Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Cult of Winifred Holtby

It's middlebrow novel time--beach reading, even if there is no beach--and the dusty novels of the '20s and '30s fit nicely into a totebag. After reading three of Winifred Holtby's absorbing if uneven and unsubtly political novels, I am suddenly a Holtby "cult" fan. SOUTH RIDING, ANDERBY WOLD, & THE CROWDED STREET speak across time and are emotionally and intellectually true. Her naturalistic portraits of women on farms, in villages, and cities are unglamourous but somehow touch one and often strike home: women have more choices now, but these books illustrate a period when not being selected to marry was shameful and spinsterhood was the "S" word. Women's and socialist politics, important to Holtby, have not, surprisingly, changed much.

Muriel, the unsympathetic protagonist of THE CROWDED STREET, was beginning to bore me when it became clear that this is Holtby's plan. Muriel's dullness and indecisiveness are caused by her very conventional, determined mother's indoctrination, which slowly withers Muriel's personality. After a meeting of a church society, "(Muriel) thought: 'What on earth shall I do when I get home? Read? 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 someone write a book about someone to whom nothing ever happens--like me?'"

Like a princess in a fairy tale, Muriel requires salvation, though that's not quite how it turns out. And perhaps the process is somewhat unrealistic. Never mind. Holtby completely carries us away.

This is not quite a classic--but almost. Library books of a lost world. And Persephone Books has just reissued this.

P.S. And talk about coincidence--there is an enthusaiastic REVIEW of this in the Sunday June 1 Spectator. The link is below:

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Winifred Holtby

Another Virago in the house? All right. It's Winifred Holtby's SOUTH RIDING. I didn’t like this one so much as her best friend Vera Brittain's masterpiece, HONOURABLE ESTATE..

Holtby, the subject of Vera Brittain's memoir, TESTAMENT OF FRIENDSHIP, simply did not write as fluidly and well as Brittain. Holtby’s sprawling, intelligent, political, if somewhat turgid, novel, is compelling, yet awkward, the labored story of a town. SOUTH RIDING fascinatingly spirals out from actions of the city council of South Riding to highlight the characters of all classes from shack dwellers to headmistresses to construction workers on the dole to once wealthy farmers. Perhaps that is its appeal: Holtby cares so much about her characters and contrasts the innocence of socialists and do-gooders to the corruption of sleazy council members who hope to make real estate deals by preying on the poor. The traditional narrative is never preachy, and she gives all the characters their due. Published posthumously in 1936, the Winner of the James Tait Black Award, it doesn’t measure up to the best of ‘30s liberal writers like Storm jameson. Nevertheless, it is a very good traditional novel, logically constructed, if not exquisitely written.

In her preface Holtby wrote to her alderman mother: “What fascinated me was the discovery that apparently academic and impersonal resolutions passed in a city council were daily revolutionizing the lives of those men and women whom they affected. The complex tangle of motives prompting public decisions, the unforeseen consequences of their enactment on private lives appeared to me as part of the unseen pattern of the English landscape.”

Anyway...this one is readily available, though I’m not sure about Holtby’s others.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Revolutionary Road

Richard Yates (1926-1992), the author of Revolutionary Road, knows the hopeless emptiness of suburban life. He knows the commuters who hate their 9-5 jobs and the claustrophobic housewives whose pregnancies cut them off radically from past achievements and friends. Revolutionary Road, a cult classic, is passed on by word of mouth, or, according to Richard Ford in his introduction to the 2000 Vintage edition, taught by maverick professors who specialize in Kesey, Kerouac, and Paula Fox (the latter’s work is especially pertinent).

The protagonists, a couple named Frank and April Wheeler, never intended to live average lives. They enjoyed their slight rebelliousness in Greenwich Village until April became pregnant, the contingency on which their lives hinge. Frank talks her out of an abortion (which was a perilous and horrifying prospect, since she intended to perform it on herself with a syringe), but the pregnancy in fact ruins both their lives. April has no life outside the suburb; Frank, who prides himself on doing nothing at his job and not even knowing what it is, rebels at work, hilariously shuffling files from his in-box to his desk drawers to the secretary’s files and back to his own in-box, writing brochures and letters as seldom as possible. April, however, stuck at home, has lost confidence. She encourages him to quit his job and move to France, where she can support the family.

it is a, ironically, a madman who understands their philosophy. John, a schizophrenic mathematic, articulates their loathing of suburbia:

“You want to play house, you got to have a nice job. You want to play very NICE house, very SWEET house, then you got to have a job you don’t like. Great. This is the way ninety-eight-point-nine percent of the people work things out, so believe me buddy you’ve got nothing to apologize for. Anybody comes along and says “Whaddya do it for?’ you can be pretty sure he’s on a four-hour pass from the State funny farm...”

It takes a madman to speak the truth. And possibly a housewife (April has less to lose than Frank). But the reader also sympathizes with Frank’s point of view. He may be unlikable and arrogant, but is believable as a guy in a gray flannel suit who is tempted by success at a job he doesn’t respect.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Honourable Estate

Readers of Virago Modern Classics have been hustling their green-backed paperbacks (and new chick-lit-lookialikes) out of their bookcases lately. You’ll see women in urban landscapes on the buses reading Elizabeth Taylor's A View of the Harbor, and sweaty women swigging water and munching power bars beside a dusty trail, reading Vera Brittain’s Honourable Estate (1936; Virago 2000).

The 30th anniversary of the founding of Virago is the occasion of gossipy reminiscences in blogs and the Guardian (including an article by founder Carmen Callil). Bloggers will ask what your favorite Virago is and are there any copies of The Brontes Went to Woolworth's for less than $34 (the answer is no). I've been reading some extraordinary Viragos myself. I LOVED the Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, which I learned about in Carmen Callil's article. And I mention Vera Brittain’s Honourable Estate because I was denied it so long by its obscure status, and because Brittain’s novels have been sneered at by critics and more often overlooked.

Carolyn Heilbrun, a literary critic who wrote the introduction to Brittain’s Testament of experience, declared: “Brittain was not a great novelist....She discovered her form to be the documentary.” Because of such dismissive statements, I assumed that Brittain’s autobiographies were her best work and never looked for the novels. I am stunned by this low estimation of her fiction. Honourable Estate is a swift-moving 587-page novel of ideas, from which I could barely tear myself away for work or for sleep.

In Honourable Estate, Brittain analyzes the impact of World War I on two generations of men and women. Janet, a pre-war suffragist, loathes housework and motherhood and escapes from her fanatical vicar husband to political meetings. In the next generation, Ruth, the feminist daughter of an indulgent manufacturer, graduates from Oxford, despite her family’s belief that marriage should be her “estate." A nurse during World War I, disillusioned by many losses, she believes that the war continues after the armistice as refugees pour into camps in Russia and Poland. All characters are psychologically damaged, but make a difference in society. The novel is not plot-oriented, but Brittain's ideas and the emotional political involvement of her characters are exquisitely expressed and explained in her fluid style.