Determined to Spin

Susan Watkins

  • The Clear Stream: A Life of Winifred Holtby by Marion Shaw
    Virago, 335 pp, £18.99, August 1999, ISBN 1 86049 537 0

‘How I envied Winifred Holtby,’ wrote the novelist Phyllis Bentley. ‘Tall and fair and handsome ... that lovely speaking voice, that precision of English, that flat in London, that post on Time and Tide, those interesting wellcut clothes, that Oxford degree.’ And, she might have added, those six vivid, heartfelt novels, the last, South Riding (1936), achieving the status of a minor classic of the critical portrait-of-England genre. And that flatmate, pretty, political Vera Brittain. And that busy, unconventional household: the two women – radical liberals, feminists – writing, talking and organising as they brought up Vera’s two children; the sensitive American academic (the children’s father) arriving to stay for half the year, bringing news of political science circles in the USA.

And that glowing biography, Testament of Friendship, Vera’s tribute, published five years after Winifred’s death at the age of 37 and, like Brittain’s earlier volume of memoirs, Testament of Youth, never since out of print. And then in the 1970s, that celebration by the women’s movement of this shining example of sisterhood and of the struggles of our great foremothers (inspired, perhaps, by the cadences of Brittain’s prose: ‘From the days of Homer the friendships of men have enjoyed glory and acclamation, but the friendships of women have ... been unsung’); and that triumphant reissue in the 1980s of all Holtby’s works as Virago Modern Classics. And now this biography, sharp, sensitive and shrewd, and in many respects a revisionist account aiming to free Holtby from Brittain’s embrace.

They met at Somerville in 1919. Holtby was a Yorkshire farmer’s daughter, born in 1898 and brought up among the broad hills and cold winds and chillingly conservative social relationships that form the setting for most of her novels. (As a child, she had thought marigolds vulgar, cornflowers refined: the local gentlefolk had sported blue cornflowers at the prewar elections, while the vulgar radicals were decked in orange marigolds.) Her mother, Alice Holtby, was large and loud, a powerful figure in the local community, first as a domineering farmer’s wife and then as an effective, pragmatic Conservative on the East Riding County Council (she is the model for Alderman Mrs Beddows in South Riding, whose subordinates dub her ‘Deputy God’). It was Alice who urged Winifred to write, Alice who encouraged her to sit the entrance exam for Oxford – after the ‘proper education’ that Alice had insisted on at a boarding school in Scarborough where Winifred was constantly ill, first with mumps and infected glands and then with the scarlet fever whose spores, lingering on in her blood, would return as the Bright’s Disease that killed her.

She had an engagingly uneven face, one eye bold, the other canny; a strong jaw, a sensitive mouth. She was full of esprit de corps, eager, clumsy, outgoing, with the energy of a natural leader, but never quite head girl material: she was too much given to peculiar statements and to asking odd questions. She was 16 when the First World War began. In 1916 she deferred her place at Somerville for a year to work in a London nursing home; then, after an anguished year at Oxford, she volunteered for the WAACs and was posted to a signals unit in Normandy.

She was still there when the wave of militancy among agricultural workers erupted into a harvest-time strike at Rudston Farm. David Holtby could afford the wage increases: it was the Saturday half-day that he couldn’t stomach. Baffled and defeated, he threw in his hand and sold the farm. Winifred came back from the war to find her parents living in wealthy suburban Cottingham, on the outskirts of Hull: a new landscape of clipped hedges, bridge parties and tea, and that ‘ugly, square bedroom overcrowded with mahogany furniture’ described in South Riding (‘solid comfort’, Mrs Beddows said). It was a world in which, as Muriel discovers in Holtby’s second novel, The Crowded Street, the only possible life for a woman was marriage, and if you wanted something different, you had to get out.

In October 1919, she went back to Somerville to finish her degree, taking part in everything, drama and journalism and the college debating society; and struggling through history tutorials with her supercilious tutorial partner, Vera Brittain, who seemed to take a malicious pleasure in watching Holtby stumble through overlong, half-digested essays.

