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Posts Tagged ‘winifred holtby’

VW critical memoir

So it is already September which means the beginning of #Woolfalong phase 5 and I am still reviewing books for phase 4. This is the first of two books I read in the final week of August for the biography section. Strictly speaking Virginia Woolf; a critical memoir is not a work of biography, it is more a piece of criticism, although there is naturally a biographical element. It was the first critical study of Virginia Woolf in English.

Winifred Holtby was a well-respected novelist, journalist and social reformer, who died tragically young in 1935. Now known best for her novel South Riding, Holtby was a very different kind of writer to Virginia Woolf, but in 1931 she began writing this work of literary criticism at the invitation of an editor working for publisher William Collins – it was finally published by Wishart & Co in 1932. Virginia Woolf was perfectly aware of the book being written, making a note in her diary about it and following that up with a letter to Winifred Holtby saying that she looked forward to reading it. Fascinatingly the two women met once during the writing of the book, and Woolf arranged for an advance copy of The Waves to be sent to Winifred Holtby. These are the kinds of details which fascinate me. The result is a thoughtful piece of literary criticism, in which Holtby considers the limitations of Woolf’s work, while showing that while they were very different writers Holtby quite obviously appreciated it.

Forgive me for quoting perhaps too much from this excellent work, which shows Holtby’s gift as a superb writer (one of my favourites) and her attention to detail, presumably showing the exactitude of a good journalist too.

“In 1919 it is highly probable that she understood Jane Austen better than she understood herself. She appreciated Jane Austen’s perfection, her integrity, her technical skill and her exquisite discrimination of moral values. To a large extent, she shared these.”

Holtby considers her very careful reading of Woolf’s work against the debate – which was prevalent at the time – between modernist and traditional styles of writing explaining:

“Dorothy Richardson did not invent the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, but she had re-introduced it; she had made people talk about it.”

In her first chapter Holtby suggests that Virginia Woolf ‘inherited the instinct to write’ from her mother rather than her father Leslie Stephen; Victorian man of letters. In 1883 Mrs Stephen published a small book called Notes from the Sickroom, a book providing good sense hygiene advice, long out of print by the time Holtby was writing. However, Holtby maintains that in that slight long forgotten work there can be found some resemblance to Virginia Woolf’s later writing style. She quotes a short extract about crumbs in the bed – which seems to bear out what she says, showing what she calls Mrs Stephen’s ‘half-amused detachment.’

Holtby highlights Woolf’s own criticism, at this period Woolf was still known by many as a reviewer and critic first. Pointing out how Woolf’s choice of title for her first collection of essays – The Common Reader – showed how Woolf wanted to distance herself from the idea of a critic and scholar, borrowing the title from Dr Johnson.

Constantly while reading this marvellous book one is aware of Holtby’s intelligent reading of Woolf’s work, and her astute assessment and understanding of it.

“She is, as it happens, enormously aware of time. Throughout her novels time clangs like fate; its sound reverberates with terrifying persistence. When Jacob, when Mrs Dalloway, when Orlando hear clocks strike, the explosion shakes the complex fabric of their being. The whole of Orlando is a fantasia on time sense.”

There is probably very little point – me writing at any length about each chapter of this book, I can’t see any benefit of a long review of it. Holtby considers each of Woolf’s works, shining a light on its brilliance and complexity. For instance, Holtby shows the importance of water and the sea in Woolf’s work, examining everything from Woolf’s childhood holidays in Cornwall, to her use of water in To the Lighthouse, The Voyage Out, Jacob’s Room and The Waves. Of course this was all written before Woolf’s death at her own hand – by water. Holtby acknowledges that she and Woolf were poles apart, perhaps that is what makes this such a great piece of writing. For me, the one thing I loved is how this book has supported my own reading of Woolf.

Holtby considers the reception of Woolf’s work, and how Woolf continually subverted reader’s expectations. Surprising them, challenging them and constantly evolving her own art.

