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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.
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