Winifred Holtby

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Sorry to have fallen silent on this blog so quickly – I did (and still do) intend to update as often as I can, but have had a very busy couple of weeks! Anyway, Winifred Holtby is a writer I’d often heard of, but never read anything by until the BBC showed Andrew Davies’ recent adaptation of South Riding – something I do hope to re-watch soon and write about on my too-long-silent costume dramas blog. I enjoyed this series, especially Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey’s performances, but after reading the book I found it sad that so much had to be cut out to fit the drama into the time available, including the powerful portrayal of dying pub landlady Lily. I haven’t as yet seen the longer earlier BBC adaptation, or the 1930s film version.
Here’s a link to an interesting article about Holtby’s life at Spartacus Educational. She was writing in the 1920s and 30s, but her novels, reprinted by Virago, are very different in feeling from the couple of Persephone books I’ve just written about on this blog – covering a wider timescale and with more turbulent events and occasionally melodramatic plot twists. Holtby was to the left politically and a feminist – I hope to read some of her feminist journalism in the future.
I’ve now read three novels by Holtby, her first one, Anderby Wold, The Land of Green Ginger and her last novel, the masterpiece South Riding. I do find that Holtby draws me in – I try to avoid starting one of her books if I am going to have to do a lot of other things in the next few hours, because I tend to find it hard to drag myself back to the outside world. This is something which reminds me of the experience of reading Victorians like Trollope or George Eliot – and I think she has many similarities with these authors, in the combination of realistic detail (all those farm meals, so lovingly described) and subtle psychology, as her characters’ changing moods and impulses are described.
Both Anderby Wold and The Land of Green Ginger centre on unhappy marriages, but the two marriages are very different and in some ways the characters’ situations could almost have been created as deliberate opposites to each other. In Anderby Wold, Mary has married her cousin for convenience, in order to hang on to the farm she loves, but is frustrated by her husband’s slow, dull personality and longs for more excitement.

In The Land of Green Ginger (the exotic-sounding title is actually the name of a road in Hull!), Joanna marries very young for what she sees as romantic love, but finds her husband, Teddy, impossibly moody and volatile, and haunted by his memories of the First World War. She also realises only after his return from the war that her husband is slowly dying from consumption, and that one of their two daughters may have the beginnings of it too. Where Mary loves the farm she lives on, Joanna hates hers and sees it as a prison – but the harsh way of life seems similar in both novels, just seen from different angles.

I find it interesting to see how Holtby makes me sympathise with characters who may not be altogether likeable – for instance, in Anderby Wold, Mary wants to patronise the people around her and lord it over them, and sets out to bust a farm-workers’ strike. All of this must have been anathema to Holtby as a socialist, but she still makes Mary understandable and at least partly sympathetic, though her actions can still set the hackles rising. The young man who Mary falls hopelessly (in the sense that there is no hope for them) in love with is idealistic socialist David. His views are much closer to the author’s own than Mary’s, but, again, she shows his limitations and the contradictions within his thought. Both this novel and South Riding have central couples whose political views are many miles apart, recalling Gaskell’s North and South – but for Holtby there is no way for the couples to leap over the boundaries between them; romance can’t overcome everything else.
I hope to go on to read the rest of Holtby’s novels and also some of her other writings, as she is a writer who really appeals to me. I’ve just ordered a biography of her from my local library, The Clear Stream: A Life of Winifred Holtby by Marion Shaw. Sadly they don’t have Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: A Working Partnership by Jean Kennard, which is out of print. But it is available secondhand, so I will hope to read that too.

Persephone Books: Everyday 1930s life

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The endpaper for 'The Fortnight in September'

I’ve read quite a few Persephone Books over the last few years, and picked up several more without actually reading them yet. The distinctive grey jackets jump out at me from library and book sale shelves and tell me this is something that would probably be of interest. For anyone who hasn’t discovered this publisher yet, most of the books on their list are from the inter-war years – they have 93 titles in their catalogue, so far, and most but not all are by women. I have read founder Nicola Beauman’s book A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39, published by Virago in 1983, which looks at books read by women like Laura, the heroine of the great film Brief Encounter, illuminating what their lives were like. Persephone Books really took off from that idea and made many of these books available again.

The reason I’m mentioning Persephone today is that I’ve just read and really liked two of their books, The Fortnight in September (1931) by RC Sherriff and The New House (1936) by Lettice Cooper. It was by chance that I read these straight after one another, but I realised they have a lot in common. Both books are set over a short period, Sherriff’s following a working-class London family on a fortnight’s holiday to Bognor and Cooper’s focusing on a single long day when a middle-class mother and her daughter move out of their large house in a northern town to a smaller one. Both are books where, on the face of it, very little happens, but a lot is told through the accumulation of small details of everyday life.

A 1930s Bognor seaside postcard

I often tend to be attracted by books where more melodramatic and larger-scale events happen, but both of these quieter tales drew me in nonetheless. I think Sherriff’s imagination is more visual, not surprisingly as he was a playwright. I found I could see his family on the train or the beach, or at their down-at-heel bed-and-breakfast hotel. His book is quite unusual in that it is about a happy family – the parents, Tom and Flossie, love each other – and it is a successful holiday, with many moments for the family to treasure all year. But there are still problems for each of them to wrestle with, as Flossie is secretly afraid of all kinds of minor hurdles such as the train journey, while Tom feels that his working life has been a disappointment.

There is also a feeling that the family’s summer journeys, and current way of life, are coming to an end, emphasised by the September setting, at the end of summer. Children Dick and Mary are growing up and have their own troubles, and probably won’t come with their parents for many more years. Meanwhile, their seaside landlady is desperately trying to keep up appearances, but her hotel is slowly falling apart and the visitors moving on to other resorts. The landlady has one weeping eye – caused by some undiagnosed illness, and symbolising the encroaching misery which she is determined to keep under the surface.