Brittain, too, had abandoned a place at Somerville to spend the war years nursing ‘men without faces, without limbs, men almost disembowelled’, as she described them in Testament of Youth, in wards with ice-covered windows and frozen taps. Her charismatic fiancé (whose passion for Olive Schreiner had helped kindle Vera’s schoolgirl feminism) was killed at the front in 1916; his two best friends, her main support after his death, were killed within months of each other in 1917; finally her unheroic, musical, stubborn little brother, Edward, was shot in the hills above Vicenza in June 1918.

Brittain also returned to Oxford in 1919, ‘a ghost too dazed to feel the full fury of her own resentment’ as she put it. She found herself plagued by the illusion of a witch’s beard sprouting on her chin, ‘an obscene, overshadowing fungus’; there were five mirrors in her new lodgings in Bevington Road and she entered the room in terror every night at the sight of five witches’ faces glaring back at her.

Younger, and understandably more cynical about wartime patriotism than Brittain, her fellow students – Holtby included – deplored what they saw as Brittain’s saintly isolation and standoffishness. It was ‘in the nature of a “rag” ’, Holtby wrote to her later, that the Somerville Debating Society invited her to propose the motion ‘That four years’ travel are a better education than four years at a university’, with Holtby to oppose. Brittain thought her chance had come and prepared ‘a most revolutionary speech’, ardently supporting travel, attacking the university and recommending ‘experience’ as worth more than anything else, including its own heavy cost. But it was a trap. Holtby swept the vote, setting herself, in a spirit of carefree – perhaps thoughtless – iconoclasm, at the head of those who had been schoolgirls in 1918. Her text was taken from As You Like It: ‘I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad; and to travel for it, too!’

Brittain went home, lay down on the floor and wept. The next day she marched into Holtby’s lodgings, tiny and furious, to accuse her of having instigated the debate in revenge for having come such a poor second to Brittain in their tutorials; and of having turned the proposer’s chair into a stool of repentance for someone whose history she knew nothing about. There followed a blistering, tear-choked resumé of Brittain’s wartime life. Murmuring bewildered expressions of regret and promising to get the Debating Society president to write an official apology, Holtby must have been more shaken than Brittain realised. The incident preyed on her mind over the stifling Christmas holiday in Cottingham and the following term, she arrived with a propitiatory bunch of grapes when Brittain was ill in bed; she came back the next afternoon and stayed for a serious talk: about her own year in Normandy; about the novel she wanted to write (her first, Anderby Wold) whose theme was modern strife on an old-fashioned Yorkshire farm.

Brittain represented the promise of a life outside Cottingham: cosmopolitan, liberal, committed. ‘She felt as though she had returned to her own country, after long years away,’ Muriel reflects, in The Crowded Street, as she finds herself sitting with Delia (Vera) and her friends, surrounded by ‘talk of books, and socialism, and plays, and whether Sir Rabindranath Tagore should have won the Nobel Prize’: ‘She was home at last.’ That Brittain was demanding, greedy for reassurance only made the attraction stronger. By dint of relentless warmth and encouragement, Winifred talked Vera back from the edge of a nervous breakdown; and Vera allowed Winifred to share her life.

Talk was what they did: about books (their own, and other people’s); about the Bolshevik Revolution (Holtby, whose family had sheltered a White Russian orphan, was violently against; Brittain, who’d agreed to lecture on the subject at provincial League of Nations Union meetings, wanted first to establish the facts); about all their desires and aspirations, feminism and family life, friends, dresses, hats and shoes. Travelling round Europe together, working at facing desks in an attic flat in Doughty Street (‘a paradise, with lots of mice and lots of stairs – blue & mauve & fuchsia covers & blue delft plates on the dark oak dresser’), rushing off to speak at meetings for the League of Nations Union or the feminist Six Point Group, they always came back to talk about it in front of the gas fire, over tea and biscuits, late at night. ‘The best thing of all was finding out from day to day how dear you are,’ Winifred wrote after a journey to Italy in 1921. ‘Thank you, thank you for being so completely satisfactory, you most sweet woman.’

