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:

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