“The significance of To the Lighthouse was tragic. Its analysis was luminous and profound, its mood poetic, its preoccupations spiritual. It concerned life and death and human character. Those who read and admired it awaited eagerly its successor, expecting another Clarissa Dalloway, another Mrs Ramsay. They got, in 1928, Orlando: A Biography; in 1929, A Room of One’s Own.”

True Holtby talks at some length about books I have yet to read – and in a sense there are spoilers – only they weren’t spoilers for me. I have come away from this book slightly less nervous of The Waves (though I am still a bit) and really very excited about reading Jacob’s Room – during phase 6 of #Woolfalong.

This book also served as a reminder of what an excellent writer Winifred Holtby was. Her critical memoir is beautifully written, balanced and fair. 

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the land of green ginger

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.

land of green gingerI 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.

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remember remember

This collection of Winifred Holtby stories were published by Virago in 1999, but the stories themselves all date from the 1920’s and1930’s, and come from her two previously published collections of short stories; entitled ‘Truth is not Sober’ and ‘Pavements at Anderby’ and include five previously unpublished stories. There are forty stories in this collection although the volume only runs to just a little over 300 pages, which testifies to how short some of the stories are.

Organised into six sections, entitled Autobiographical, Domestic, Fantasy, Women’s lives, Abroad and Uncollected and Unpublished Stories – these stories cover a variety of themes. Holtby was a famous Yorkshire woman, and brought the region to life in her novels. However she was first known as a story writer and journalist. During the First World War, Winifred Holtby worked in France with a W.A.A.C unit, where she apparently worked on her stories by candlelight in the midst of the busy comings and goings around her. Some of the stories have a slightly didactic tone, and almost journalistic style, others are purely narrative, yet many of the stories do carry a fairly clear message or moral. Often satirical and sometimes a little cynical Holtby’s stories are quite a mixed bag. The section I liked the best was that entitled Women’s Lives and the one I liked the least ‘Fantasy’ – some of which I found to be simply peculiar. Holtby used her experiences in France, her travels abroad and the Yorkshire farming community where she grew up as inspiration. There is a sharpness about these stories that I found a little surprising – although I don’t know why – she was after all the writer of the wonderful South Riding – which is pretty sharply observed.

It is pretty hard – maybe impossible to review an entire collection of stories – I’ve found that before. Instead I will give just a flavour. In a story from the first section ‘The Second Alibi’ a young unattractive, friendless girl stuns the local community by providing an alibi for a local young swain, claiming she was with him when the crime was committed. While one unforgettable story from the domestic selection of stories – ‘Why Herbert Killed his mother’ concerns a baby pampered and preened over by his mother, who wins a newspaper contest and becomes the darling of the country.

“That was only the beginning; Baby Britain had still to face Baby France, Baby Spain, Baby Italy, and Baby America. Signor Mussolini sent a special message to Baby Italy, which the other national competitors thought unfair. The Free State insisted upon sending twins, which were disqualified. The French President cabled inviting the entire contest to be removed to Paris, and the Germans declared that the girl known as Baby Poland, having been born in the Polish Corridor, was really an East Prussian and should be registered as such.
But it did not matter. These international complications made no difference to Herbert. Triumphantly he overcame all his competitors, and was crowned as World Baby on the eve of his first birthday.”

In the section of Women’s Lives stories ‘Such a wonderful Evening’ a couple of servant girls go out for the evening to a concert and encounter a man suffering from shell shock in the audience. While: ‘Nurse to the Archbishop’ tells the story of an ageing Nurse, attending a service where an Archbishop, who the Nurse tended years earlier is about to preach.

Although the ‘Fantasy’ section was undoubtedly my least favourite, one story in that section ‘Little Man Lost’ was particularly gripping, and memorable, brilliantly sharp – it tells the story of a wealthy man, used to luxury and getting what he wants, he ruthlessly has tossed aside his most recent lover. However as he travels aboard a train across Europe, he discovers how he can’t always control everything with money.
In these stories Winifred Holtby, among other things, satirises celebrity, ageism, anthropology and various sections of society, her observations are surprisingly modern. I am delighted I found this book at Birmingham Library, and although on or two stories are really rather odd, overall I enjoyed reading them.

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““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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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