That their love was shaken but not shattered by the arrival of a man in their ménage was in large part thanks to Holtby. ‘Do you not realise that I don’t care twopence where about in the scale of your loves I come, provided that you love me enough to let me love you?’ she wrote bravely in the summer of 1924, when the epistolary flirtation that Brittain had struck up with Gordon Catlin, a politics lecturer at Cornell, suddenly flowered into an engagement. ‘I love you in a way that part of me has become part of you. When you are troubled, so must I be, whether I like it or not. When you are happy, part of me is happy, whatever else befalls.’ And yet: ‘To let each of one’s beloveds feel completely free, even the most beloved of them all, to interpose no barrier of pity or tenderness between them and their destiny, that needs a little careful schooling.’

Brittain left for the States with George Catlin in August 1925 and Winifred, determined not to fall into victimhood, as she wrote to a friend, threw herself into work and travel, touring South Africa doing LNU meetings. By the time Brittain (after ‘a queer year, of mixed pain and pleasure, delight and disappointment’), had persuaded Catlin that, American publishers proving so recalcitrant, she should come back to live in London and further her literary career, Winifred was the stronger of the pair, with three novels written, a full-time post on Time and Tide, her journalism published everywhere, exciting new friendships with Margaret Rhondda, Rebecca West, E.M. Delafield, Stella Benson and Storm Jameson and all the other attributes that Phyllis Bentley had found so desirable, including Bentley herself. Active, outspoken, energetic, her tall figure slightly stooped but her glance just as eager, rushing from editorial office to literary lunch, from anti-colonialist meeting to cocktails in the Strand and then home again to the Chelsea flat, to Vera and the children and sometimes Catlin, too, Holtby seemed to many an avatar of a new type of woman, someone who could make sense of that confusing, interwar landscape, where partial freedoms – electoral eligibility, education – seemed lost in a world of contracting social hopes and economic slump, swamped in romantic novels and the bland comfort of baby-care and housekeeping manuals.

She loathed the depoliticising inanity of domestic life, the ‘consciousness of virtue derived from well-polished furniture or rows of preserved-fruit bottles’. ‘Slums remain uncleared, educational reforms delayed, while “good wives and mothers” shut themselves up in the comfort of their private lives and earn the approval of unthinking society,’ she wrote in Time and Tide. She deplored the clearance of women from all layers of the workforce and argued that the tragedy of the British Labour Party since the war had been its embrace of ‘a hierarchy of wealth ... with its leisured ladies, conspicuous consumption, social superiorities and all’ rather than ‘an entirely new standard of human values’. Reviewing a biography of Queen Christina in 1935, she informed the readers of Good Housekeeping that ‘most adults are capable of both homosexual and heterosexual relationships ... We do not know – however much we may legislate on the subject – whether the normal sexual relationship is hetero- or homo- or bi-.’

In the same year Virginia Woolf, interested in her active engagement with the times, wrote to commission an autobiography from Holtby for the Hogarth Press. ‘I don’t see how I can write an autobiography,’ she is reported to have told Brittain. ‘I never feel I’ve really had a life of my own. My existence seems to me like a clear stream which has simply reflected other people’s stories and problems.’ Brittain disagreed and ‘almost persuaded her to undertake the book’. But Holtby was much iller than she had allowed Brittain to realise and ‘that autumn,’ Vera recalls in Testament of Friendship, ‘the task of writing her story fell to me.’

‘To write history in terms of personal life’ was Brittain’s great goal – and gift – as a writer: Testament of Youth charted the years of the First World War; the grand drama of Testament of Friendship is that of the emancipation of women – giving a broader meaning to all the triumphs and upsets at Oxford (where the two friends huddle in the Sheldonian Theatre to watch the first degree-giving ceremony for women), the travels in Europe, the struggles to write, to be independent, to lead a different sort of life. Testament of Friendship is illuminated by the sense of easy, intelligent intimacy between the two women, of ideas explored in late-night conversations and books discussed over tea. In its pages, their support for each other opens up the possibility of wider solutions. But Brittain could be quite as manipulative in her work as in her friendship. The original title proposed for her Life of Winifred Holtby was ‘A Woman in Her Times’: the shift is telling and, whatever its intentions, Testament of Friendship is more like the second volume of Brittain’s own memoirs than the story of Holtby’s life.