The endpaper from 'The New House'

Lettice Cooper’s book is less visual than Sherriff’s and has more passages of discussion where the characters think about their lives and the world around them. Mother Natalie resents moving to a smaller house, even though she can’t afford to keep up the old one. She is bitter about her family’s large house being bought by developers and she wants to keep her unmarried daughter, Rhoda, living with her – but, in the course of the day, Rhoda starts to realise that she must make her escape now, or end up sacrificing her whole life to the family. The novel also looks at how the marriage of Rhoda’s brother, Maurice, to Evelyn is starting to deteriorate, not for any dramatic reason, no affair or violence… but through a build-up of minor issues. They each want to build their own household in an imitation of the one where they grew up, and turn their small daughter into a version of themselves.

There is quite a lot about social issues of the 1930s in this book, with Cooper’s socialist convictions coming across. The family’s grand old house has been bought by a developer and is being pulled down for a new estate where families from a  slum clearance project can move. The characters react differently to this end of an era, and each individual’s feelings and thoughts also fluctuate through the book – at times I felt Cooper was going round in circles, but, then, that is just how our thoughts tend to go.

I would like to read more books by both these authors. An added attraction of the Persephone editions is that they always have interesting introductions – Sherriff’s tells how he went about writing the book, while Lettice Cooper’s has an introduction by Jilly Cooper reminiscing about the author, a relation of hers by marriage, and telling how the characters in the novel are based on real people.

A favourite children’s author: Elizabeth Enright

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I saw a passing mention of Elizabeth Enright on a blog the other day – and since then I’ve been remembering how much I loved her books as a child. My favourites were the four Melendy books, which were published in Puffin paperback in the UK (I read Puffins voraciously in those days and they must be a subject for another posting in the future!)

I’ve always remembered the opening of The Saturdays, which reminds me a bit of the start of Little Women, in the way that you are into the story right away, with one of the main characters moaning in a jokey way:

“It would have to rain today,” said Rush, lying flat on his back in front of the fire. “On a Saturday. Certainly. Naturally. Of course. What else would you expect? Good weather is for Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday; and rain’s for Saturday and Sunday, and Christmas vacation and Easter.”

I’m cheating a bit because I had to look it up on Amazon to get the exact wording, but I remembered that “Certainly. Naturally. Of course.” And I also remembered that a bit later in that first chapter Rush starts throwing plasticine at the ceiling to turn water marks from old leaks into pictures.

The book follows the four Melendy children, Rush, Randy (short for Miranda), Mona and Oliver, as they pool their pocket money so that each of them can take it in turns to have adventures on their own on a Saturday – and later on they start having adventures together instead. Randy was probably my favourite out of the characters as the more adventurous of the two girls – though all four of them are very independent. The Melendys are motherless, from a vaguely Bohemian middle-class family, and seem to have an amazing amount of freedom to wander on their own around New York during the Second World War. The fact that it is all set in the big city made it very exciting for me to read as a child in rural England. Enright included her own line drawings, which were an added attraction – I remember loving her drawings of the stray dog which the family takes in and names Isaac.

I think I first discovered Enright’s stories after seeing Noel Streatfeild refer to her, and their books have some similarities, like the enjoyable concrete details of the clothes the children wear and the food they eat – I’ve always remembered the petits fours that Mona (or was it Randy?) is served when she takes tea with an elderly Frenchwoman on her travels, and in my imagination they must be the best cakes anyone could ever taste. The main delight, though, is the interaction between the four children and the way in which each of them is a distinct character.

This was my favourite out of the four Melendy books, but I also liked The Four-Storey Mistake, the sequel where the children move out of the city to an eccentric old house, and Then There Were Five, the third book, where they meet a neglected boy, Mark, who becomes their adopted brother. Spiderweb for Two, last in the series, wasn’t quite so good because the older children went away to boarding school – but I still enjoyed it. I also liked Thimble Summer, a slightly earlier book of hers set in the 1930s, but I never managed to get hold of her other titles as they weren’t published in Puffin. My daughter put that right years later and got hold of the two Gone-Away Lake books, after reading my battered copy of The Saturdays until it finally fell to pieces.

As a child, I never knew anything much about Enright, except that she was a friend of Noel Streatfeild’s – but now, in the age of the internet, I have looked her up on the net and discovered that she was Frank Lloyd Wright’s niece. Indeed, her whole family sounds very interesting. Here’s a link to her entry on Wikipedia. I see from this that she did also write short stories for adults, and I know she also wrote poems, as I came across a listing of one on the Harper’s site, but sadly it was only available to subscribers.

I’ve chosen a couple of the Puffin covers I remember to illustrate this posting, featuring Enright’s own drawings, but it looks from Amazon as if the Melendy books are now back in print in new editions with modern covers – for another generation to discover.

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Hello to anyone reading this, and welcome to Judy’s books blog! I’m aiming to update more often than I’ve managed to do on my other blogs, with shorter postings –  covering everything from famous classic novels and poetry to more obscure titles from the past, as well as more recent books. My literary passions include 19th-century authors such as Dickens, Hardy, Charlotte Bronte, Gaskell and the Brownings, and I’m currently reading some 1930s Persephone reprints.. but I also read lots of other things.

I suppose one inspiration for this blog was reading Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing: A year of reading from home, where she dips into and discusses some of the books all around her house, and what they have meant to her.  My house is also crammed with books, many of which I haven’t got round to reading – so I’m hoping having a blog devoted to books will encourage me to get to more of them.

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