lives unneeded, and all the fine things that we meant to do, like toys that a child has laid aside.”
The Crowded Street was Winifred Holtby’s second novel published when the author was 26. In it Winifred Holtby examines closely the lot of young women, expected to marry, and watched endlessly by society. At the centre of the novel is Muriel Hammond the eldest of two daughters, her mother’s one ambition for her is that she marries. Muriel firmly believes that
“Men do as they like” while women “wait to see what they will do”
The rather sad figure of her unmarried Aunt Beatrice is a warning of what awaits her should she not manage to achieve the ultimate prize of a husband.
When we first meet Muriel she is 11 – attending her first party with almost breathless anticipation – where she must fill her dance card and behave beautifully in front of the watching eyes of Marshington’s mothers.
“All the way to Kingsport, dangling her legs from the box seat of the brougham – she always rode outside with Turner, because to ride inside made her sick – Muriel had watched the thin slip of a moon ride with her above the dark rim of the wolds, and she had sung softly to herself and to the moon and to Victoria, the old carriage horse, “I’m going to the Party, the Party, the Party.” And here she was.”
Unfortunately Muriel’s first taste of Marshington society is not a success – and the poor girl goes home in disgrace. This disastrous beginning sets the tone for the next 20 years. Muriel is shy, lacking confidence she worries too much what society thinks of her. At the start of the first world war Muriel falls for local god Godfrey Neale – but he seems to remain forever just out of reach. Meanwhile Muriel’s younger sister Connie strains to break free of the ties that bind her to the suffocating atmosphere of home and Marshington by taking a job as a land girl on a farm. It is here however that Connie’s attempt to make a life for herself brings potential scandal to the Hammond’s door and leads ultimately to disaster.
Winifred Holtby’s story of Muriel Hammond in Yorkshire at the beginning of the twentieth century – is not dealt with in the conventional way. Like Connie – although in a different way – Muriel is allowed to be master of her own destiny. Her fate is different to that of her aunt and sister, but not what her mother has spent years dreaming of. Writing in the 1920’s Winfred Holtby believed that women should have their own work, be allowed to strike out and create lives for themselves.
Winifred Holtby’s great friend Vera Brittain’s work Testament of Youth is said to have been great inspiration for The Crowded Street. I’ve not read Testament of Youth – one day I must. I love Winifred Holtby – and although I had read this one once before – a long time ago – I remembered little of it, except for poor Muriel’s first party. This is a wonderful novel and I found Muriel an engaging and sympathetic character.