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 draw 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

My Commonplace Book: August 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


Margaret Beaufort

She could have asked, of course, but she would not get any answers. She thought of all the words that went unspoken in the world, throughout time: what happened to them, where did they go? What would happen if they were all spoken? How different would the world be then?

Succession by Livi Michael (2014)


“Molly, I cannot have you speaking so to Lady Harriet,” said Mrs. Gibson, as soon as she was left alone with her stepdaughter. “You would never have known her at all if it had not been for me, and don’t be always putting yourself into our conversation.”

“But I must speak if she asks me questions,” pleaded Molly.

“Well! if you must, you must, I acknowledge. I’m candid about that at any rate. But there’s no need for you to set up to have an opinion at your age.”

“I don’t know how to help it,” said Molly.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (1865)


I know very little about my mother, and have no family to help me fill in the gaps. I am an only child and my father’s two elder sisters died several years ago. I am intrigued by this photograph and would like to find out more about the people in it…I hope you don’t mind me asking all these questions. Any information you could offer would mean a great deal to me.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (2011)


Penny dreadful

Since cheap magazines were traded on street corners, in playgrounds and factory yards, each issue could have many readers. Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale (2016)


It can’t have been much of a life, can it? for a woman of over seventy, living alone in lodgings, in debt to her landlady, wearing our cast-off clothes, trotting round after jobs that never materialised, writing articles that nobody would publish, and eating bread and margarine for supper. There really was something rather pathetic about that awful room of hers – crowded with papers full of impossible schemes…I don’t suppose there can ever have been anyone whose life was much less important, or who had less influence on anybody else.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (1931)


It was something he’d learned in the war: only think about what is directly in front of you. No, that wasn’t quite right. He’d had to plan ahead all the time…but not to feel ahead. For a man of Giles’s far-seeing, intricate temperament that had been a hard lesson. But Simon, he could see, knew it by instinct.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore (2016)


Red Cocker Spaniel

Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been — all that; and he — But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.

Flush by Virginia Woolf (1933)


“I play,” he once said to me, “for the best musician in the world – he may not be there, but I play as if he were”. I thought to myself that he was always there when Sebastian was playing, but I did not say so, for that was the kind of thing which did not please him.

The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell (1925)


It is quite beautiful, a metaphoric triumph over adversity, with every millimetre of its gnarled trunk proudly displaying its struggle.
I wonder now why humans hate the map of their life that appears on their own bodies, when a tree like this, or a faded painting, or a near-derelict uninhabited building is lauded for its antiquity.

The Olive Tree by Lucinda Riley (2016)


I cannot say – I had misjudged him before – yet I do think, in that moment, he had his battle to fight – one fierce as his fiercest charge. Cosmas waited, devouring him with his eyes. And I waited; a sudden, amazing sense springing up in me, that if he yielded, as I had so desired him to yield, this King who might be would never be the Prince whom I had served and loved.

Rupert, by the Grace of God by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1899)



“Life, monsieur,” said Planchet, laughing, “is capital which a man ought to invest as sensibly as he possibly can.”

Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas (1850)


Hélène wondered whether the lady was protesting a bit too much in order to convince her, or to convince herself. Could she start a new life at her age? You can start a new game of cards or redecorate the living room, but life itself, can you do that again?

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat (2013)


And now? Overseas in England, his brethren in the faith were fighting, were dying, to achieve the freedom which he had sought. Before his eyes rose the grey, thronged sea-port town he knew, the richer fields, the narrower skies; and yet here, in this strenuous bleakness, he had found his soul.

Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1903)


Love for her was to be a slow, ripening process, the fruit of many meetings and mutual interests. She had never believed in love at first sight. That surely, she told herself, was an invention of novelists, whose business it was to make everything slightly larger than life.

The Jewelled Snuff Box by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1959)


Fountains Abbey 1

The queen responded a week later. “We are sending a young gentleman up to Yorkshire to resolve the matter. We do not wish to hear from you again.”