‘Vera was always the star in the relationship,’ Marion Shaw writes in this new biography of Holtby, the first since Brittain’s; in her view, Testament of Friendship does Holtby an injustice, making her out to be a slightly pitiable figure in comparison with her more passionate, dramatic and hetero-sexually successful friend. Brittain can be quite catty, making snide remarks about the prose style of Holtby’s early novels, even poking fun at the clothes she wears to Vera’s wedding: not, as Shaw points out, an easy moment for Holtby, who appeared in a striking costume of blue and mauve draperies, a large feathered hat and a huge bouquet of delphiniums; and Brittain surely did not need to report that some of the guests mistook her for the bride’s mother.

Vera could also be resentful of Winifred’s other women friends, especially of Margaret Rhondda, the coal heiress and Holtby’s boss on Time and Tide (at that time, a liberal-feminist rival to the New Statesman). Holtby was a mainstay of the magazine and enjoyed plotting editorial strategy with Lady Rhondda and holidaying with her in the South of France; yet in Testament of Friendship, journalism is continually portrayed as a distraction from the nobler art of novel-writing, with Brittain remarking that some of those weeping so copiously at Winifred’s funeral might have done better to have wept less and left her alone more while she was still alive. Brittain, Shaw suggests, subjects Holtby to a kind of ‘nullifying sanctification’: ‘A more robust, humorous, independent, active and innovative person, even a more dislikeable person, still waits to be recovered.’

Shaw is particularly sharp about Brittain’s treatment of Harry Pearson, a good-looking, self-pitying wastrel who drifted in and out of Holtby’s life, engaging and annoying her in equal measure. Holtby had known him since they were teenagers in Yorkshire; he had written her some youthful love poems but the relationship never developed much beyond that and at least one of their friends was sure that he was gay. In Testament of Friendship, this rather unsatisfactory series of events is turned into a lifelong love story (‘a rather shabby heterosexual narrative’, as Shaw says). Brittain was so determined to inflict a ‘happy ending’ on the pair that she got her husband to drag Harry out to dinner, while Winifred was lying in the nursing home, and offer him money to make a deathbed proposal.

One of the many strengths of Shaw’s much shorter and more astringent. Life is her willingness to let Holtby be single. ‘I was born to be a spinster,’ Sarah Button proudly announces in South Riding, ‘and, by God, I am going to spin.’ Not that ‘spinster’ necessarily implies celibacy here: Sarah has had three affairs and is about to embark on a fourth, and Winifred wrote to Vera of having ‘broken a record’ in receiving two improper proposals and being kissed by three different men within 24 hours; what it does mean is not living in a conventional domestic relationship. Unmarried women were treated with hostility and derision in the 1920s and 1930s, and Holtby’s argument was that political frustration could be a great deal more harmful than ‘the frustration of the mating instinct’: the ‘superfluous women’ of the interwar period were, she pointed out, busily working as teachers, nurses and civil servants, rather than devoting their lives to their husbands – which posed the question, superfluous to whom? Shaw’s insights here are subtle and sensible, reading back carefully from the novels to the life, alert to Holtby’s originality.

All the more pity, then, that she has chosen to handicap her account of Holtby’s life with a structure that prevents her from portraying it as a coherent whole. Shaw takes Winifred’s own description of her life as ‘a clear stream’ reflecting ‘other people’s lives’ as both her title and her paradigm: rather than the usual chronological narrative she gives a series of cross-sections, recounting the different relationships of Holtby’s life: one chapter on her relationship with her mother, another on Brittain, a third on Margaret Rhonnda, and so forth. ‘Winifred,’ Shaw remarks (astonishingly, given her general sympathy for Holtby’s independence), ‘did not in fact have a “life of her own”, in the usual sense of a woman’s life-story. She did not marry or have children ... no great love affair or illicit relationship.’

