The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby

The Crowded Street is on my Classics Club list, so when I saw that Jessie of Dwell in Possibility was hosting a Persephone Readathon this week, my choice was obvious. This particular book has also been published as a Virago Modern Classic, but my edition is the Persephone one, with the endpapers pictured below. Having already enjoyed several of Holtby’s books – South Riding, The Land of Green Ginger and Poor Caroline – I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while and I’m pleased to say that I loved it even more than I hoped I would.

The novel was published in 1924, at a time when it was assumed that most young women wanted nothing more than to find a husband and then stay at home to raise their children. In The Crowded Street, Holtby looks at what it was like to be a woman who, for one reason or other, was unable to conform to these expectations. Through the stories of Muriel Hammond, her sister Connie and her friends Clare and Delia, she explores the very different routes through life taken by four very different women.

We first meet Muriel in December 1900 when she is eleven years old and attending her first ‘grown-up’ party. Her excitement soon turns to shame when she finds that none of the boys want to dance with her and her dance card remains almost blank. Muriel is confused: The unforgivable sin at a party is to have no partners. To sit quietly in the drawing-room at home was a virtue. The sense that she has somehow let her mother down is a feeling which will stay with her for the next two decades as she continues to go through life partnerless, waiting and hoping for something to happen. She does initially have ambitions – to study astronomy, to go to college – but she doesn’t pursue these as she receives no encouragement from her mother or from her school teacher, who says:

“Character, my dear, to be a fine womanly woman, that matters so much more than intellectual achievement. To serve first your parents, then, I hope, your husband and your children, to be pure, unselfish and devoted, that is my prayer for each one of my girls.”

As a single woman myself, there were times when Muriel’s story resonated with me, but thankfully not all the time! I may not be married, but nobody ever prevented me from going to university or getting a job. Muriel watches with envy as Delia, another unmarried girl from the same Yorkshire village, goes off to Cambridge University, then heads for London and throws herself into political activism.

“But then, she has her work. Women who have their work have an immense thing, even if they are unfortunate in the people whom they love. It is when you have nothing, neither work, nor love, nor even sorrow, that life becomes rather intolerable.”

Of course, some women today are happy to stay at home with their parents, there are some who find plenty of fulfilment in marrying and having children, while others want to move away to pursue their career. There is no right or wrong way to live, but the point is that we have a choice. What makes Muriel’s story so tragic is that she feels she has no choice. She believes that marriage is the only possible way to escape, but if that doesn’t happen, all she can do is continue to help her mother around the house, doing what she sees as her duty (even though her help isn’t particularly necessary). As a result, she becomes more and more depressed, feeling that life is passing her by but lacking the confidence to do anything about it and making excuses to justify why she can’t.

Her younger sister, Connie, tries to break away from the stifling confines of life in Marshington, but she is so desperate that she makes a bad decision which has disastrous consequences. It seems that the only one who is likely to be happy is Muriel’s old school friend, the cheerful and sophisticated Clare, who goes through life without a care in the world and catches the eye of Godfrey Neale, the one man Muriel dreams of as her own potential husband. Clare, though, has the opposite problem. Having had a very different upbringing from Muriel and Connie, will she be able to adapt to living in a small Yorkshire village?

At one point, Muriel thinks to herself:

“All books are the same – about beautiful girls who get married or married women who fall in love with their husbands. In books things always happen to people. Why doesn’t somebody write a book about someone to whom nothing ever happens – like me?”

Well, Winifred Holtby has written that book and I don’t think it’s quite true that nothing happens to Muriel. She does develop as a person as the novel progresses and, although it takes a long time, she slowly becomes aware that if she is to have any happiness she will have to take matters into her own hands. I loved the way her story ended: she has an important decision to make and in my opinion she does the right thing.

As well as following the characters I’ve mentioned above, we are also given some insights into the effects of the First World War on small communities like the fictional Marshington. I particularly enjoyed the vivid depiction of the bombardment of Scarborough in 1914, something Winifred Holtby could drawn on personal experience to describe. The Crowded Street is a wonderful book in so many ways and a great choice for both the Classics Club and the Persephone Readathon!

This is Book 2/50 from my second Classics Club list

25 thoughts on “The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby

  1. Karen K. says:

    I liked this one too though it’s been several years since I read it. I loved South Riding and I still own Poor Caroline and Mandoa, Mandoa!

    I find it so infuriating that single women were expected to stay home and take care of their parents, I see it over and over in novels. I do love reading books written and set in the past but that is one of many reasons I would never want to travel back in time!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it is infuriating, especially as they were made to feel that they didn’t have any other choice. I wouldn’t want to actually go back in time either – I prefer just to read about it!

  2. joulesbarham says:

    If I can remember, in Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth” she is summoned back from front line nursing during the First World War to look after her mother, who is not actually ill. This made her understandably furious, and as Holtby was her great friend this may have influenced this and other novels?

    • Helen says:

      I had forgotten that – it’s been such a long time since I read Testament of Youth. I’m sure Vera Brittain will have been an influence on some aspects of this novel. I suspect she could have been the inspiration for the character of Delia.

  3. Sandra says:

    This sounds a wonderful book. I have always had difficulty with South Riding. I’ve never understood why that is – it’s the sort of book that I ought to like. Perhaps this novel from Winifred Holtby might ease me into her writings.

    • Helen says:

      I have read four of Holtby’s novels now and I’ve found them all quite different from each other. Even if South Riding wasn’t a success with you, I think there’s still a chance that you might enjoy this one.

  4. Calmgrove says:

    Hope you’ll pardon this comment from a male, but it’s dispiriting enough to read where men advise young women to ‘know their place’ in the home, to be a devoted and selfless wife, mother and homemaker; but reading of other women perpetuating the myth that females should not have ambitions beyond their traditional role is deeply depressing.

    More so when one knows that fiction followed real life in that respect, and that this calumny is still persistent today in so many cultures. I’m sure this novel goes way beyond the limitations of those antedeluvian expectations but just the thought of it makes me angry.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s very depressing to think of the pressure young women were under to conform to a traditional role in the home and to give up their ambitions, particularly, as you say, when that pressure came not only from men but from other women as well.

      As Winifred Holtby was a feminist and political activist, she would not have been seen as a conventional 1920s woman and I’m sure this book would have been partly autobiographical, highlighting the difficulties of breaking away from the expectations of the time.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you, Laurie. Winifred Holtby never married, so I suspect she was drawing partly on personal experience to write about Muriel’s situation. I thought it was a fascinating and very moving book.

  5. Liz Dexter says:

    I love this book and have read it a few times. I also own a Virago copy. South Riding is one of my favourite books of all time but I think I have a few of hers left to read. I didn’t manage to take part in the readathon because i was away, but I’ve enjoyed seeing people’s posts about it.

    • Helen says:

      I think I’ll probably want to read this one again too – it’s the sort of book that leaves you with a lot to think about. I loved South Riding as well.

  6. buriedinprint says:

    I thought I had read this one as well, but just a few sentences into your review realised I have not (I must have been thinking of Poor Caroline, but I’ve also read South Riding, and loved it as much as others here have, and Anderby Wold, which I also really enjoyed). Now I’m off to scrounge up my Holtby volumes and hope this one is amongst them!

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