It was a measure of Mr Aislabie’s poor standing at court that I was the young gentleman in question.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson (2016)


Favourite books this month: Wives and Daughters, Flush and Exposure

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby

Poor Caroline Poor Caroline, published in 1931, is the third book I’ve read by Winifred Holtby. I read both South Riding and The Land of Green Ginger in 2011 and enjoyed both (particularly the wonderful South Riding) so I don’t know why I’ve waited five years to try another of her novels! I enjoyed this one too, although the setting and subject of the book make it very different from the other two I’ve read.

The Caroline of the title is Caroline Denton-Smyth, an elderly spinster who has founded the Christian Cinema Company with the aim of reforming the British film industry. With feathers in her hat and beads around her neck, peering at the world through a pair of lorgnettes, Caroline is a figure of fun – someone to be pitied and certainly not taken too seriously. Caroline herself, however, takes the Christian Cinema Company very seriously indeed and is determined to make it a success. And so, despite having no money herself, she sets out to encourage others to invest in the company and to put together a board of directors.

This is not a novel with a lot of plot; the enjoyment is in getting to know the various people who become involved with Caroline’s business venture in one way or another. First there’s Basil St Denis, an idle, pleasure-seeking young man whose lover, Gloria, persuades him to leave his life of leisure in Monte Carlo to become chairman of the company. Then there’s Joseph Isenbaum, who hopes that joining the board will increase his standing in society and help to secure a place at Eton for his son. Hugh Macafee is an obsessive Scottish scientist who has invented the Tona Perfecta, a new film technique which he is desperate to put to use, while the American scenario writer Clifton Johnson is a greedy, unscrupulous man who, like the others, is interested only in what he can get out of the company.

Not a very pleasant collection of people so far, but there were two more whom I found slightly more likeable: Caroline’s much younger cousin, Eleanor de la Roux, newly arrived in London from South Africa with an independent fortune to invest, and Roger Mortimer, the young priest who falls in love with Eleanor and who is also the object of Caroline’s own affections – leaving her open to even more ridicule, as she is old enough to be Father Mortimer’s grandmother.

Poor Caroline vmc Each of the characters I’ve mentioned is given a chapter of his or her own, so that we have the chance to see things from several different points of view and add to what we know of Caroline, of the other characters and of the Christian Cinema Company. Although the opinions of Caroline differ from character to character – some view her with scorn, some with pity and some with frustration – each chapter ends with the same words: poor Caroline!

Caroline is an unusual heroine; being almost seventy-two at the time of our story, she devotes herself to her cause with an impressive amount of energy and enthusiasm, yet this devotion makes her unrealistic about what she is likely to actually achieve and blind to the things which are more important in life. She is not always a nice person and, as her family like to point out, she has spent a lifetime borrowing money from people knowing that she will never be able to give it back. Despite all this, I had a lot of sympathy for Caroline and couldn’t help admiring her as well as feeling sorry for her. Even though it seemed obvious that the Christian Cinema Company was doomed to failure, for poor Caroline’s sake I wanted it to succeed.

Reading Poor Caroline has reminded me of how much I like Winifred Holtby’s writing. I’m glad I still have a few more of her novels to look forward to – if you’ve read any of them please let me know what you thought!

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

The Land of Green Ginger is the second Winifred Holtby book I’ve read, the first being South Riding, which I read (and loved) in February. This one was published a few years earlier than South Riding, in 1927.

It’s the story of a missionary’s daughter, Joanna Burton, who is born in South Africa but raised in England by her aunts. As a young woman, Joanna is a lively, high-spirited person who dreams of travelling and visiting faraway lands. Then during the First World War she falls in love with Teddy Leigh, a young man on his way to fight in the trenches in France, and they get married.

