Sunday, July 06, 2008

Poor Caroline

While brooding on the question of what to read next, I turned to Winifred Holtby, my favorite inter-war novelist, whose name lives on here mainly because of Vera Brittain’s sutobiography TESTAMENT OF FRIENDSHIIP. Holtby is one of the greatest satirists of the '20s and '30s--a brilliant feminist who lectured on pacifism, worked for the League of Nations, and still found time to write novels.

POOR CAROLINE is Holtby’s best book. It was also her first best-selling novel. In Geoge Davidson’s introduction to the Virago edition he mentions that in 1931 POOR CAROLINE was “hailed as the wittiest novel of the season.”

This is spinster lit at its best. (If you read enough Virago and Persephone classics, you’ll recognize the elements.) Caroline, an evangelical, imaginative spinster, has ,at 72, been abandoned by her relatives. She lives in poverty, but refuses to acknowledge the sadness of her plain rented room, nor does she let poverty impede her activites. She has founded the Christian Cinema Company, an institution devoted to the making of Christian, anti-Hollywood film. At her insistence she has assembled (maybe captured is a better word) an incongruous board of directors: a penniless, indolent aristicrat, a Jewish antique enthusiast who needs a connection to get his son into Eton, an inventor who works with "talkie" films, and a con-man who pretends to write screenplays. Caroline ignores the politics. She expects not only to clean up the cinema for Christians, but to make millions. One has to laugh at her big dreams and imagination, but at the same time it is sad, and sometimes very irritating. She goes off the deep end when making plans, gets starry-eyed over a curate, chats to journalists in such a hysterical manner that they ignore her. And, worst, she doesn’t properly appreciate Eleanor, the feminist, scientifc, loyal niece from South Africa who, by contributing money to the bankrupt film company, helps Caroline retain her fantasies.

Caroline's relatives in the chorus at the beginning laugh after the funeral at Caroline . “But, my dears, the Will. Do you know, she left 500 pounds each to Betty and me, and eight thousand to her dear friend and kinswoman, Eleanor de la Roux, and twenty thousand--yes, twoenty-thousand, to the Rev. Roger Mortimer...Just think of it--she must have been a little bit potty, wasn’t she, Mums, dying in an imfirmary at seventy-two and making a will like that leaving thousands of pounds, that she hadn’t got, to people she hardly knew?"

Well, that's Caroline. And, although she is absurd, one can't help disliking her relatives for not helping her. And one can see that Holtby compares Caroline and Eleanor--two generations with different opportunities for women.


Ellen said...

_Poor Caroline_ is on my TBR pile after _The curate's Wife_. Yay!


Mad Housewife said...

Enjoy yourself. I loved this book.