For a biographer to deny that her subject has a life of her own is a failure both of imagination and good sense. Shaw’s ‘prismatic approach’ makes it impossible for her to give any sense of the overall dynamic or development of Holtby’s life and of its historical context. Holtby’s intensely active life was closely bound up with what Brittain called ‘the surge and sweep of current happenings’ and it loses immeasurably when that is cut off. There are other omissions. For example, the ‘flash of revelation’ that occurred during a tutorial in economic history with the Master of Balliol, A.L. Smith. It was just after Winifred’s parents had sold their farm, and listening to Smith describe, as she recalled, ‘the ruthlessness of economic processes: new phases driving out the old; the good of yesterday becoming the evil of today; the past making way for the future’, she ‘all but exclaimed out loud: “Yes, that’s it! That’s true! That’s what happened!” ’ The farm had been sold, ‘and part of my heart, I thought, was broken’. But listening to Smith,

that breach was mended. I went back to my room and began at once to make notes for the novel. I forced myself to read histories of agriculture, of trade unionism, of socialism. I tried to set the whole drama of rural Yorkshire as I knew it, as it had filled my whole horizon until the war destroyed it, against the background of historical change and progress, and gradually, reading and thinking, I comforted myself.

It seems strange for a biographer to ignore this moment, described at length by both Holtby and Brittain, and, it would seem, fundamental to Holtby’s sense of what fiction – her own fiction at least – should be.

History mattered to Holtby. Her novels are as firmly set in time as in place: Joanna’s babies in The Land of Green Ginger are conceived while her husband is on home leave during the First World War, and grow up in the poverty-stricken years of the peace; Mandoa, Mandoa! opens on the hustings of election night, 1931; the inhabitants of South Riding struggle with their illnesses and money troubles through the black and white Yorkshire winter of 1933. To catch the particular flavour of Winifred Holtby one should perhaps turn from the biographies to South Riding: to the broad-skied hills and suburban seaside towns. The metaphor of illness in the novel was a common one for England between the wars, representing the exhaustion of the depleted, post-1918 generation, and the colonial empire, failing both at home and abroad. Holtby, here more radical and more nuanced than in her journalism, offers no easy comfort, only the warmth and dynamism of the narrative voice itself.

Leaving Oxford in 1921, Holtby had her eyes set on the future, on her life with Brittain, the books they’d write, the way the world should be. They had gone straight to the ‘turbulent office’ of the League of Nations Union (‘the one element of hope and progress in the peace treaties’, according to Brittain), where ‘emphatic young men and women’ waged ‘a gallant, perpetual war against shortage of funds, the lethargy of the public and the well-meaning efficiency of untrained volunteers’. In 1924 they set out on a League-sponsored tour of Europe (again, described very fully in Testament of Friendship, but summed up in one brisk sentence in The Clear Stream). In the occupied Rhineland towns they saw children sunken-cheeked from hunger, watching English soldiers eating beefsteak through windows marked ‘No Germans Allowed’; Essen was ‘a haunted, half-alive city, with Krupp’s huge works almost silent and a red wrath of autumn sunset reflecting the smouldering rage of the repressed population’; everywhere – Berlin (‘drab, angry and miserable’), Prague, Vienna (strike-bound), Budapest – they found the conditions imposed by the peace treaty far worse than they had thought.

By 1925 the future had vanished under the demands of the present that Holtby strove to challenge in everything she wrote. In 1931 came the landslide election victory of the Tory-led National Government (‘the worst catastrophe ... since the war’); but by then she had already been struck by Bright’s Disease: kidney failure, blinding headaches, pounding pulses, the ‘black blood roaring’ in her skull, keeping her awake all night. Her life speeded up towards the end, as she dashed off pieces for Time and Tide, and wrote two novels, a book on Virginia Woolf and dozens of short stories in between relapses; or lay in bed in the dark listening to the radio (‘Bartok, conducted by Bartok’). In 1934 and 1935 she escaped from London to the Yorkshire coast whenever she could, to be by herself and work on South Riding. One freezing morning, when she’d been told she might have less than a year to live, she walked across the hills and found some young lambs struggling to drink from a frozen water trough. She broke the ice for them with her stick and, watching them there gobbling the water, ‘distinctly heard a voice’ say in her head: ‘Having nothing, yet possessing all things’. She strode on over the hill, all hobbledehoy and bundled up against the cold, and suddenly filled with that extraordinary elation which springs, Storm Jameson said, ‘from the sense of having lost everything. It is a feeling like no other.’