““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.
Read Full Post »
Caroline Denton-Smyth is an eccentric, dressed in trailing feathers and jangling beads, peering out from behind her lorgnette. Sitting alone in her West Kensington bedsitter, she dreams of the Christian Cinema Company – her vehicle for reform. For Caroline sees herself as a pioneer, one who must risk everything for the ‘Cause of the Right’. Her Board of Directors is a motley crew including Basil St Denis, upper crust but impecunious; Joseph Isenbaum, aspiring to Society and Eton for his son; Eleanor de la Roux, Caroline’s independent cousin from South Africa; Hugh Macafee, a curt Scottish film technician; young Father Mortimer, scarred from the First World War; and Clifton Johnson, a seedy American scenario writer on the make. Winifred Holtby affectionately observes the foibles of human nature in this sparkling satire, first published in 1931.
In ‘Poor Caroline’ we have several rather unlikeable characters, who all have something to do with the ill fated Christian Cinema Company, which has become Caroline Denton Smyth’s dream and obsession, as she approaches her 72 birthday. Poor Caroline lives in shabby room, and has no money, but she has ideas, so many ideas and feels her big chance in life has finally come. She is too, a rather ridiculous character, she borrows money with no hope of returning it, and develops rather a crush on young Father Mortimer. She she is however ever hopeful, poignantly so, which I did find ever so slightly endearing, and she is undeniably the heroine of the book, in spite of, or maybe because of her exasperating inability to see things as they really are.
The novel opens as two younger cousins of Caroline’s return to Yorkshire from London, having attended her funeral, they were rather glad of the chance to “go up to town” as one of them had needed a new coat. Their hilarity over Caroline’s continuing ridiculousness even in death is desperately sad, and beautifully sets the tone of the whole novel. Each subsequent chapter introduces us to the characters who had become involved in some way with Caroline and her Christian Cinema Company, each of them soon thinking of her as “Poor Caroline”.
I loved this novel, as I have loved everything else of Winifred Holtby’s that I have read, that she lived to write so few is a tragedy in itself. Human beings and their failings are so well captured by Winifred Holtby, everything so beautifully observed and often satirised. A brilliant novel.
Read Full Post »
Read on Kindle
Mandoa is a small African state: at its head a Virgin Princess, conceiving (immaculately) further princesses. The old traditions remain undisturbed until Mandoa’s Lord High Chamberlain, Safi Tala, visits Addis Ababa. There he discovers baths and cocktail shakers, motor cars and cutlery from Sheffield, telephones and handkerchiefs. In short, he has seen an apocalyptic vision – a new heaven and a new earth.Meanwhile in England it is 1931. Maurice Durrant, youngest director of Prince’s Tours Limited, has won North Donnington for the Conservatives. His socialist brother Bill is unemployed and their friend Jean Stanbury loses her job on The Byeword, a radical weekly paper. How all three, and others too, find themselves in Mandoa for the wedding of the Royal Princess to her Arch-archbishop is hilariously told in this wonderful satirical novel, first published in 1933.
This is a book that is hard to get hold of now, and so although I would have preferred a virago edition of it to read I was glad of the chance to read it via kindle. I really enjoyed this slightly unusual novel. Written in the wake of the general election of 1931, and during the depression, it is an enormously intelligent political satire. Alongside the story of the launch of the new Mandoa is the story of the relationship between Maurice and Bill Durrant – between whom there exists terrible sibling jealousy, and Jean Stanbury friend of the Durrants, who becomes involved with the campaign against the involvement of Prince’s tours in Mandoa. In this novel Holtby raises interesting questions about the modern (1930′s) world verses a more primitive one. Many characters are amusing stereotypes – and the vast differences of social conventions in Mandoan and European societies are hilariously highlighted. I found this a very readable novel, well written – and although some aspects of the societies described are rather dated now, is interesting still, for what it can tell us about the time it was written.
Read Full Post »
Mary Robson is a young Yorkshire woman, married to her solid, unromantic cousin, John. Together they battle to preserve Mary's neglected inheritance, her beloved farm, Anderby Wold. This labour of love – and the benevolent tyranny of traditional Yorkshire ways – have made Mary old before her time. Then into her purposeful life comes David Rossitur, red-haired, charming, eloquent: how can she help but love him? But David is a young man from a different England, radical and committed to social change. As their confrontation and its consequences inevitably unfold, Mary's life and that of the calm village of Anderby are changed forever.
This novel originally published in 1923 was Winifred Holtby's first published novel. While it lacks the scope, drama and power of her final and most famous novel South Riding, there is still much to commend it. An agricultural community on the brink of great change, with the raise of unions and social change is brought faithfully to life. Mary Robson is brilliant portrayed old before her time farmers wife, who believes the villagers couldn't manage without her, and makes herself indispensable. Mary manages the farm, her much older husband deferring to many of her decisions – she's a strong, stubborn woman, yet the readers can see her vulnerability, as her way of life is threatened and her disappointments lead her to desperately try to keep the status quo. Mary's fascination with fiery radical David Rossitur seems doomed from the start, coming as they do from different worlds and different persepectives. I enjoyed this early Winifred Holtby novel immensely, the writing is glorious, with some fabulous characterisation, which clearly shows the emerging brilliant writer she already was.
Read Full Post »
Given to me by Liz : ) First published in 1936 this is a marvelously feminist novel. Set in the fictional South Riding, with much of the story concerning local poitics, and the different characters and factions associated with the county council, alongside other local people. There is a large cast of characters, at the centre of which is Robert Carne, landowner and councillor, Sarah Burton, a new headmistress for the high school, and Mrs Beddows 72 Alderman, and great friend of Carne. Mrs Beddows – a truly marvelous character – seems to be a portrait – at least in part of Winifred Holtby's mother, herself a local councillor who became (like Mrs Beddows) the first woman Alderman. This novel is actually quite sad, although there are many uplifting moments too. Winifred Holtby was uncompromising in her portrayal of life as it was in the 1930's, both socially and politically. We see the few chances given to women and the sacrifices made by many bright young girls, the hardship and the poverty and the desperation of those finding themselves in difficulty. There is a conspiracy of corruption at the council, backbiting and gossip, all of which help to bring a good man down. The poignant story of Sarah and Robert Carne is the one at the centre of the novel, is wonderfully romantic on the one hand without ever descending into sentimentality. Alongside that story though we that of Lydia Holly – whose family live in "the shacks" a group of old railway carriages, Lydia dreamsof scholarship and learning. Carne's daughter Midge – the same age as Lydia but from a very different background is rather wild, her mother is in a mental hospital, for a time the girls come togther under the watchful eye of the new headmistress Sarah Burton. Meanwhile at the Nag's head, Tom Sawdon is unaware of his wife's illness. So much human drama in just under 500 pages! A fantastic read.
Read Full Post »