I have loved Winifred Holtby’s novels and stories – and so I have saved the one novel I had of hers to read for about three years. On reflection that may have been a mistake – don’t misunderstand me – I did like The Land of Green Ginger – there is plenty to admire in it – but it isn’t her best work –and I perhaps had built it up rather in my mind saving it like I did.
Winifred Holtby’s most famous novel – and undoubtedly her best was of course South Riding, a novel I shall re-read one day, it is brilliant. South Riding was the novel Holtby poured her all into when she knew she didn’t have long to live, that intensity of purpose pours off the pages of that novel. If you only ever read one Holtby novel, make sure it is South Riding. The Land of Green Ginger was written earlier in 1927, and to me it certainly reads like a slightly less mature work. What wonders we might have had from her had she not died so tragically young in 1935 – we shall never know.
I was particularly delighted to discover that The Land of Gree Ginger is a real place – a tiny street in the old town area of Kingston upon Hull.
Joanna Burton was born in South Africa, though following her mother’s death she is sent to England, Yorkshire to be raised by a couple of spinster aunts. Here, Joanna lives very much in her head – dreaming of far of places, and the adventures she would have if she were to visit them. One day just before Christmas when Joanna is eight, she walks through the streets of Kingsport with her aunts looking for Commercial Lane; they come upon The Land of Green Ginger, a dark, narrow little street, one turn before the one they seek. Joanna is captivated by the name.
“To be offered such gifts of fortune, to seek Commercial Lane and to find – the day before Christmas Eve and by lamplight too – The Land of Green Ginger, dark, narrow, mysterious road to Heaven, to Fairy Land, to anywhere, anywhere, even to South Africa, which was the goal of all men’s longing, the place where Father lived in a rondavel, the place…
Her aunts were moving away. Relentlessly, majestically, with skirts well lifted from the muddy road, and firm boots laced against the slithery grease of the pavement, they moved forward.”
At school she meets two girls of a likeminded adventurous spirit, Agnes and Rachel. Together they dream of the places they will go, the things they will see. However life seldom goes exactly as we think it will, and while the suffragette cause turns Rachel’s head – Joanna has her eighteen year old head turned by a handsome young man who tells her he has been given the world to wear as a golden ball. Teddy Leigh plays right into Joanna’s romantic imagination. The First World War has started however, and despite Teddy’s medical history of TB he is passed fit- and heads off to the trenches. During the years of WW1 Joanna becomes a mother to Patricia and Pamela and despite the realities of motherhood during wartime, still Joanna dreams.
When Teddy returns from the war – his lungs are further damaged, and despite having once wanted the life of a clergyman – he settles for life as a farmer – a role no one really believes he is fit for. The romance in Teddy that had won Joanna’s heart has been killed by the war, and the necessity of living on a farm. Joanna’s reality is a harsh one, a sick husband, two young children a farm to run, still Joanna’s imaginative mind can see fun and adventure in all things. Times are hard, money is scare and Joanna fears her eldest daughter may have inherited Teddy’s consumptive lungs. She is an unconventional housewife, effervescent and optimistic – I couldn’t help but love Joanna.
“It was no good. The time would come when all that Joanna wanted to do was to sail away, either alone or with a real friend, whose feelings she did not have to consider at all. She wanted to open her port-hole one morning and see against the sky the faint outline of an island, iridescent as a bubble on the grey water. She wanted to lean out above tossing blue-green waves and catch the end of a string thrown to her by dark, smiling men, and haul up from baskets bananas pulled that morning on the green island. She wanted to climb terraces, frothing over with purple bougainvillea and splashed with scarlet hibiscus, and scented with magnolia.”
Teddy and Joanna struggle to fit themselves into their local society – geographically a little removed from the village – they also fall somewhere between the gentry and the working people of the village.
The local gentry – with whom Joanna and Teddy enjoy a glorious evening, decide to use their influence to help the couple who they can see are struggling. Nearby is a camp of refugees – Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians who have caused some disquiet already among the locals – but when Sir Wentworth Marshall suggests that the camp’s Hungarian interpreter goes to the Leigh farm as a paying guest – Joanna jumps at the chance – after all his rent will be invaluable. Joanna and her daughters had already caught a glimpse of Paul Szermai – who Joanna privately calls Tam Lin – once more weaving fairy tales around the everyday. Paul Szermai – embittered, Cambridge educated like Teddy – is another man damaged by war – he comes to spend greater amounts of time with Joanna – and tells her his story of the war years – stories filled with rebels, revolution and his one lost love that haunts him.
“Their language was an old wild language. They had known incredible loves and dark adventures and the twisted streets of alien cities. They had known the green breaking waves of the sea, and the green aisles of the silent forests. They had known war and death and fierce, cruel elation.”
As Teddy’s health worsens – Joanna sends her little girls to her aunts so she can concentrate on her husband and the farm. It’s inevitable in the situation that misunderstandings arise, and gossip in the village turns spiteful.
This novel is about the realities of life set against the dreams, dreamt by men damaged by war and the women who care for them. There are many small tragedies in this novel which make it more poignant than I am used to in Holtby. Holtby however will not allow Joanna’s spirit and zest for life to be wasted – and so the reader is left – very thankfully – with the impression that the end of this story is really just the beginning of another one.