When Teddy returns from the war to their home in Yorkshire, he is in poor health and Joanna finds herself caring for an invalid husband, managing a farm, and trying to look after their two small children, Patricia and Pamela. Life is hard for Joanna and the only person she can rely on for help is their Hungarian lodger, Paul Szermai. But Joanna has never been popular with the neighbours and when people begin to gossip about her relationship with Szermai, things become even more challenging for the Leigh family.

There are some interesting subplots too, including the tale Paul Szermai shares with Joanna of his life in Hungary and other parts of Europe and how it was affected by war and communism. We also see the attitudes of the local people to the group of immigrant workers who have been employed in Joanna’s village and for whom Szermai is acting as interpreter. Holtby does a good job of portraying a small rural community who are suspicious of outsiders and of anything that might change their way of life.

Although I found Paul Szermai and Teddy Leigh difficult to like, Holtby still managed to make me feel some sympathy for all of her main characters: Szermai, because of his tragic history; Teddy, frustrated by the sickness that is keeping him confined to his bed; and of course, Joanna who has had to abandon all her earlier dreams and ambitions, yet still shows a lot of naivety and innocence. Joanna seems to be unaware of how she is perceived by other people and as a result she never quite manages to fit into life in a small village where everybody knows everybody else’s business.

So The Land of Green Ginger is a dark and emotional book, but the ending leaves us feeling more hopeful. It doesn’t have the same depth and scope as South Riding, but I really like Winifred Holtby’s writing and this is still a compelling story. And finally, I want to mention how much I love the covers of the new Virago editions of Holtby’s books!

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

I read South Riding in February and managed to finish it just in time to watch the recent BBC adaptation. I’m glad I was able to read the book before watching the series as I like to be able to form my own images of the characters before seeing someone else’s interpretation of them. I also think if I hadn’t read the book first I would have found some parts of the adaptation quite confusing.

I first came across Winifred Holtby in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (she and Brittain were close friends) but this is the first time I’ve read any of her work. South Riding, as well as being a wonderful story, is also a realistic and insightful portrait of a community, which reminded me of Middlemarch by George Eliot. It also shares some plot elements with Jane Eyre – one of the main characters even remarks on this herself!

So what is the book actually about? Well, it’s about Sarah Burton who is appointed headmistress of Kiplington High School for Girls and who begins to fall in love with troubled gentleman farmer Robert Carne. It’s also about Lydia Holly, the brightest girl in the school, who is forced to abandon her education and stay at home to look after her younger siblings after their mother dies in childbirth. And it’s about…no, I won’t tell you any more – South Riding is about so many different things I would rather leave you to discover them for yourself. But at the centre of all these storylines is the South Riding council, which makes the important decisions that affect the lives of every character in the book. And there are a lot of characters! When I first opened the book and saw the huge character list at the front, I was slightly overwhelmed: would I be able to keep track of who was who?

The answer is yes, because every one of them is well drawn and memorable. I really admired Sarah Burton. She was a woman who thought she could make a difference and she was prepared to take action to make things happen. But even some of the minor characters (such as Miss Sigglesthwaite, the nervous science teacher and Lily Sawdon, the innkeeper’s invalid wife) get their turn in the spotlight and I was very impressed that Holtby was able to give such a large number of very different characters so much depth. They all feel like real, believable people, people you might live or work with in real life.

Another aspect of the book I enjoyed was the portrayal of Yorkshire in the 1930s. Holtby paints vivid pictures and images, from the crowded streets and alleys of Kingsport to ‘The Shacks’, a cluster of huts and converted railway carriages where the poorest families live. The ‘South Riding’ doesn’t actually exist – the North, East and West Ridings are the three historic subdivisions of Yorkshire – but the setting feels completely realistic (Holtby apparently used the East Riding, where she grew up, as her inspiration).

I admit that South Riding hadn’t previously sounded very interesting to me and I hadn’t expected to love it as much as I did. It was a book I looked forward to returning to every day and I was sorry when I reached the final page.